"The outsiders, misfits, invisible": Marc Steene on Pallant House Gallery's work with artists from the margins

By Marc Steene | 27 July 2015

Think piece: Marc Steene, the Executive Director of Pallant House Gallery, on the future of outsider art and the value of being different

A photo of a modern art gallery with various installations and paintings on the walls
Pallant House's acclaimed project, Outside In, began in 2006© Courtesy Pallant House
“It is a peculiar dilemma that audiences, artists, critics and curators now find themselves in when trying to find both a definition for and a means to understand art that comes from outside the mainstream. What I am alluding to is the work produced by the others; the outsiders, misfits, self-taught, invisible, but wonderfully diverse range of creators that make up our wider art community, but are often overlooked and ignored.

You often have to dig deep to find this work. You also have to trust a different way of looking, when you take away the wider context of art world values and thinking you are free to trust other more instinctive responses to the work, your gut instinct: how does it make me feel and do I like it? What is it trying to say and what is its purpose?

A photo of an abstract painting which looks like some sort of strange forest with lots of colours
Martin Phillimore, All the Fun at the Fair© Martin Phillimore
This other art allows art to regain its purpose as a more direct form of communication, stepping aside from the intellectual and verbal rationalising right-brain thinking.  The French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term Art Brut and the English art historian Roger Cardinal created the anglicised Outsider Art equivalent as the umbrella term for art produced by artists from the margins of our society, “graffiti, and the work of the insane, prisoners, children, and primitive artists.”

In Europe, the art brut and outsider purists would argue that something would be lost should we blur the boundaries too much, the distinctiveness of the work, the nature of the artists, their lives and ways of making. I am not so sure this is the case; there is no commonality in this definition of outsider art apart from the collectivising of people with a range of mental health issues and other disabilities.

If, instead, we look at artists as individuals, each on their own creative journey, creating art for a variety of reasons and purposes, then we can engage with the work directly, free from the tyranny of the intellect and art history. Being in Paris at the Outsider Art Fair last year with Pallant House Gallery’s award-winning Outside In project, I was struck by how the first question asked by many of the visitors to our stand, almost before looking at the work, was whether the artist was in an asylum, had been in an asylum or was disabled.

A photo of various small sculptures of animal and human figures in different colours
Aradne, The Gathering© Andy Hood
It was only when this first box was checked that they could let themselves look at the work or consider purchasing it. This attitude can seem quite shocking to the more informed; collectors seemingly looking to collect madness. Indeed there is a well-known private collection whose catalogue raisonné is titled ‘Collecting Madness’, referencing the obsessive collector, but also the content of the collection.

Thomas Roeske, the Director of the Prinzhorn Collection, clearly illustrates this approach in his introduction to the collection’s catalogue: “…getting to know an outsider artist personally is often important to assure oneself of whether he is truly an ‘outsider’ and of the authenticity of his work. In this respect, the person behind a work – to put it more precisely, the way his behaviour deviates from ‘normality’ – is of greater significance here than is the case for other types of art.”

There is a value and cache in being different. The art market is waking up to the fact that people will, and do, buy a far wider diversity of art than that which they generally are confronted with in most commercial galleries in the UK. You only have to look at the extensive Outsider Art markets in America and parts of Europe to realise that there are collectors with money prepared to invest in this type of work and indeed museums eager to acquire and display it.

A photo of a circular sculpture of a face made out of gloopy brown material beneath a circle
Kate Bradbury's Dervishes© Kate Bradbury
It might be that the conservative English will always be wary of art that is not produced by articulate schooled artists. Yet the growing interest in this area of work is evidenced by the recent large exhibitions, Alternative Guide to the Universe at the Hayward Gallery, and Souzou, an exhibition of Japanese Outsider Art at the Wellcome Collection, as well as the ongoing work of the Museum of Everything and the inclusion of outsider artists in the 2013 Venice Biennial.

There is clearly a paradox facing the art world currently between the two polarised extremes, which could be described simplistically as the insiders and the outsiders. The outsiders determined to maintain the otherness of the work and the insiders not sure quite what it is or what to do with it.

It is a curious dilemma and I think we are living through a particular shift in our understandings around art, creativity and creative purpose. I envisage a continuing shift and understanding that will enable the work of a wider group of artists to be embraced and included in the art world of the future, where there is a reconsideration of the accepted canons and means and ways of describing art to a more individualised approach.

A photo of a greyscale illustration showing various figures melded together
Jan Arden, Much Ado About Nothing© Jan Arden
The importance of organisations such as Outside In in providing the means for these artists to be seen and ensuring they are not lost to future generations is vital and I hope will continue. Pallant House Gallery is unique in many ways – the home of one of the most important collections of modern British art in the country, delivering a programme of highly regarded exhibitions and also the home of the internationally regarded and ground breaking Learning and Community Programme.

It is this dichotomy of a well-respected art gallery, in the heart of conservative Sussex, delivering a programme that seeks to challenge many of the accepted assumptions about what art is and who is an artist, that gives the Gallery its charge and vibrancy. Outside In was founded in 2006 as an opportunity to reach beyond the known artists and discover the unknown creators in our communities.

It provides a platform for artists facing barriers to their inclusion in the art world, whether due to health, disability, social circumstance or isolation. Its primary aim is to act as an interface between artists on the margins of our society and the wider art world, providing them with the opportunity to exhibit and sell their work.

A photo of a series of abstract artworks framed in black squares on a white gallery wall
Terence Wildes, InnerSelf© Courtesy Andy Hood
The project enables the artists to present themselves how they wish, outside of any label. There are many other projects both within the UK and Europe undertaking good work in supporting this transition to a more inclusive art world: Project Ability in Glasgow, Action Space in London and Project Art Works in Hastings, to name a few.

This important work is still needed, and I imagine will always be needed, in order for a wider group of artists to sit at the table and be a part of both our contemporary art world and included in the heritage we pass on to future generations.”

  • Outside In has just launched an online shop featuring original works selected by the Outside In team and other invited guests, as well as numerous pieces by artists with galleries on the project’s website. The online shop is the perfect place to discover and invest in fantastic art for yourself, friends or family. Visit outsidein.org.uk/shop.
  • Are you an artist facing barriers to the mainstream art world for reasons including health, disability, social circumstance or isolation? Outside In is looking for submissions of craft work for its next National exhibition taking place in 2016. For more information visit www.outsidein.org.uk.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums and galleries to see outsider art in:

, Glasgow
Current exhibition Fast is Fine but Accuracy is Final sees artists Charlie Hammond and Tommy Mason work together to contribute to the debate around the criteria and terminology of ‘Outsider Art’.

, Chichester
The Rock Garden Sculptures are by self-taught Indian artist Nek Chand, whose sculptures reflect his intuitive approach to creating and the ethos of Outside In to provide a platform for artists who define themselves as facing barriers to the art world.

Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Kent
The archives and museum service is dedicated to the history of mental health treatment, and includes historical and archival material as well as a large art collection. De-stigmatising mental illness is one of its major roles.
Latest comment: >Make a comment
OUTSIDER ART IS IS THE best.Wonderful piece mark that comment are we from asylum,s etc Does it matter and yes we all have our own asylums within were we locked ourselves away for years before we were able to acsess gallerys xibits groups.The margins that knocked the stuffing out of our confidence are now open to all.Again nice one all involved.the margins are widening soon to become Dare I say it TRANSPARENT TRANSCLUCENT & TRANSPIRING.Come on.Jonah aka david jones.
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