The Supported Studio Sector – Working in Parallel or an Integral Part of Visual Art Practice?
Posted: 11 January, 2016
Over the last twenty years a broad variety of supported studio environments have emerged across Ireland. These studios develop and nurture the talent of people with disabilities in the visual arts, in particular people with intellectual disabilities.
It could be said that these studios have grown beyond the point of being a trend to now having the critical mass to be described as a sector. However, I often wonder if this vibrant and continually expanding supported studio sector operates in parallel, rather than as an integral part of Irish visual art practice. What can we do to create an Irish visual art sector that is more inclusive of people with intellectual disabilities and their work?
These supported studio environments vary in scale from, studios that are open a few hours a week, to full-time studios with facilitators, permanent workstations, learning opportunities and exhibition spaces. They aren’t just confined to urban areas. While studios like DoubleTAKE, Tallaght Arts, Dublin and the Cúig Studio Group, Mayfield Arts Centre, Cork are based in cities, several successful supported studios operate outside of urban centres. For example KCAT, Callen, Co. Kilkenny, Carrowbeg at the Custom House Studios & Gallery, Westport Co. Mayo and the Arts Ability Studio Group, New Ross, Co. Wexford to mention but a few. All have become central to giving a creative presence to people with intellectual disabilities in the artistic and cultural lives of their communities. While some studios are providing the only formally accredited arts education opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities in Ireland. This has lead to groundbreaking exhibitions, exciting collaborations, international exchanges and lucrative commissions. For a small but growing number of visual artists with intellectual disabilities, supported studio environments have given them the opportunity to pursue fulltime careers. These advances have been long fought and hard won by small groups of dedicated people with tremendous vision. Their achievements and the creative output of the artists deserve to be celebrated and championed.
My first experience of visual art by people with intellectual disabilities was not in Ireland but in the UK in the early 2000’s. There I met visual artists from Art + Power who were members of ‘The Artists First Studio’ based at Spike Island in Bristol, a centre for the development of contemporary art and design. It was from one of these artists Carol Chilcott that I purchased my first piece of visual art ‘Man in a Blue Chair’. Today this ‘Man’ sits in the Arts & Disability Ireland office keeping a watchful but friendly eye over staff and visitors alike. What attracted me most to Carol’s work was it’s unpretentious honesty. Choosing not to follow convention or trend, it had a fresh integrity all of its own which is so true of much of the high quality work emerging from studios supporting visual artists with intellectual disabilities across Ireland. In my current role as Executive Director of Arts & Disability Ireland I have been invited to attend and open numerous exhibitions around the country. Consequently, I’ve continued to acquire works by other visual artists with disabilities including works by Michael Lambert, National Institute for Intellectual Disabilities, Trinity College Dublin, James Birmingham, Gheel Autism Services, Dublin and Derrick O’Connell Tallaght Arts & St. Michael’s House, Templeogue, Dublin.
As a person with a visual impairment I received a secondary school art education in the 1980’s and then went on to the National College of Art and Design where I graduated in 1993. This is an education route that has become much more common to people with physical and sensory impairments. However, for our peers with intellectual disabilities this is still a difficult if not impossible educational pathway.
The supported studio sector has been pivotal in providing tailor made skills development and accredited courses in art up to FETAC Certificate Level 5, such as at KCAT’s Art & Studio Centre. With modules available in drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, combined materials, photography and communications as well as work experience modules. Unfortunately, changes that are presently underway to streamline the current FETAC accreditation system may result in shorter course modules resulting in this educational pathway being open to fewer people with intellectual disabilities. Thus excluding people from art education who as it is still have far too few options. In many respects I feel my own art education was limited by not having people such as Carol Chilcott as a peer. For as well as learning from lecturers, tutors and technicians, students learn from each other.
A question asked of me recently by a group of curators, who are at the forefront of developing visual arts practice in Ireland, has caused me to completely reevaluate how I perceive existing links between visual artists with intellectual disabilities and the visual arts. The question was, if we have attended different colleges, speak a different language and move in different circles, what have we as curators in common with artists with intellectual disabilities and vice versa? That said, this was an issue they wanted to tackle but were at a loss to know where to start. The obvious answer to their question should have been “the art”! The fact that visual art practice is so bound up in the use of language to explore concepts and contexts means the answer is not straightforward.
However, the curators question caused me to ponder a few questions of my own. Is the current discourse around the artistic practice of people with intellectual disabilities broad enough to include galleries, curators, programmers and critics from across the visual arts in Ireland? While visual artists with intellectual disabilities and their work have never been more visible. The question posed by the curators illustrates that this group of potential allies have not yet been reached. Consequently I’m not convinced that visibility alone automatically leads to engagement. While visual artists with intellectual disabilities are getting the opportunity to show their work there is a lack of discourse and critical engagement from the visual arts sector about their work. Therefore, there is a greater need to strategically select exhibition spaces, curators and programmers to show the work of visual artists with intellectual disabilities that is more closely linked to their stage of development as artists.
What can we do to make visual arts language more accessible? Unfortunately, many people confuse the need for accessible language, also called ‘Plain English’, as dumbing down. This is a perception we need to meet head on and put strategies in place that encourage people to see accessible language as being as fundamental to access as a ramp for wheelchair users, a large print document for people with visual impairments or a loop system for people who are deaf.
When I, as a visual artist with a disability, became active in arts and disability in the early nineties the emphasis was on our right to make art and our right to have that art seen. We didn’t dwell on issues of quality or collaboration. Twenty years on, visual arts has become much more accessible to people with physical and sensory impairments and there are greater numbers of people with disabilities working alongside and in collaboration with their non-disabled peers. The emphasis has shifted from asserting individual rights to championing high quality visual arts practice and working in partnership. We’ve moved away from creating special standalone projects to building networks of allies across the arts.
The challenge is to make the art of people with disabilities happen not in our own spaces but within our allies spaces, while continuing to grow that network of allies so that it is inclusive of the entire Irish arts sector. This dialogue between artists and curators, galleries and arts organisations needs to be continuous. An ongoing discourse that includes visual artists with intellectual disabilities and their work.
Pádraig Naughton, Executive Director, Arts & Disability Ireland