What is Arts Project Australia?
Arts Project Australia is a creative social enterprise that supports artists with intellectual disabilities, promotes their work and advocates for their inclusion within the broader contemporary art sector.
Our key goal is to support career pathways in the visual arts for artists with intellectual disabilities. Our manifesto speaks to our approach.
We march to the beat of our own drum and map our own future.
Fuelled by an unwavering belief in our artists, we’re buoyed by the creativity and authenticity that exists in our space and heartened by those who delight in sharing it. We believe that art is serious, but making it can be fun. The individual creativity triumphs over conformity and divergent voices make life much more interesting. That art is about revealing ourselves and creating meaningful connections – between artists, staff artists and art lovers. Our experience will always be shared, our knowledge passed on and our studio, bound by creativity, integrity and generosity in equal measure.
We believe in making a mark that matters. We believe in art as it should be.
And joyful in the making.
What makes Arts Project Australia special?
We’re a vibrant creative hub that puts the artists at the forefront of everything. Our studio and gallery are inclusive and welcoming and strive to give every artist agency over their work. Our staff love what they do, and we have a strong and joyous network of partners, supporters, collectors, and volunteers.
Who makes up your team?
We boast a team of 25 talented and creative staff, almost all with a strong visual arts background. The gallery team look after our exhibitions, sales, documentation and career management of our artists and the studio team work closely with artists to help them develop and grow their practices.
Some of our Artists
Matthew Gove (b 1977, Melbourne) is an emerging artist working across a variety of mediums including painting and ceramics. His artworks reveal a penchant for quirky and humorous subject matter often involving animals in ridiculous ‘humanistic’ scenarios. Gove has worked in the Arts Project since 2012; his work has been included in several group exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney and is represented in private collections throughout Australia.
Rosie O’Brien (b 1974) is an emerging artist working on paper, digital animation and textiles. The vibrant use of pattern and placement of soft vessel-like flowers demonstrates her observant style, the soft palette reminiscent of spring. O’Brien has worked in the Arts Project Australia studio since 2015 and has exhibited in several recent group exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne.
Monica Lazzari, a regular Arts Project Australia studio artist since 2006, creates complex abstract paintings and collage. Vibrant and multi-layered, Lazzari employs a vast colour palette with meticulous application of media. The works are active spaces, resonating with energy.
What are some of the additional challenges that artists with intellectual disabilities face in the contemporary art world?
Participation, marginalisation, awareness, representation Vs ethical representation, power imbalance, collaboration, common experiences Vs celebrating difference, inside Vs outside, partnerships, policy frameworks, the artists voice, authentic Vs non-authentic, copyright permission, artwork commissioning, equal payment for work, the complexity of contractual agreements, advocacy, support, directive Vs non-directive support, professional Vs non-professional, funding, access, mobility, authorship, protectionism, trust, reciprocity, communication, invisibility, technology, non-disabled artist Vs artist with a disability, stereotyping, outsider and outlier labels, tokenism, intersectionality, fetishisation and censorship.
This is not a comprehensive list but some implicit considerations that need to be acknowledged and questioned when working with people with disability. Although, many of these can be applied to the ethical representation of any artist. For many artists with an intellectual disability, you’re often given permission - because of your expertise- to make informed decisions on their behalf.
Then we need to consider the intricacies of the contemporary arts sector: the cowboy nature, practices, deals, biases, hierarchies, egos, the market and traditional modes of operation, the written and unwritten histories, commercial etiquette, the gatekeepers, the gallerists, the artists, the funding bodies collectors, curators and on and on. It exhausts me navigating these dualities: between the complexities of the disability sector and our duty of care and the one hand, and the complexities of the contemporary art world and art market that is largely non-inclusive. Perhaps disruptors like COVID will have a positive impact amongst the devastation and help level the playing field by opening opportunities online. Still, then that comes with its own set of accessibility challenges.
We march to the beat of our own drum and map our own future.
