The Ethics of Collecting Works by Artists with Developmental Disabilities

Cornelia Smith
Oct 8, 2021 8:58PM

Nicole Storm, installation view at White Columns, 2021. Photo by Marc Tatti. Courtesy of the artist and White Columns, New York.

Drawn and painted compositions of all sizes, many rendered in pinks, purples, and oranges by the artist Nicole Storm, bedeck the walls of the storied New York City nonprofit gallery White Columns. Sections of the walls themselves are washed in similar hues, the paint thinned and layered to form an undulating, vibrant terrain. This bold landscape is punctuated by a handful of objects placed on the floor. In one corner of the gallery sits a large, upturned cardboard box; lined up near the entrance are three differently sized cardboard tubes; another wide-mouthed tube stands alone near the window. The works are in dialogue with one another. Swirls and scrawls of marker and pen coat every surface, and numbers, written sporadically on the walls and in select areas of the paper works, add depth and mystery to this rich environment.

Sweeping strokes, dried drips of paint, and repeated shapes and patterns bear the traces of Storm’s movement throughout the gallery. Storm—who is an artist at Creative Growth, an Oakland-based nonprofit gallery and studio space that works with more than 140 artists with developmental disabilities—arrived in New York ahead of the show’s opening to complete the installation. Though the roughly 140 works on view at White Columns were shipped across the country, Storm assumed a performative role in the gallery, painting the walls and arranging the objects to create entirely new compositions.

“The energy that Nicole created in the room couldn’t have been realized through a conventional presentation of her work,” said Matthew Higgs, the curator of the show and director of White Columns. “The works are incredibly beautiful and they entirely hold themselves. But I think the way she choreographed it was really a revelation.”

Higgs, who has been a longtime collector of work by Creative Growth artists (he estimates that he and his wife have around 40 works by CG artists in their collection), has worked extensively with the organization and other similar nonprofits to exhibit and amplify work created by artists with disabilities. He organized CG’s 30th anniversary show in 2004, and has helped to launch the careers of artists such as Dan Miller, Judith Scott, and William Scott. Since becoming director of White Columns in 2005, Higgs estimates the organization has staged more than 40 exhibitions with artists with disabilities.

Enhanced visibility

Nicole Storm, Untitled, n.d. Courtesy of the artist, Creative Growth, and White Columns.

Nicole Storm, Untitled, 2020. Courtesy of the artist, Creative Growth, and White Columns.


Not only is this Storm’s first solo show outside of Oakland, but it is also the first site-specific installation at an external gallery by a Creative Growth artist. Sarah Galender Meyer, the gallery director at Creative Growth, accompanied Storm to New York along with the artist’s mother and a studio assistant familiar with Storm’s practice. “Her process is not predictable, and she loves to paint on the walls, make notes on other paper and things,” said Meyer. “She would direct the placement of work while at the same time painting on walls, and go back and forth.” Like all artists at Creative Growth, Storm is in complete control of her work, which reflects the organization’s supportive yet hands-off philosophy.

Storm’s show at White Columns signals a growing shift in the visibility of work by artists with developmental disabilities within established art institutions. “The one area that remains a blind spot in the contemporary art world is the relationship between creativity and disability,” said Higgs. “And we’re starting to see that situation improve and change.” Later this month, a 30-year survey of work by William Scott opens at Studio Voltaire in London, which will be the artist’s first international solo exhibition. In Frankfurt, a show titled “Crip Time,” which explores accessibility as it relates to disability, recently opened at MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main; and last October, the Ford Foundation, in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, launched the Disability Futures initiative, which provides funding and support to disabled creative practitioners.

As artists with developmental disabilities gain broader recognition in the art world, terminology and labels are necessarily being reevaluated—particularly in regards to the expansive and broad-ranging category of “outsider art.” Used to describe the work of artists without formal training or connections to the conventional art world, outsider art can be in any medium and from just about any time period. It was coined in 1972 by Roger Cardinal as a translation of art brut (French for “raw art”), which was defined by artist and collector Jean Dubuffet in the mid-1940s as a way to describe artworks made by patients in psychiatric hospitals. Outsider art has since expanded to include not just art brut, but also vernacular art, folk art, and self-taught art.

While useful as a categorical tool, the label “outsider art” carries with it a problematic history. It has long invited audiences to pathologize the artist, to diagnose their mental state or disability via marks on a page or impressions in a sculpture. Context for an artist’s life can be important for understanding an artwork, particularly when artists draw on their own experiences; however, context provided for an outsider artist’s creations has sometimes become exploitative, revealing personal information about the artist’s physical and mental well-being that is irrelevant to their work.

Captivated collectors

William Scott (b. 1964)
The Hall of Justice, 2002
Reis Studios

“I understand the need for the art world to categorize artwork that is made by people whose creative process didn’t stem from an MFA or BFA,” said Meyer. “It is an outdated term, but I also understand that it’s a way for the art world to understand what’s happening.” Creative Growth participates in the Outsider Art Fairs, she noted, and collectors “run the gamut” on whether they gravitate toward outsider art, art brut, or contemporary art—or all of the above. At last month’s Independent art fair in New York, for instance, one of the William Scott paintings for sale from Creative Growth’s presentation was purchased by KAWS, the hugely popular contemporary artist (and outsider art collector).

Ultimately, Meyer said, collectors are drawn to the work itself. “First and foremost it’s the artwork itself that captures people,” she said. “It’s unusual, or vibrant, or something that really speaks to them. The aesthetic of the work appeals to people. And then once they sort of learn who the artist is, and what Creative Growth is, it can also turn into more long-term support of that artist’s career and the organization. [Collectors] also like the fact that we split the sale with each artist, that they directly support that artist’s work.”

Higgs, who said he still finds the term “outsider art” useful, acknowledged that it becomes problematic when an outsider artist is marketed as someone who “is divorced from or isolated from normal conventional social life.” Creative Growth artists, he remarked, work within a communal space among other working artists. The outsider artist archetype is clichéd, he continued, and does not account for the varied ways self-taught artists and artists with developmental disabilities work.

“I’m not opposed to the term ‘outsider art,’ because I think it is simply a way of acknowledging difference,” Higgs explained. “One of the things we need to do more of is support difference, and to support artists who have unconventional histories, artists who historically might not have had access.”

Both Meyer and Higgs stressed the quality of the work by artists with developmental disabilities as the primary motivating factor for collectors. “Because these are self-taught artists and considered largely emerging in the contemporary art world, there is an allure of the discovery,” said Meyer. “[Collectors] are just taken by the artwork.”

Cornelia Smith