The Creative Growth Art Center

To read on the New York Times Magazine website:

A Training Ground for Untrained Artists

An Oakland nonprofit has a startling track record for helping developmentally disabled adults become prolific — and profitable — artists.

From left: William Tyler, Monica Valentine, George Wilson, the creative director Tom di Maria, John Martin and Dan Miller. Credit Jeff Minton for The New York Times

From left: William Tyler, Monica Valentine, George Wilson, the creative director Tom di Maria, John Martin and Dan Miller. Credit Jeff Minton for The New York Times

The artists arrived at the Creative Growth Art Center shortly after 9 a.m. Most come on East Bay Paratransit buses, which bring them from Alameda, Castro Valley and San Francisco, but a few travel independently. William Tyler takes the orange line BART from his group home in Union City. In 37 years, he has almost never been late. Terri Bowden takes the BART from Fremont, accompanied by a life-size matboard Fred Flintstone. It is a familiar sight to commuters in Oakland’s 19th Street BART station: the legally blind woman with a mohawk and her inanimate sidekick. Bowden periodically replaces the doll’s face; before Fred Flintstone, it was Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jackson, Robert Plant and, at some point, nearly every Creative Growth staff member. John Martin, who lives with his aunt 20 blocks away, walks to work, but not in a straight line. He stops at coffee shops, which fill his empty Gatorade bottles with coffee; at churches, which hand him donated cans of food; and at trash bins, where he rummages for plastic toys, sunglasses and flip phones.

The artists gathered at long tables in the cafeteria. They hung their jackets and stored their lunches in the communal refrigerator. There was a lot of waving and hugging. ‘‘I miss Classie,’’ one of the artists said. It is a common sentiment, even four months after the death of Classie Rozier, the staff nurse for 30 years. On the wall above the tables hang two portraits of her: a framed painting by John Martin and a collage, made by several artists, with three photographs of Classie’s head glued over a red heart.

Dan Miller placed a blue hockey helmet on his head. Tyler sat alone with his head resting in his palm, half-smiling. ‘‘I don’t have any money,’’ Martin mumbled. ‘‘Nah. I don’t have any money.’’

John Martin. Credit Jeff Minton for The New York Times

A Creative Growth staff member overheard him. ‘‘You have a lot of money, John,’’ she said.

‘‘I don’t know nothing about that,’’ Martin answered.

‘‘Trust me,’’ she said, laughing. ‘‘You have a lot of money.’’

In June, Facebook bought 35 of Martin’s tool sculptures — cutouts of scissors, hammers and switchblades — for $8,000 and installed them in its enormous new Menlo Park headquarters. Facebook has recently commissioned Martin for 20 more. Martin was invited to the opening but declined to go. He usually doesn’t attend his own exhibitions; at one recent show, Martin ignored the work on the wall and examined the contents of a toolbox that had been left behind by the gallery staff.

Facebook’s acquisition is the latest but not nearly the most impressive of a recent series of market successes for Creative Growth, which was founded in Berkeley in 1974 and has since relocated to a former auto-repair shop in downtown Oakland. Creative Growth has capitalized on the surging interest for work by self-trained artists or, as The Wall Street Journal has put it, ‘‘artists who don’t know they’re artists’’: work that in less sensitive times has been referred to as outsider art, naïve art, Art Brut and art of the mentally ill. Such art has experienced a boom during the past 15 years. The work of the field’s most prominent figures — Henry Darger, William Edmondson, Martín Ramírez and Augustin Lesage — has sold in the mid- and high six figures by Christie’s and other auction houses in New York and Paris. The Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have acquired work by these artists for their permanent collections.

A majority of the most famous self-taught artists are dead. In many cases, their work was not discovered until after their deaths. It has become difficult to find their art for sale, and what exists is expensive. Collectors and galleries, eager to satisfy the market’s demand, find themselves in an odd position. Typically dealers in search of new art stars comb M.F.A. programs and the studios of established masters. But where might they discover ‘‘artists who don’t know they’re artists’’? Increasingly, these dealers are swarming to this converted auto-repair shop in downtown Oakland.

