Feature Issue on Careers in The Arts for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Art Centers’ Challenges and Opportunities


Sara Miller is a research specialist at the Institute for Health Care Innovation at the UIC College of Nursing in Chicago, Illinois. She may be reached at smille61@uic.edu.

Nik Fernholz is program manager for Art for All: The Stephanie Evelo Program for Art Inclusion at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. He may be reached at fern0104@umn.edu.

 Betty Siegel is the director of the Office of Accessibility and VSA at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. She may be reached at bsiegel@kennedy-center.org.

A colorful painting features two people in yellow hats and overalls fishing in a pond that is surrounded by a waterfall, a wood mill, a large tree and grasses.

A 2007 painting by William Britt, a self-taught artist with disabilities.

With a rich and vibrant history, studio arts programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in the United States stand today at a critical juncture.

For decades, studios have built communities specifically and often exclusively for artists with disabilities, but new goals for community inclusion may fundamentally change how art-centered day programs operate. The rise of online art sales and other new channels offer exciting new possibilities for professional artists with disabilities to earn money for their work, but it is important to understand how to support them in the transition and ensure the practices of the future are artist-driven.

Policy History

Some of the earliest studios for artists with IDD, including Gateway Arts (established in 1973) and Creative Growth (established in 1974), were created to support the needs of adults with disabilities leaving institutions during a period of rapid deinstitutionalization in the 1970s and 1980s. During this same period, new national arts organizations and policy that advanced the arts was emerging in the United States. In 1974, a national conference on the arts focused on the integration of the arts into the education of students with disabilities and gave rise to the establishment of the National Committee, Arts for the Handicapped (NCAH), later called Very Special Arts, later called VSA. At one time, there was a VSA organization in each state. VSA focused on dissemination of information about the arts to people with disabilities and modeled inclusive arts programs that were critical to shaping the idea that the arts are a cultural right. By 1984, VSA supported a network of hundreds of arts festivals that engaged artists with disabilities and reached students and young people with disabilities across the United States. Estimates place the number of studios today that support the work of artists with IDD between 120 (Finley, 2013) and 148 (Ortiz & Donahue, n.d. in Pittman, 2019; Sellen, 2008 in Pittman, 2019).

Studio Frameworks

The emergence of studios for artists with IDD has been attributed to a convergence of deinstitutionalization and the arrival of “outsider art” in the United States (Vick, 2016). These historical frameworks influence contemporary studio practice. Two of the most prevalent frameworks in studios for artists with IDD are the Creative Art Center model and Outsider Art. While distinct philosophically, in practice these frameworks overlap and intertwine. Understanding these frameworks helps us understand the historical context of participation in the arts by people with disabilities and the changes over time in art centers’ inclusive practices. It also supports the exploration into how these frameworks can be shaped into future endeavors that support and empower people with IDD.

The Creative Art Center model was forwarded by Florence Ludins Katz and Elias Katz, who were at the forefront of the studio movement. Studios provided the materials, space, and instruction that historically were not afforded to people with disabilities, making it possible for them to explore their creativity and talent. The Katzes advocated for communities and community members to work together to establish studios for artists with disabilities for the purpose of increasing the inclusion and participation of people with disabilities in society (Ludins-Katz & Katz, 1989). In Creative Art Centers, exhibition of work is seen as a key strategy to reduce stigma and change societal attitudes about people with IDD (Ludins-Katz & Katz, 1989; Ortiz & Donahue, 2015). According to the Katzes, exhibition and employment, through sale of their work, demonstrate that “disabled people are a positive force and have much to contribute and share with their society” (Ludins-Katz & Katz, 1989). The Katz methodology of acceptance of the creative process of people with IDD and integration of artists with IDD into the community remains in effect today in many Creative Art Centers, sometimes called “progressive art centers,” across the country (Ortiz & Donahue, 2015).

Some studios, including some but not all Creative Art Centers, characterize themselves as part of the Outsider Art genre. Outsider Art and its European predecessor, Art Brut, were championed by French artist Jean Debuffet, who sought works created by untrained artists with little or no contact with the art world. One of the earliest collections of Bildnerei des Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) was collected by historian and psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn (Cohen, 2017). The Prinzhorn collection included works primarily from patients receiving treatment in asylums, linking Prinzhorn to the emerging field of art therapy (Cohen, 2017). While Outsider Art has historically been characterized by artists who are untrained and isolated from the mainstream art world (Peiry, 2001), the genre has brought some artists on the margins into public view in a way that might not otherwise have been possible. A few artists with IDD have achieved international acclaim and financial success through exhibition and sale of work as “Outsider artists” (Ortiz & Donahue, 2015).

Evolving Frameworks

Studio frameworks affect and are deeply affected by funding sources. Many studios for artists with IDD, including those that reject a clinical or mental health framing, operate and receive at least partial funding as state and federally funded rehabilitation and day habilitation programs through the Medicaid Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) program. Historically, HCBS funding has supported programming for people with IDD that supports social engagement with peers and skill development, but recent changes to the HCBS system may greatly impact how and where those services are funded (Friedman, 2016). Friedman notes that critics of traditional day program and developmental training services, which often offer center-based, segregated programming for people with IDD, argue that they do not effectively promote social inclusion (2016). With the new HCBS 1915(c) final rule (CMS 2249-F/2296-F), implemented in 2014, states are now required to provide services that allow people with IDD to meaningfully participate in their communities with opportunities for interaction with people without disabilities (CMS, 2014b). “As such, states may find their day habilitation programs need to be redesigned or terminated altogether if these programs are provided in segregated facilities.” (Friedman, 2016 p. 5).

