Removing Social Stigma, One Artwork at a Time: A Spotlight on Artists Living with Mental Illness

May 19, 2016 10:45PM

There are hundreds of galleries in New York, but Fountain House Gallery is unique among them. Unlike many commercial galleries near its Manhattan headquarters, Fountain House is mission-driven: The gallery supports artists living and working with mental illness.

The goal is to create opportunity and a community, and to challenge societal norms about the creative potential of artists with mental illness. The significance of the gallery’s mission is perhaps best summarized by Ariella Kadosh, one of its prominent artists. “A studio is not merely a space to paint in,” she has said. “I see it as another safe place to be. A place where my art can dry undisturbed, and my friends, colleagues and I can bounce ideas off of each other.”

Kadosh is one of the core group of 60 artists whom Fountain House now represents. Indeed, the organization has come a long way since opening as a nonprofit exhibition space in 2000. In a decade and a half, the gallery has expanded its exhibition area and attracted star power: Guest curators have included Agnes Gund, president emerita of MoMA, while actress Glenn Close became a founding sponsor of the Visiting Artists Program in 2008. The gallery exhibited in high-profile public spaces, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and works by the core artists are now in the collections of corporations like Citi and Estée Lauder.

Of course, these grand honors are extensions of the artists’ smaller-scale achievements. Mercedes Kelly earned a devoted following—and plenty of individual commissions for custom portraits—after showing her whimsical canine paintings at the 2015 Outsider Art Fair and the gallery’s “Animal Impact” exhibition. Meanwhile, Martin Cohen made a splash with his music-themed works, including paintings of David Bowie, at this year’s “One Step Beyond: Art Off the Charts.”

Some of the artists are emerging; others are established. Some have trained; others are self-taught. Some struggle with depression; others, with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Regardless, the work is the work. Spotlighting it helps us take a large step toward removing the stigma of mental illness, in New York and beyond.

—Bridget Gleeson

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