Nonacademic art has enjoyed a continual public presence throughout the course of the last hundred years, fueled at first by the avant-garde’s interest in primitivism and visual manifestations of the unconscious. In Europe, psychiatric collections, mediumistic art work, and paintings by autodidacts such as Alfred Wallis (1885-1942) and Henri ‘le Douanier’ Rousseau (1844-1910) were held aloft by modernists, along with colonial plunder from Africa and the Americas as salvation from industrialization’s increasing ravages (Gale 1999:16 and 17). Across the Atlantic, a similar fascination with ‘naive’ expression was taking place. Championing the romanticized notion of a fast-fading authenticity inherent in Anglicized American heritage, certain collectors, scholars, gallerists, and museum professionals turned their attentions to folk traditions. In 1930, ‘American Primitives’, curated by Holger Cahill, a specialist in American folk art, opened at the Newark Museum in New Jersey, followed a year later by ‘American Folk Sculpture: The Work of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Craftsmen’. In 1932, while serving as director of New York’s newly formed Museum of Modern Art, Cahill curated the sweeping and patriotically named ‘American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750-1900′, a short-lived effort to encourage the awkwardly egalitarian marriage of popular and fine art within a single institution. A year later, Alfred H. Barr Jr., the Modern’s founding director, organized ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism’, a survey that included for the first time in a major American museum works by children and the mentally ill. In 1937, Barr orchestrated the debut of work by William Edmondson (1870-1951), a self-taught gravestone carver from Nashville, Tennessee. Not only did the exhibit mark the first solo showing of an African-American artist at the Modern, it also “demonstrated Barr’s belief in the pluralistic roots of international modernism,” a radical conviction “that his trustees did not share” (Smith 2005:B29).
In a more conservative accommodation of Barr’s ideals, the Modern hosted ‘They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the Twentieth Century’ in 1942, curated by the art dealer Sidney Janis. In his accompanying catalogue, Janis presents the biographies of thirty “noteworthy self-taught talents,” including Morris Hirshfield (1872-1946) and Horace Pippin (1888-1946) (Janis 1942:1). These “vital discoveries,” Janis writes in the catalogue, “express [themselves] with a humility and an easily comprehended human quality,” yet remain “removed by circumstance from the world of art” (Janis 1942:4-7).
Without (we hope) intending any overt condescension, Janis refers to art with a capital ‘A’, meaning the institutionalized dynamics of the established academic tradition. Working in the vein of the Sunday painter, these artists created independently and in relative isolation from one another, utilizing techniques and strategies born of individual necessity. Due to the absence of communal transmissions of tradition, it is impossible to shoehorn their work into the folk paradigm. In fact, when viewing paintings such as Hirshfield’s zaftig odalisques it becomes apparent that many of the artists possessed, at the very least, a cursory knowledge of academic standards and practices. Consequently, Janis’ position brings into focus a genre that, despite its marginality, held the potential to inspire “a consciousness of the validity of [alternative] expression,” thereby paving the way for eventual consideration of outsider art’s inordinacy (Janis 1942:1).
While interest in marginal art continued to surge throughout Europe, rallied for the most part around the activities of Jean Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut and a growing network of galleries committed to the display of work by children and the mentally ill, American institutions willing to contest the boundaries of cultural hegemony remained few and far between. Public collections such as the Museum of International Folk Art, founded in 1953 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Popular Art Center, opened in 1957 in Williamsburg, Virginia, presented a fairly orthodox sampling of folk art. In New York, the collection of the Museum of American Folk Art (MAFA), founded in 1961 under the direction of Herbert W. Hemphill, perpetuated a certain mythologized urban nostalgia for rural forms. Showcasing objects such as quilts, weathervanes and carved decoys, these emerging folk art museums exhibited a tendency to sublimate instances of singular, often eccentric expression in favor of anonymous examples of traditional craftsmanship.