These changes may challenge traditional art studio frameworks, which have historically designed art centers and studios as locations for artists with disabilities, separate from artists without disabilities. While these changes undoubtedly have brought challenges to studios, they also raise exciting possibilities. What does the landscape of artists with IDD look like without the traditional art center/studio model? What potential innovations may these changes promote?

Pathways to Inclusion

Just as Art Brut evolved into Outsider Art, shifts in policies and funding requirements are taking shape that portend a new movement, emphasizing equity, choice, and individuality for artists with disabilities.

More artists with IDD are becoming professionals in the mainstream art community, leading their own practices and careers. Opportunities for artists are more evident as the systems shift away from gallery, center, and agent representation.

Strides in recent years to improve inclusiveness – from programs that incorporate sensory-friendly practices in art museums and centers to partnerships that create studio spaces for artists with and without disabilities to work together – have created unprecedented art practice opportunities for people with IDD. Moving forward, it will be important to nurture these opportunities.

Two colorfully painted birds sit on a branch, both looking in the same direction. Their tail feathers are bright blue, their head, necks, and breasts are a yellow and red, and the background of the painting is pink. Another tree branch, with green leaves, appears to rest behind the birds.

Painting by William Britt, 1989.

One new model involves benefit corporations, which are structured as for-profit social enterprises for the public good. These entities bring in investors and professional staff to market artists’ work in exchange for a percentage of sales.

Some artists with disabilities are also discovering ways to display and sell their art without formal representation, just as those without disabilities have done in recent years. Online e-commerce shops, small order printing vendors, and mobile payment systems have helped many artists or their support teams can effectively represent themselves.

There are important caveats, however, including lack of support services and Internet access in rural areas and staffing shortages for support services in general. It is also important to recognize the value of gallery representation. Writing in Art Market earlier this year, art historian Karen Chernick pointed out that representation signals a gallery has vetted an artist. Galleries also play a role in artists’ long-term marketability, she notes (Chernick, 2021).

Despite the growing reliance on their online presence, artists continue to explore gallery opportunities to expose their work. Many artists still want their bodies of work to be showcased in a live platform. They want the white walls, track lighting, and the energy of receptions. They want the accolades, affirmation, and critiques – these are the inspiration that moves the narrative of experiences and social conversation forward. Art hung in galleries is art that is worth consideration (Linda Rainaldi, 2015) and to be taken seriously.

Another model, taken up by the Art for All program at the Institute on Community Integration, removes the commission structure. The program showcases artists’ work through foundation and other private support. Sheryl and David Evelo, founders of Art for All, believe this model gives artists more control over their work and career, along with higher compensation.

As with all models, there are challenges. Artists have diverse accommodation needs and funding sources, and so it is critical that art galleries, creative centers, day programs and other models work cooperatively, with the interest of the artist with disabilities at the center.

What We Must Not Lose

The development of national arts networks and federal policy have supported vibrant studio communities of artists with IDD to emerge across the country. Studio frameworks and funding streams have historically supported the establishment of these centers as spaces designated specifically for people with IDD, but current funding changes challenge this foundational principle. There is potential for these changes to open the door for future innovation that increases the inclusion of artists with IDD in their communities and in the arts.

In celebrating what might be gained, critical reflection on what might be lost is also warranted. Bringing artists with IDD into mainstream spaces, even art spaces, may increase their presence but not necessarily their meaningful inclusion or sense of belonging. Studios designated for artists with IDD have been described as important spaces of social inclusion where people with IDD may find a sense of belonging, a feeling which may be denied them in mainstream spaces because of discrimination and stigma experienced by people with IDD (Hall, 2010). Hall argues that art-making communities designated for people with IDD can be “safe spaces” from which people with IDD can bring themselves-- who they are, what they think and how they feel-- into spaces for people with and without disabilities (Hall, 2013). In other words, while increasing the inclusion of people with IDD may be the goal of policy and funding changes, consideration for how people with IDD experience mainstream spaces is also important.

Disability studies scholar Carrie Sandahl argues for “a turn to disabled people's formations of disability culture, as expressed in the arts, for new ways to imagine community living” (Sandahl, 2018). Sandahl calls for making space for the art making and art making processes that people with disabilities create when in community, as opposed to simply trying to fit people with disabilities into mainstream art spaces and processes and calling that inclusion. Supporting artists with IDD to articulate their values, desires, and insider knowledge about barriers to participation and inclusion, and how those barriers are or can be alleviated through community and social connection, is critical. The key to the development and advancement of creative spaces for artists with IDD then relies on opportunities for people with IDD to have a choice and control over the process. Systems must not foreclose on either the individual needs and preferences of people with IDD or on the ability of people with IDD to lead, control and inform the development of services they receive. The solution is not binary—keep segregated art centers open or close them entirely— but instead must be artist-driven. There is perhaps room to model innovation that both promotes greater community inclusion but also retains the legacy and support network that communities of artists with IDD have built over time. 

Giving Artists With Disabilities a Space to Thrive | An Emmy-winning short film about Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, the largest nonprofit center dedicated to giving artists with disabilities space to let their talents shine.


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