The Living Museum; A Spot In Paradise

Thursday was a really special day that I had been trying to arrange for a while, but with persistence and after a call out on twitter, bingo – the arrangements were made for me to visit the Living Museum.

Directed by the brilliant Dr Janos Marton, the Living Museum is part of Creedmoor Psychiatric Centre, which takes some getting to from Manhattan! First you take a train into Queens, almost to the end of the line, and after a 45 minute bus ride and several kind strangers later, I arrive at the vast, sprawling Creedmoor site with huge buildings as far as the eye can see.

Once home to more than 7,000 in-patients, the Creedmoor Psychiatric Centre now has 1,600 in-patient beds alongside day patients. Others attend on a less frequent, long-term appointment basis, as well as receiving support in the satellite clinic across New York. Notable patients treated at Creedmoor include Lou Reed and jazz pianist Bud Powell. Legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie, who had been institutionalised for many years while suffering from Huntington’s disease, was transferred to Creedmoor in June 1966 and died there in October 1967.

After witnessing the commercial side of the Outsider Art world at the Fair in Manhattan, I was anticipating to experience the antidote to that, but as soon as I enter the Museum an artist make a beeline for me and offers me her painting for $20. Everyone laughs and she’s half joking, but only half.
I couldn’t have had a warmer welcome into a place that Dr Marton describes as ‘a spot in paradise’ and I have to say it’s hard to disagree with him.
Run by Dr Marton and a group of dedicated volunteers, patients at Creedmoor are able to use the space from 10am -12pm and 2pm – 4pm Monday to Thursday. All the art materials are provided and the space is a safe space where artists, both trained and self-taught, are free to create and express themselves as they wish.

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Walking in, Dr Marton’s desk is in an open space… no door or walls, and people are free to approach him with questions or queries and they frequently do. On his desk is a sprawling collection of cheerful pictures and papers. Opposite is a paper star with pencils and pastel chalks in bowls for artists to use as they wish. One artist is sitting at a table reading one of the many books that are free to use. This room leads to the main ground floor space, with smaller, studio spaces leading from it.

It’s not long before I find myself sitting at a table with three artists who are keen to show me their work and share their stories. The work is brilliant! One artist is known as The Bic Man because he creates intricate designs using just black Bic pens. Drew, as he prefers to be called, had what he calls ‘a regular job’ as a boiler maker, until his depression overwhelmed him and he started to attend Creedmoor. We talk about the importance of his artwork and the space he works in, and he describes feeling exhausted when he leaves after a day at The Living Museum. He compares it to the heavy, lack of motivation he experiences with his depression, “it’s like being up to your neck in mud. When I leave here after a good day I feel exhausted, but it’s the right type of exhausted.’
Nyla works in oils and acrylics and shows me her floral painting. The standard of work is impressive to say the least. Trained at art school, Nyla uses the main room space as much as she can, and there’s real commercial interest in her work.

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We drink tea together and the artists and Dr Marton are keen to hear more about Winston Churchill as an artist and quick-as-you-like Churchill’s watercolours are searched for on a smartphone. The artists like his style and think he would have loved it here.
Dr Marton gives me a tour of the upper floor, and as we walk and talk, the word ‘family’ comes up more than once, and I think that’s it. The atmosphere here is one of respect, dignity and creativity – some of the best traits of a family.
The Garden Room, with Billie Holliday’s image among the undergrowth; the Battle Ground, which is a series of whole room installations, and the sewing room where an artist sits embroidering, all bring a feeling of calm creativity, as well as endless possibilities.

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I wonder how this space can be replicated in the UK? Would our health and safety rules prohibit the scissors and the pencils and the embroidery needles? Would the relative freedom that the artists enjoy be smothered in paperwork or a need to fill out satisfaction surveys, or would this approach have possibilities and find a home?

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All of the artists I have spoken to have talked about the importance of this space in their recovery, but it’s not always plain sailing for some. One of the most impressive spaces in the Living Museum belongs to an artist whose circumstances has meant that he has returned to Creedmoor as an in-patient, which prevents him from using the creative space at the moment. Unlike other spaces, his work isn’t packed away to make space for another artist. Instead, it’s left exactly as it was the last time he painted there, awaiting his return.

Overwhelmed

Firstly, I’d like to apologise for being so quiet, but basically I’ve been completely and utterly overwhelmed. I’m not sure how I anticipated I would feel after almost 3 weeks in New York researching a subject that’s preoccupied me for years, but the cumulative effect of this experience so far has been both fantastic and yes, overwhelming.

Today I’m having a ‘letting it all sink in’ day. Other Winston Churchill Fellows, with the benefit of experience, told me that I’d need days like this to absorb the experience and to make sense of everything that I’ve heard and seen.

After last weekend spent walking over 40 New York City miles sightseeing with the gorgeous Benjamin (17), my youngest boy, and my ever-brilliant sister, Helen, I had a whole series of visits, meetings and follow-up conversations this week.

On Monday I met with Becca Hoffman, the Director of the Outsider Art Fair both in Paris and here in New York. My first weekend here was spent at the Fair, which Becca tells me, was double the size of the Paris event, which I can quite believe. Now in its 25th year, this year’s Fair was spread across one floor of the Metropolitan Pavilion, there were almost 80 booths, with most selling artworks.

Of course, my conversation with Becca came around to the term “Outsider Art’. We both agreed that we don’t think it’s either the right term or indeed a useful label, but until there is an alternative that can be collectively agreed upon, the Outsider Art Fair will still, well, be called the Outsider Art Fair.