Despite the conventional nature of public and institutional tastes regarding nonacademic art in America during this period, there is perceptible evidence of an increasing fascination with artistic production far removed from both the academic and folk experience. It may be argued that the impetus for this ‘outsider awareness’ is directly linked to art brut’s presence in the United States. Shortly after his decision to house the Collection de l’Art Brut in the Long Island home of the artist Alfonso Ossorio, Dubuffet delivered his incendiary lecture, Anticultural Positions at the Arts Club of Chicago in 1951. Arguing against the alienating values of high culture, Dubuffet urged the careful consideration of more primal modes of visual expression, insisting that the sincerity and urgency of ‘raw’ art best reflects the reality of the human condition. Although much of Dubuffet’s polemic comes across as heavy-handed and a touch hypocritical in light of his own successful artistic career, the sentiment expressed, namely the need for alternatives to the intellectual decadence of modernism, resonated profoundly throughout Chicago’s dynamic postwar period.
During the 1960’s art and art history instructors at the Art Institute of Chicago, such as Katherine Blackshear, Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead, sought to integrate examples of non-mainstream art into their curricula, offering their students images of art brut and work by the likes of Hirshfield and Rousseau (Bowman 1992:155 and 161). Yoshida was also a strong advocate for local self-taught artists, including Lee Godie (1908-1994), a homeless woman and self-proclaimed French Impressionist who haunted the steps of the Art Institute, and Joseph Yoakum (late 1880’s-1972), the owner of an ice cream store whose mediumistic drawings, achieved through a process he called “spiritual unfoldment,” have since earned him praise as one of the great interpreters of the American landscape (Beardsley and Livingston 1982:165). While it may be argued that the active courtship of the art world’s attentions may preclude these artists from being labeled as true outsiders, the recognition and support of Yoshida and his colleagues marked the beginning of an academic awareness of contemporary American vernacular expression.
Such enthusiasm for “unconventional expression” soon rippled out from the Art Institute, permeating the work of the Chicago Imagists, a loose-knit association of artists whose rejection of ideology and emphasis on “organic extension of form” was profoundly shaped by their “understanding of outsider propensities” (Bowman 1992:160). In 1968, Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, both established members of the Imagists, moved to California, where Nutt had accepted a teaching position at Sacramento State University. While searching through crates of artwork in the campus’ audiovisual room, Nutt came across the hallucinatory renderings of extraterrestrial encounters by P. M. Wentworth (dates unknown) and the meticulous collages of Martin Ramirez (1895-1963). Originally collected at the DeWitt State Mental Hospital in Auburn, California by Dr. Tarmo Pasto for use in his art-therapy courses, the work immediately struck Nutt as extraordinary artistic statements worthy of preservation. Phil Linhares, currently the Chief Curator of Art at the Oakland Museum of California was also taken by Dr. Pasto’s collection, borrowing several pieces for an exhibition of California folk artists at the San Francisco Art Institute, an event that marked the official debut of outsider art on the West Coast (Bowman 1992:164).
Roger Brown was another artist deeply influenced by his exposure to non-mainstream production at the Art Institute of Chicago. Studying with Yoshida and Halstead in the mid 60’s, Brown was introduced to the theories of Dubuffet and the outsider environments of Simon Rodia (1879-1965) and Ferdinand Cheval (1836-1924). In 1970 Brown traveled to Europe, where he toured the Collection de l’Art Brut, now housed in a chateau in Lausanne, Switzerland. Returning to the States, he embarked on a series of trips through the Midwest, photographing a number of folk art environments. Brown then shared these photographs with Herbert W. Hemphill, who was eager to include them in the catalogue to his 1974 exhibit, ‘Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists’ at the Museum of American Folk Art (MAFA) (Bowman 1992:167). The inclusion of such roughhewn assertions of creative individuality proved to be a groundbreaking move for the museum. In spite of his trustees’ deference to a long-standing tradition of American craft, Hemphill encouraged the diversification of his institution’s focus, making the museum an instrumental force in fostering public awareness of the democratic possibilities of untrained artistic ability.
