Contemporary Outsider Art: The Global Context

Melbourne 23 – 26 October 2014

This conference co-hosted by Arts Project Australia and The University of Melbourne took place on the beautiful campus of Melbourne University. The conference started on the evening of the 22nd with a public talk hosted by The City of Melbourne on the topic “Is Out the new In? What’s up with Outsider Art”?.  Key speakers were James Brett, Founder of Museum of Everything, UK, Professor Lynne Cooke, Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA, Professor Colin Rhodes, Dean, School of Fine Arts, the University of Sydney. 

The conference proper got underway the following evening with a Keynote by Professor Lynne Cooke.  “Fusion or Confusion” Cooke’s talk explored the professionalisation and stewardship of the outsider art realm in North America in the mid 1990’s and its growing separatism from the contemporary art sector.
The following day three strands of discussion ran simultaneously; Practice, Collecting and Curating and Theory. Project Ability associate artist Tanya Raabe and I contributed to the opening panel in the practice stream alongside Deb Dyer from NIAD Art Centre, San Francisco and Mary Liniger, Art Enables, Washington.  We shared our experience of running studios and supporting artists with learning disabilities to develop their practice and find their voice in the arts sector.

All the strands run together and while delegates were free to move around we stayed with the Practice strand as this seemed the most relevant. There were presentations exploring current arts practices in China, Israel and Cambodia. A research paper from the University of Melbourne which looked at the social capital gained from accessing and participating in arts, more presentations from studios in Australia and Creativity Explored in San Francisco finishing with the voice of the artist; artists, musicians and writers from the DAX foundation in Melbourne.  Finally we all headed for drinks at the The Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne and a keynote from Thomas Roeske Director of the Prinzhorn Collection, Germany.  Roeske discussed the history of the Prinzhorn collection and the early surrealist’s interest in works made in conditions of extreme stress in institutions and psychiatric hospitals through to the present and the work re-entering the mainstream.

The following day the opening keynote was delivered by David Lomas, Prof. of Art History, University of Manchester: pastiche and authenticity: surrealism’s encounter with outsider art.  Lomas also took us back to the early 1900’s and the surrealists referring to various hoaxes that were played out at the time with artists of all disciplines claiming the discovery of great works from obscure sources.
Lomas’s talk was followed with a final panel discussion and Q&A.  I was invited onto the panel to represent the studios and remind the academics on the panel to include the artists and makers in discussion on and about their work. At times there was a disconnect between the strands with the theorists and academics removed from the studios and artists and not building a platform for partnership and collaboration.

The final Keynote was delivered by Prof Colin Rhodes, Dean, School of Fine Arts, The University of Sydney.  Candide. Or how the artworld dines out.  Rhodes talked about the increasing appropriation of outsider artists in the contemporary art sector and if this comprised or neutralised their authenticity.

Finally we all headed downtown to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image to view two films.  The first showcasing artists from Arts Project Australia, the second artists at the DAX centre. 
Drinks – whew, conference over!

Three hundred delegates attended this conference, the vast majority from across Australia. The conference was intense, stimulating and thought provoking and it was wonderful to meet up again with Amy Taub from Creativity Explored and Deb Dyer from the NIAD art centre both in San Francisco and to meet Mary Liniger from Washington. Project Ability has much in common with these studios and Arts Project Australia and over the three days of the conference we spent time together sharing experiences and reflecting on our individual practices.  In between events we visited Arts Project Australia in their beautiful studios in Northcote Melbourne. 

A small footnote, on the way back home I stopped in Kuala Lumpur and met the artists and staff at United Voice an arts and advocacy project for people with learning disabilities. United Voice artists regularly contribute to art exhibitions for people with learning disabilities in Malaysia, Japan and other Oceania countries.

Our sincere thanks to Arts Project Australia and the University of Melbourne for hosting this event and to Creative Scotland for supporting our attendance.
Elisabeth Gibson
Executive Artistic Director

Photos by Elisabeth Gibson and Tanya Raabe, drawings by Tanya Raabe

Share This