Changing the way we see success: is outsider art becoming the new mainstream?

Although it has not yet reached the highs achieved by auctions of ‘mainstream’ art, the monetary value of ‘outsider art’ is creeping up. This blog is written in light of the recent Christie’s auction of outsider art from the William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation which took place earlier this month.

I have felt compelled to comment on this as I continue my PhD research, where at present I am interviewing arts professionals working both in the mainstream and ‘outsider art’ worlds in the UK. What has become apparent during my research; and also during my years of working within the sector, is that we might have created yet another version of the ‘mainstream’ in the mightily protected world of ‘outsider art.’

Although we are continuing to see higher sale prices for outsider art, as well as increasing exhibitions of this type of work in what we might consider ‘high-end’ galleries and arts organisations, we appear to be falling (or maybe we have fallen) into a familiar trap. The number of ‘famous’ outsider artists continues to remain small – we see the same names cropping up: Bill Traylor, Martin Ramirez, Judith Scott. We see galleries dedicated solely to this type of work; but it is generally work made by artists who are no longer living. Despite continued – and continuing – work by organisations and charities looking to promote and support contemporary artists who might be facing barriers to the art world, time and time again we are hearing the same names.

The field of outsider art might be becoming what we wanted to prevent it from becoming; elitist, only for a few, not diverse (in terms of those working in the field), and financially unobtainable for many.

Judith Scott

I created the diagram below to illustrate how we are approaching an art world where we have three distinct types of art being created and promoted. In our struggle to achieve visibility for outsider art, we have instead achieved continued segregation. We haven’t yet been able to see the successful incorporation of outsider art into the mainstream, but what we are seeing is the creation of a category that almost identically mirrors that of the mainstream.

As a sector, we are continuing to see success in the same way: exclusive private views, exhibitions in high-end white cube spaces, high prices at auction, a select number of ‘expert’ gatekeepers (dealers, collectors, curators). And why wouldn’t we see it this way – this is how we’ve always seen success in the art world. For many, a ‘successful’ artist has work in ‘important’ collections, exhibits in well-known, white cube exhibitions spaces, and sells work for sometimes sky-high prices.

To really move forward, we need to break the habit, and re-imagine the system. Can we start to see success differently? Can we move away from the idea that successful art is exclusive and unobtainable? Only when we are able to do this will the art world truly be equitable and more diverse.

Judith Scott

2 thoughts on “Changing the way we see success: is outsider art becoming the new mainstream?

  1. Billy Mann says:

    Hi Kate
    I felt strangely compelled to replace the word ‘mainstream’ with ‘market’ as I read this one. How is the art world configured ‘outside’ of market capitalism? Maybe that’s the real outside.

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