By this time, Roger Cardinal’s Outsider Art, published in 1972, had caused an international stir, legitimizing art brut as a rich, but relatively undefined field of study, and introducing the concept of outsider art to the consciousness of the progressive art world. Following Hemphill’s lead, other museums ventured their interpretations of this newly ‘discovered’ phenomenon. In 1975, the divinely-inspired drawings of Minnie Evans (1892-1987), a gatekeeper at the botanical gardens in Wilmington, North Carolina were shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in 1979, the work of Henry Darger, Lee Godie and Joseph Yoakum was showcased at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. During the same year, Roger Cardinal and Victor Musgrave, an avid collector of outsider art, curated ‘Outsiders: An Art Without Precedent or Tradition’ at the London’s Hayward Gallery. Funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain, the accompanying catalog contains a revealing preface by the Council’s Director of Art, Joanna Drew. In it she “invokes [a] cautionary note,” warning the reader that “the views expressed in [the catalog] are those of the authors and not necessarily of the editors” (Cardinal and Musgrave 1979:7). Tongue-and-cheek perhaps, but a telling comment nonetheless, in that it captures the characteristic hesitancy of the art establishment to accept the merits of outsider art as both a concept and a peripherally associated aesthetic.
Nonetheless, the eagerness of its proponents and the curiosity of the public continued to propel the representation of outsider art within museums. In California, the Long Beach Museum presented ‘Pioneers in Paradise: Folk and Outsider Artists of the West Coast’ in 1984, attempting a regional approach echoed several years later in the North Carolina Museum of Art’s exhibit, ‘Signs and Wonders: Outsider Art Inside North Carolina’. The 1980’s also saw an increase in international institutions dedicated to outsider art. In 1986, both the Musee d’Art Naif and L’Aracine: Musee d’Art Brut opened in Paris. In Tokyo, the Setagaya Art Museum was founded, dedicating its collection efforts to representing Japanese outsider artists. By 1989, the work of Martin Ramirez was shown for the first time in the artist’s native country at the Centro Cultural in Mexico City, and in 1998, the Outsider Archive, an impressive selection of European art brut assembled by Victor Musgrave and his partner, Monica Kinley, was taken in on long-term loan by Dublin’s Irish Museum of Modern Art.
In addition to these traditional, collection-based institutions, a new model for the promotion of outsider art was introduced in 1991 with the founding of Chicago’s Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. A nonprofit lacking the staff structure of a typical museum, Intuit relies on its board and membership to maintain a mission that strives to “promote public awareness, understanding, and appreciation of intuitive and outsider art through a program of education and exhibition” (Intuit Online: http://outsider.art.org/). In service to this mission, the Center offers a schedule of rotating exhibits, a variety of educational programs within local schools and annual fellowships for high school educators interested in implementing lesson plans including the study of outsider art within their classrooms. Operating without a permanent collection for the first ten years of its existence, Intuit successfully positioned itself as an influential nexus for enthusiasts of outsider art, creating an extended community of support for art existing beyond the scope of many major museums and critical circles.