I was interested to hear that the Fair is run pretty much in the same way as every other fair. There is a definite commercial aspect, with a vetting process for those coveted booths and the price for each stand is again, probably a similar cost as it is for every other fair. I was relieved in a way to hear that. I was afraid that allowances were being made and that a patronising virtual pat on the [Outsider] artist’s head was coming…but it wasn’t the case. This is a commercial operation carried out with respect and a great critical eye.

Later that evening I met with Arthur Fournier, an independent dealer of books, serials, manuscripts, and archives, specialising in primary source materials related to the transformative cultural movements of the late 20th century; modern conflicts, disruptive technologies, music and the visual arts. We first met at the film screening on the opening night of the Fair and we agreed to follow-up. I was interested in his thoughts on bodies of work that are discovered posthumously, as this seems to be an aspect of Outsider Art that keeps surfacing in my conversations.

We talk about my research and Arthur tells me that he was currently trying to place an archive of amazing Outsider Art research. We talk about the importance of keeping archived material together as a source of knowledge for future generations with different reasons to revisit the work.

As for work that may be discovered after an artist passes away, we agreed that, as in all fields, this can be an absolute nightmare of litigation. By the very nature of Outsider Art practice, the work is often kept secret, a private retreat, rather than work intended for public consumption. Arthur tells me that in his experience of working with archives, there’s always a rightful owner or custodian if the lawyers look hard enough. Another factor is of course that how such works are viewed, like most artwork, will change over time, and the significance and value, both financially and otherwise, can change enormously.

Arthur brings a different perspective again. We talk about the philosophical aspect of ‘Outsider Art’. I told him that I think the term makes me feel uncomfortable because it focuses on the individual rather than the formal qualities of the artwork. I’m relieved to hear that he agrees.

The following day I attended an event at the Tenement Museum to discuss Ai Wei Wei’s latest work in the public realm here in New York. Ai’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors project includes over 300 works and installations, at least one of which sits quietly in the shadow of one of the Trump Towers.

 

IMG_5385.jpgThe discussion is powerful and moving and there is consensus that art has the power to express and move us even at the darkest of moments, when migrant communities both here in the US and across the globe are surrounded by a virtual wall of hate-filled rhetoric.

…and it’s only THURSDAY.

Why I’m Here in New York

I can’t believe it’s almost a year since I wrote this blog post for the Huffington Post describing the areas of Outsider Art that I’m hoping to look at during my time in the US and Japan.

Things have developed since then, but the basic premise is still the same.

A Letter From Winston Churchill

15/03/2017 10:40 GMT | Updated 15/03/2017 10:40 GMT

It seemed to take forever for the letter to arrive, but when it did it was worth the wait: “Dear Angela, I am delighted to let you know that you have been awarded a 2017 Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. Very many congratulations. 2017-03-13-1489417885-6761645-IMG_9371.JPG

 

Those words mark the start of an exciting adventure! The letter went on to invite me to attend a seminar just a few weeks later, during which I would meet the other successful recipients along with Churchill Fellows who had completed their travels this past year.

Weeks before, as I sat waiting to be called into my final Churchill interview, I met one of my fellow applicants who was also waiting to be called in. Despite our nerves, we started talking about our projects and right there and then. I remember thinking ‘If I don’t get my project funding I really hope she does’. Her project was to travel to the USA to research culturally appropriate services for black women with multiple complex needs. You can imagine the smile on my face when I walked into the seminar for successful applicants to see her familiar face as I walked in. It was her – Geraldine Esdailee.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust states that it funds individuals from the UK to “Travel to learn – return to inspire. We fund British citizens to investigate inspiring practice in other countries, and return with innovative ideas for the benefit of people across the UK”. This year has awarded 150 Travelling Fellowships across the UK totalling £1.4 million. The Fellows will be travelling to 49 countries between them, across six continents, where they will carry out a wide range of projects, designed to benefit their communities and professions in the UK. The average length of a Fellowship is six weeks, but I will probably be away for closer to eight.

My project will bring together my experience of working both in mental health and the Arts as I visit New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Tokyo to look at Outsider Art practice. The definition of Outsider Art is often subject to debate as discussed by Priscilla Frank in What Is The Meaning Of Outsider Art? The Genre With A Story, Not A Style. First used in 1972 by Roger Cardinal as the title of his book, Outsider Art was an exact translation of the term ‘Art Brut’ used to describe artwork produced by untrained artists since 1948.

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Some have argued that the term Outsider Art is itself exclusive and not inclusive, serving as a divisive term rather than a useful label. Outsider Art is often viewed as work produced not only by formally untrained artists, but also by those who often face physical or mental health challenges.

As you can imagine, it would be impossible to thoroughly investigate all Outsider Art in just 7 weeks, so the scope of my work will specifically look at Outsider Artists with mental health challenges, exploring 5 specific aspects;

1. Is the label Outsider Art useful? Does it help us to navigate the complex intersections between health and creativity, work and wellbeing, mainstream and marginality?

2. How is Outsider Art best curated? Should convention mean diagnosis/biographical details are included on labels and interpretation?

3. What are the ethical and moral considerations of exhibiting Outsider Art, especially in a commercial setting, managing finances, the expectations of the artist and the gallery?

4. What are the clinical and therapeutic implications of Outsider Art? What is the source of the tension between formal art therapy and facilitating Outsider Art. Should we in the UK adopt a non-interventionist approach?

5. Should Outsider Art be more closely aligned with public health services in the UK as it is in Japan? How/should we make this happen?

…and so my journey begins, almost 10 months before my first plane takes off in January 2018. It will be almost a year filled with forging links in the places I’ll visit; talking to artists, curators and mental health professionals working in the field in the UK and making sure I can share what I witness in the USA and Japan when I return.