While you digest these challenges, I’ll add in ‘dignity of risk’: the self-determination and human right for a person to take reasonable risks, which is essential for dignity and self-esteem. In other words, a person should not be impeded by excessively cautious interventions by caregivers, staff and peers concerned about the duty of care. The artworks created from supported studios are often characterised as ‘direct, unfiltered and raw’ and are still grouped under the generic term “Outsider Art” in the art world, which is a problematic marketing and art-historical term used to group artists’ work. At Arts Project, we do not use the term outsider to describe the work of our artists, nor do we use terms like “disabled art”, “special needs art” or “art by people with disability”, which I have seen used widely.
We actively promote our artists as contemporary artists first and foremost, notwithstanding they have a disability and need additional support. We do on occasion present work within labelled ‘outsider art’ contexts, though only entered into after considerable thought and without supporting the ascribed label.
The biggest challenge has been keeping our spirits up without the joy that comes from us all being together
There are also unspoken rules one must follow and respect to operate in the commercial art sector. Networks take a long time to establish, visibility around what you do takes time, and trust needs to be built for galleries, curators and collectors to have confidence in an artist and their work. What is critical when supporting any artist in the industry is doing so within respectful and ethical frameworks and sticking to them.
What did your business look like before COVID 19 and how has that changed?
Before COVID-19, 150 artists attended our studio program each week while our gallery promoted their work through on-site and external exhibitions.
Selected artists took part in external residencies, and we started hosting residencies in our studio. Since 16 March 2020, our studio and gallery have been closed, and our staff are predominantly working from home. Yet, we’ve engaged nearly 100 artists in a remote studio program, working with staff artists to develop their practice, and our gallery has mounted a formidable schedule of online exhibitions and continued to sell a high volume of work on behalf of our artists.
Are there any apps or technology that really helped you make this transition?
Zoom. Zoom, Zoom. We have also loved using Kunstmatrix as an online showroom: https://www.kunstmatrix.com/en/arts-project-australia
What has been the most challenging aspect of this time?
The biggest challenge has been keeping our spirits up without the joy that comes from us all being together, working together and seeing each other in real life. We’ve ramped up communications, both with staff and artists and their families, as well as the broader world. That has seen some wonderful new relationships develop.
Have there been any 'silver lining' surprises?
As we’ve discovered a studio program can work remotely, we are about to start developing a new Satellite Arts Program to be rolled out in 2021. This will allow artists from across Victoria, and, indeed, Australia to access and participate in developing their art practice from wherever they are. We’ve had new galleries and curators discover our artists’ work and curate them into exhibitions internationally. Being forced into a new mode of working has many positive discoveries.
How do you see your business evolving in the future? Are there changes you've made that you will continue with when things go back to 'normal'?
We’ll continue to deliver our studio program remotely beyond the artists who can come to our studio, and we will continue to expand and explore our online presence to interstate and international markets.
Are there any business decisions that you have made with sustainability in mind?
We’ve been exploring ways to broaden our social impact for a long time, and this [remote studio program mentioned above] has really fallen in our lap. The development of a remote delivery program that operates permanently shores us up for any future pandemic issues, creates a new income stream and generates broader development of our networks.
Do you see the Australian Art scene moving towards a more diverse and inclusive future?
In Australia and overseas, significant steps have been taken to improve inclusivity and participation rates for people with a disability. At the same time, there is increasing global recognition of the value of the arts in strengthening communities.
The ‘Picture This’ Literature review and analysis published in 2008 aimed to, “Increase the cultural participation of people with a disability in Victoria”. Yet at that time it found that “no comprehensive Australian data was available on people with a disability who work, or aspire to work, as professional artists.” That was only a decade ago.
Original. Unapologetic. True.
And joyful in the making.
While the literature review cited some successful Victorian disability arts companies, including Arts Project Australia, it uncovered a range of barriers to attendance at arts events, venues and cultural activity by people with a disability. These included financial, physical, low levels of arts awareness, inadequate training of arts professionals in disability, as well as negative attitudinal views held by arts personnel and society.
While some of these areas have since improved, we’ve still a long way to go, and we need to move beyond issues of inclusion by tokenism, as well as inclusion by simply creating ‘disability streams’, to be genuinely and meaningfully inclusive. And this requires a significant cultural and institutional shift, where fostering an open, all-encompassing and diverse community is something we come to value, demand and expect.