Following Intuit’s innovative lead, the American Visionary Art Museum was founded in 1995 in Baltimore, Maryland. While it currently boasts a permanent collection of over 4,000 objects displayed on rotation, the bulk of the institution’s efforts are concentrated on mounting large-scale, thematically oriented exhibits that present a sweeping range of self-taught artwork selected by guest curators. While the museum does not explicitly endorse the notion of outsider art, its mission draws a clear distinction between folk tradition and the “entirely spontaneous and individualized” nature of the intuitive creations it strives to represent (American Visionary Art Museum Online: http://www.avam.org/stuff/whatsvis.html). In light of this, the AVAM may be viewed as an influential force in the developing institutional awareness of non-mainstream art in America, a trend that continued to swell throughout the 1990s, eventually culminating in two major changes to the Museum of American Folk Art.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the MAFA became the recipient of many substantial examples of contemporary self-taught pieces, as well as several outstanding works of outsider art by the likes of Martin Ramirez, Morton Bartlett (1909-1993), and P. M. Wentworth. With the acceptance of these gifts the museum and its board were faced with the challenge of contesting the long-standing boundaries between folk traditions and contemporary production. Whereas the former tends to be imbued with relatively conservative values of ruralism and collective authenticity, the latter, in sharp contrast, often reflects an urban orientation and an aggressive assertion of individual vision. How then to reconcile the two, thereby successfully “incorporating contemporary work into the higher-status traditional domain” (Fine 2004:41)? Wrestling with this issue, the board, at times divided by subjective issues of personal taste and interpretation of the museum’s collection objectives, eventually settled on a brilliant compromise (Fine 2004:252). In 1997 the museum’s Contemporary Center was formed under the direction of Gerard C. Wertkin, presenting as its inaugural exhibit ‘Henry Darger: The Unreality of Being’. Unable to deny either the artistic merit of the field or burgeoning public interest, the MAFA chose the high road, electing to assume a position of leadership in its attempt to “foster increased recognition and appreciation . . . not only in the United States, but in the international art community as well” (Folk Art: Magazine of the American Museum of Folk Art 1997:33).
Recognizing the need for a public commitment to the museum’s new expansive goals, the MAFA took its second bold step in becoming a beacon institution in the world of nonacademic art. In 2001, in conjunction with the opening of its current location on West 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan, the museum changed its name to the American Folk Art Museum. Simultaneously modifying the focus of the museum and allowing for a more inclusive and permeable definition of folk art, the shift, although subtle, was successful in opening the museum’s permanent collection and gallery spaces to a more holistic representation of non-mainstream art, including the work of outsider artists. And while this “studied ambiguity” intentionally refuses a concretized institutional agenda, it is indicative of a growing trend of recognition aimed at exploring the relevance and artistic potential of the mainstream’s crowded margins (Fine 2004:253).
Judging by the flurry of activity in recent years it is clear that there is much catching up to do. In 2002 the Prinzhorn Collection at the Psychiatric Clinic in Heidelberg was finally established as a public museum, demonstrating the lasting importance of a body of artworks that, decades before, fired the imagination of Europe’s Dada and Surrealist circles. In the same year, the EU announced a grant of one million euros for a cultural program titled Equal Rights for Creativity, an effort providing funding for a network of organizations dedicated to the documentation and preservation of Europe’s vast contemporary folk art and outsider heritage. In America, a number of museums continue to mount exhibits of outsider art, many of which are characterized by an examination of the field’s pluralism. In 2004 the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco unveiled ‘Create and be Recognized: Photography on the Edge’, a first-time look at outsider photography and photographic processes that included examples by Henry Darger and Lee Godie. And in the spring of 2005 the Museum of Biblical Art opened in New York City, presenting as its first exhibit ‘Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, and the American South’, a show devoted to “the impact of evangelical Christianity on 20th century folk [and] outsider artists” (Johnson 2005:B29).
Clearly, the presence of outsider art within museums is enjoying an upswing that shows little sign of subsiding . Despite the persistence of linguistic partisanship it is evident that museums are willing to venture past the academic stalemate of outsider art’s classification, concentrating their energies on the recasting of cultural assumptions and the reconsideration of aesthetic hierarchies. With the will to include outsider art in the public dialogue, the way in which it is presented remains wide open for interpretation. It would be useful then, for the sake of those museum professionals invested in the representation of outsider art, to attempt at this point a discussion of the methods by which outsider art may be effectively contextualized for public exhibition. Working with a variety of existing examples, it is possible to identify four dominant, overarching curatorial models that remain instrumental in shaping the way we look at, and respond to, outsider art. Not without certain flaws, these strategies, as outlined in the following chapters, will hopefully invite reinterpretation and variation over time. In this way the process of invention and discovery that is so crucial to the existence of outsider art may be transferred to the viewer, ensuring a dynamic and powerfully empathetic experience.