Award-winning charity Outside In provides a platform for artists with restricted access to the art world, showcasing their work online and maintaining a vital support network that offers advice, guidance and promotion for artists who have been previously under-represented. Ahead of an exhibition of works by a number of member artists at Sotheby's London galleries, Outside In's founder and Director, Marc Steene shares his vision for the charity.
Let's start at the beginning. How do you actually define the term 'Outsider Art'?
A search of labels to describe non-traditional art can throw up a confusing and contrasting list including the following: Accidental Art, Art Brut, Disability Art, Marginalised Art, Maverick Art, Naive Art, Outsider Art, Patient Art, Primitive Art, Secret Art, Self-Taught Art, Visionary Art, alongside many more. Outsider Art is not an art movement or category that equates to others; like Expressionism or Impressionism it is a collectivising of difference. If we sidestep the art historical model when talking about art, we enter a world of individuals who create for any number of reasons. The only way to address this issue is to be led by the artists themselves. As a Charity, we have chosen not to label artists work; instead, we enable artists to describe the work themselves and to move away from a system of labels to self-definition.
What led you to found the Outside In charity?
Over 25 years ago, having trained at the Slade School of Fine Art, I began working as a volunteer at a day centre in Hove and had the good fortune to meet and discover the talents of a group of learning-disabled artists. Inspired by their work, I sought to organise an exhibition at a local library. On returning to collect their work to frame, I was informed by the staff that the work was no longer available as it had all been pulped to make papier-mâché for the artists to model. I still remember my shock and outrage. The staff were blind to the value and talents of the artists they were working with; their art-making was seen as a mere containment activity, which led to this routine act of creative abuse.
This incident left me with two ongoing and profound questions: "How do I enable artists, such as the ones at the day centre, to get their work into settings were its true value will be seen?" and "How do I enable and influence audiences, such as the day centre staff, to understand and appreciate the talents of the artists before them?"
What does Outside In give to the artists and creators that they would not have access to otherwise?
Outside In provides a platform for artists excluded from the art world, whether due to disability, health, social circumstance or isolation, to engage with the art world. It provides online galleries for artists from which they can sell work and/or submit it for exhibitions and competitions. Without our support, these artists and their work would largely remain invisible. Outside In is like a chink of light, an opportunity to be seen and gain recognition in what can seem an impenetrable art world.
The artists we support have been included in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, have worked in partnership with major contemporary artists and had their work hung in the some of the most prestigious galleries in the UK. The success stories provide important role models for other artists: recent examples include supporting Andrew Omoding, a learning-disabled artist from Action Space, to undertake a major Outside In/House Biennial Co-commission, and Aradne selling her work to some of the most important private and public collections at the recent Paris Art Fair.
Outside In also provides the opportunity to learn new skills and gain employment in the art world as workshop facilitators, researchers and curators. Finally, and most importantly, Outside In provides a community: a network of like-minded artists and organisations supporting each other, sharing their work and thoughts and helping to tackle isolation.
The exhibition to be held at Sotheby's is called Journeys. What is the significance of that name?
We chose Journeys as a title to both encompass the journey that Outside In has been on in the previous eleven years, and the journeys of the artists who have travelled with us. We also wanted to focus on some of the major projects we have been involved with such as Gold Run, with Glyndebourne Opera, Carousel and the London Paralympic Games, and the artists' stories of their personal growth, successes and challenges.
Are there any discoveries in the charity’s history that are particularly memorable to you?
There are so many stories that it is hard to pick one, but there is one story that stays with me: Many years ago, I was contacted by someone whose brother had died in a maximum security hospital and who had a garage of his artwork produced during his time at the hospital. Her brother made dioramas of military battle scenes, purely fantastic and all presented in wooden boxes with glass tops. She obviously cared for her brother and valued his creativity, but she couldn't find anywhere for the work to be shared or given credence, so we photographed the work and created an online gallery. The experience was profound for his sister as his work was given value and made visible.
The artists you are working with are often relatively silent in the wider art world. How has creating this platform for people to showcase their work affected their confidence?
The journeys that artists go on with us can be life changing and lifesaving. We undertake ongoing evaluations and have measured the improved health and wellbeing gained by our artists through their involvement with the Charity, in a recent evaluation report over 75% of Outside In artists reported an increase in their confidence and self-esteem.
"Outside In has not only helped me in my art but also in meeting other people with mental health and disabilities – it makes you realise you are not alone."
– an Outside In artist.
What are you hoping to get out of the exhibition and workshops at Sotheby's?
I hope that this exhibition will announce our arrival as a new charity with its intention of creating a fairer art world both shared and embraced. I hope that people will be surprised and sometimes challenged by the exhibition and that they will go away and think differently about who the art world currently defines as artists and what we think is art. Finally, we are hoping to find new friends and supporters who will join us on our future journey.
We are delighted to have formed this relationship with Sotheby’s, to work with an organisation with such a strong and respected position in the art world. We hope that Sotheby’s staff will gain an insight into the Charity and its impact on our artists through our exhibition and artist-led workshops, and that this is the start of an ongoing relationship.
Are there any projects you're currently working on for Outside In that you can share with us?
Our next and most exciting venture is to host a European conference on ‘The Artist’s Voice’, taking place in Chichester in May 2018. We have put together an excellent international programme of speakers, as well as special VIP events taking place in London and Brighton. Our guest speaker is Bobby Baker, a visual and performance artist. Through this conference we have sought to enable a wide range of artists’ voices to be heard, so as to help influence debate and create further change in the art world.