Banner image: Niwaha Viollah Ugandan Bird, 2014 Oil on canvas © The Artist and ArtBeez

Marc Steene is the Director and Founder of Outside In and Guest Curator of our fascinating exhibition, The Outside and the Inside.

He kindly took the time to talk to us about his charity, the term "outsider art" and its implications, and the problematic lack of representation of "outsider artists" in the art world.

First of all, tell us a bit about yourself and the work that Outside In does. How did you arrive at where you are now, working with artists who face significant barriers to the art world?

I was always interested in art from a very young age and went on to study art. It was an important means for me to escape from the stress of my childhood, and a link to my imagination and subconscious. As I developed my career and achieved a small modicum of success, I soon realised that the art world was not right for me. I found the commodification of my art a huge challenge and the disjuncture between myself as an artist and the art market too large a divide to cross.

I found myself at a low point in my life and began volunteering at a day centre for adults with learning disabilities. I was amazed at the many talented artists I found there and also the complete lack of awareness and creative neglect of the staff towards them.

I spent ten years working at the day centre, championing the artists’ work and seeking to enable it to be seen in prestigious galleries. The artists and their works were confronted with stigma and prejudice from audiences in the art world. It was this that led, many years later, to the establishment of Outside In and the wider mission to make the art world a fairer and more inclusive place.

Image: Chaz Waldren, Prayer, 2009, gel pens on paper, Outside In Collection

We know you don’t like to use the term “outsider art” – although it is the most frequently used to describe non-traditional artworks. Can you expand a bit on why this is?

It’s not that I necessarily disagree with the term – I just find it problematic. Outside In seeks not to describe the work of the artists it works with, and instead enables them to self-define on their own terms.

“Outsider Art” was developed by Roger Cardinal as an English equivalent to Art Brut. Art Brut, which means “raw art” was used by Jean Dubuffet to describe work produced outside of the mainstream art world, in which he collected a large amount that is now on display at the Art Brut Museum in Lausanne. The main issue, I feel, lies in the grouping together of artists purely because they do not fit into an art historical category. In turn, they are seen to be the problem rather than the problem being the system they do not fit in. This is not dissimilar to the debate around the social and medical models of disability.

The only common denominator in what is traditionally described as “outsider art” is the artists’ otherness, disability or mental health, rather than a recognised style to their works. As long as we keep using the term “outsider art”, we will maintain the position of exclusion and the lack of acceptance of artists whose work does not fit. We will perpetuate the “freak show” interest and not broaden our definitions of contemporary art so as to include them.

In recent years, "outsider art" has gained popularity. Can the increased interest in this type of art be considered a tribute to, or exploitation of, the artists presented?

I feel that, indeed, there has been some interest in "outsider art". I would argue, however, that this is not widely held – definitely not in the UK, and only in certain sectors of the international art world, highlighting the importance of the inclusion of "outsider art" in the Venice Biennial in 2013.

I feel that there is a lot of cynicism towards contemporary art, especially the more cerebral and conceptual-based work. What is described as “outsider art” can be seen to be pure art – uncontaminated by conventional labels and engaging with audiences in a more direct and compelling way. All artists are exploited by the market to either a lesser or greater extent, but the issue with a lot of non-traditional artists is that they can often be taken advantage of due to their potential vulnerability, and they have little say in how they and their work are presented.

Image: Fadra Velic, Machine for Cutting Grass © The Artist

How can museums and gallery spaces effectively represent outsider artists and their work?

I feel that the problem lies within the systems and methodology that museums and galleries use to explain and interpret art – namely, art history. Art history is a largely 19th century construct created by German male academics as an attempt to humanise art so as to explain and understand it from an academic point of view. It encourages a linear and progressive understanding of the development of art, from the Greeks to the Romans to the renaissance to Cezanne to cubism and onwards.

Yet, we know that artists will have been making art for many different reasons outside of this framework. It is clear that there will always have been art that doesn’t fit this narrative, lying outside the linear constructs created. Thus, if they didn’t wholly fit into one category, they were described collectively as “outsiders”.

I think this model needs either adapting or abandoning so that we look at all artists as individuals first, taking a more holistic approach and recognising that artists are often driven to create for a range of reasons outside of a purely “art world” context. Creating art is therapeutic no matter who the artist is and if we change the language we use to describe art, we will find that we will be communicating with a much wider and inclusive audience.

There are ample ethical and practical implications in collecting non-traditional art – from who benefits from the sales of these works, to how to preserve the artist’s legacy in a respectful manner.
What advice would you give art collectors or organisations in regards to collecting such artworks?

Firstly, as with buying any art, you should like it first. Secondly, if possible, I would suggest meeting the artist as this can be a powerful endorsement and can also provide an insight into the artist’s motivations. There are examples of exploitation where art is acquired for little, if any, money exchanging hands and then sold on for significantly more, the artist, unfortunately unaware of their secondary sales rights.

Selling their work can provide a powerful validation to the artist, giving them a sense of value and recognition. Having artwork in an important private or public collection can help to establish a reputation and career. Outside In seeks to act as the “fair trade” in the art world, advising artists and helping them navigate the pitfalls and risks that the art world poses.

Finally, I would also suggest that publicly funded arts organisations that hold collections and/or acquire artwork, should have an acquisition policy that includes a wider and more inclusive definition of art and artists, so as to provide a legacy to future generations of a talented group of artists whose work is all but absent in our existing collections.

The Outside and The Inside exhibition © The Lightbox

The Outside and the Inside brings together the fascinating works from both Outside In and The Ingram Collection, providing a unique opportunity to discover new artists and unseen work, whilst offering fresh perspectives and a chance to question the nature of art itself. The Outside and The Inside is on display until 5 January 2020.

Coinciding with the exhibition, the panel event Collecting Outsider Art: A Discussion explored the issues and challenges of collecting non-traditional art, both practically and ethically, including the international context. Guest curator Marc Steene was joined by an array of experts in the field, including John Maizels, Editor of Raw VisionOutside In chairperson Charles Rolls, Thomas Röske, Director of the Prinzhorn Collection, and Amanda Sutton, Director of Venture Arts.