In the summer of 2004, Creative Growth Gallery opened the group show "I ♥ Music" without text on the walls. Visitors were flummoxed. While unorthodox for any gallery to hang work without attribution, Creative Growth’s choice was especially provocative as the show mixed artists with physical and developmental disabilities with professionals. Visitors wanted to know who made what. The point was: Is there a difference?
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Creative Growth Art Center began in 1974 in the Oakland, California, living room of psychologist Elias Katz and educator Florence Ludins-Katz. With the belief that art is a universal means of expression, and one that people with disabilities could use to communicate and contribute to society, the pair provided art supplies and workspace to a handful of adults with disabilities. Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Growth established a gallery in 1980; like the studio, it was the first of its kind.
For more than 20 years the studio and gallery have operated in concert out of a warehouse in Oakland’s Auto Row. Curatorial manager Jennifer Strate O’Neal calls it the "homestead" of a now-flourishing creative community. The studio itself has blossomed into a daily workshop for 148 artists working in mediums that range from pottery, weaving, and woodworking to film and painting. While writers and critics struggle to categorize the work, often settling on the quasi-archaic and potentially misleading term "outsider art," the truth is that Creative Growth artists are a coterie in contact with both high and popular culture. Their studio is open to visitors, and they have access to working artists, as well as to a wide range of supplies and reference materials. When the day is done, about 80 percent of them go to group homes, where they socialize or watch TV, like anyone else.
As gallery director, O’Neal feels it’s her responsibility to present "a window into the studio," to inspire collectors to contextualize the work by showing it in other collections or environments. A former curatorial assistant for SFMOMA, O’Neal finds the fecundity at Creative Growth invigorating: "By the end of some afternoons the floor is so thick with art you can’t walk through here." In contrast to her academic background, she says "it’s a luxury" to witness the artistic process and also to be part of the lives of people with disabilities. As executive director Tom di Maria puts it, "We’re turning the idea of developmental disability on its head with the art process. It is fundamentally important as an advocacy issue, but it’s also visually compelling—it challenges the art world to consider a whole new realm of visual interpretation."
Creative Growth artists have received some of the art world’s greatest benedictions: reviews in the New York Times, purchases by public collections, and appearances at the NADA Art Fair, a satellite show of Art Basel Miami Beach. Recently, a single Judith Scott piece sold for $15,000. Thanks to the success of her solo exhibition at White Columns gallery in New York, Aurie Ramirez was able to afford an assistant to aid her with daily tasks. And when William Scott (no relation to Judith) came back from his nearly sold-out solo show at White Columns, he began calling himself an artist. As O’Neal points out, "For any creative person, there are artificial rules about when you can call yourself an artist—the moment you’re comfortable identifying yourself as one is a big deal."
"Creative Growth is a nexus of contemporary culture," says di Maria, "both in terms of how we’ve defined this neighborhood and how our artists are leading and inspiring academically trained artists." While di Maria and O’Neal are aware that the work produced at Creative Growth is novel—the fickle art world’s most prized quality—they are happy to take advantage of opportunities for the artists’ sake; they also don’t mind if times change. "When you suggest that people with disabilities are going to make art that challenges you intellectually—that’s a radical notion," says di Maria. He smiles and adds, "At least for now."