Creative Growth was born in the garage of Florence Ludins-Katz, an artist and educator, and her husband, Elias Katz, a psychologist who had worked for years at the Sonoma State Home. The Katzes were alarmed by the mass closure of psychiatric hospitals in California, where half of all patients had been deinstitutionalized during the 1950s and 1960s. Shortly after Ronald Reagan assumed the governorship in 1967, he signed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which blocked involuntary hospitalization and resulted in most of the remaining patients being turned out. Few accommodations were made for them after release, leading to an exponential rise among the mentally ill in homelessness and imprisonment.

The Katzes decided to create a center for former state-hospital patients with developmental disabilities, primarily Down syndrome and autism. Their goals, as stated in their 1990 book, ‘‘Establishing the Creative Art Center for People With Disabilities,’’ included not only therapeutic support and vocational training but also ‘‘creation of work of the highest artistic merit.’’ They wrote: ‘‘Even though a human being may be handicapped or disabled, this does not change his need to fulfill himself to the greatest of his capacity.’’

This was not an altogether iconoclastic notion; arts and crafts were offered in many state facilities. What was novel at the time, though, was the Katzes’ insistence that Creative Growth sell artwork to the public. ‘‘The students gain by feeling their art is worthy of being bought and perhaps reproduced,’’ they wrote. ‘‘The Art Center takes pride in the recognition that the art of persons with disabilities is much sought after and has value to society.’’

In 1978, after moving the studio to a storefront in Oakland and receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Katzes opened an adjacent gallery, the first in America dedicated to art by people with disabilities. In 1982, Creative Growth expanded further to a 12,000-square-foot, two-story brick automobile-repair shop on 24th Street. The main open space is occupied by long worktables visible from the sidewalk through a row of large plate-glass windows. There are discrete work areas for drawing and painting, woodworking, printmaking, ceramics, rug making, textiles and mosaics. Teachers assist but are under orders never to guide or instruct, unless asked to do so by an artist. Next door, connected to the studio, is the gallery, which holds seven exhibitions a year. For decades these openings were mainly attended by families and friends of the clients, and occasionally local professional artists, who might buy a painting or sculpture for a nominal price. They had the quality of a local flea

This began to change in the late 1980s, when the work of Dwight Mackintosh, who came to Creative Growth after spending 56 years in mental institutions, was noticed by John MacGregor, a Bay Area art historian. MacGregor was a popularizer of Art Brut, the term coined by the artist Jean Dubuffet to describe work created in solitude by untrained artists. At the time, Dubuffet’s Collection of Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, founded in 1976, was the world’s only such museum; after learning of Mackintosh’s work from MacGregor, the museum gave the artist a one-man show. The few American gallerists who collected outsider art, like Phyllis Kind in New York and Judy Saslow in Chicago, began to buy Mackintosh’s drawings. A Warner Brothers executive noticed his work in Michael Stipe’s personal collection and commissioned the artist to illustrate a Lollapalooza concert poster. The sudden critical and economic success caught Creative Growth’s board by surprise. They knew how to sell work to members of the local community but were unprepared for Manhattan gallerists, rock stars and international dealers.

Collectors began to visit the studio regularly, and work by other Creative Growth clients started to appear in group shows devoted to artists with disabilities. But it was not until 1999, when art critics began to praise the unusual, intricate sculptures of Judith Scott, a deaf and mute artist with Down syndrome, that Creative Growth’s board decided to change its mission. There was major interest in Scott’s work; there might also, it seemed, be a major market for it. If the professional art world was going to come to Creative Growth, the center needed to handle itself more professionally. It needed someone who understood the art market. It needed someone who knew how to sell. (…)

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Thanks to Gabrielle to have drawn my attention on this article.

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