Meaning and Message: Marketing at the Intersection of Arts and Advocacy

Christa Zielke

The conversation about “outsider art/ists” has been constantly changing and evolving for years. These changes are not ones without conflict – from continuing debate on terminology, qualification, to the many issues faced at the intersection of art and disability advocacy. As its relationship to mainstream culture has evolved, so has the way in which agencies such as Visionaries + Voices present themselves, the artists, and the agencies’ missions as a whole. An art genre that once was identified by and relied on the marginalized status of its creators now holds the power to integrate and advocate for the inclusion of those same populations. Agencies like V+V thus take on the role of advocate, social support network, as well as publicist/agent/marketer. Yet conflicts in presenting this work and presenting an agency that houses the creation of this work while juggling these roles can present challenges.

The arts have long served as a means for promoting and inspiring social, cultural and even economic change or impact. In the world of disability advocacy, as attitudes and goals move away from segregation and sentimentality towards inclusion, equality and recognition of assets and talents rather than (perceived) deficiency, the art created by artists with disabilities has played a great role. In the best scenarios, audiences can see the work on the basis of its own merit, seeing talent and creativity, rather than disability and limitations. In this way, the work has the capacity to “level the playing field.”

The activity described by V+V at this time is most often simplified to “artists working with artists” – a departure from the history of organizations working with people with disabilities in the past, where a service-oriented or humanitarian perspective was the leading message. Collaboration among artists (those with disabilities and those without) helped to forge relationships based on common interest and mutual respect. This is where V+V had its roots, when it opened its doors as an official organization on Aug 3 2003 (when V+V was housed at the Essex studios). As the organization grew, revenue streams became of vital importance, in order to sustain the mission. And while the ability to bill services to Medicaid and other government agencies allowed V+V fiscal sustainability, it also complicated the way the artists being supported were represented culturally.

Sustainability came with Medicaid, but following rules associated with the funding brought inevitable changes to the brand. Instantly, the name “disability services” was the identity affiliated with the arts agency, which now delicately navigated the terrain between the two worlds. With the influx of new participants, there was a more dynamic group of people involved. Some were not necessarily there to create art, but there to benefit from the therapeutic benefits offered from a facility that now shared traits with a day-hab center. Yet there were still the artists who wanted to work, create art, sell art, and make a name for themselves in the arts community: artists who did not need therapy, did not need fixing. They wanted to make art in an environment that supported their aspirations. And yet one agency must, in this new scenario, meet the needs of both.

Merging “outsider artist” with disability resulted in creating an unintentional colonization, but a colonization nonetheless. In addressing this, it is important to consider the history of how our society has treated people with disabilities, specifically developmental disability. From complete segregation into state run facilities we moved towards programming into therapy, work houses, sheltered workshops, with a focus on helping them to be better. To fix them, or at the worst moments of our history, to hide them.

But we don’t need to fix them. We need to celebrate and market each as an individual rather than a group identity. Yet there is a tension that constantly takes place – to maintain an environment where the artists can thrive, with access to accommodations or support in a world that has yet to understand how to include, adapt to or accommodate those who are different, requires resources. Hence funding and marketing the agency is necessary. Although every nonprofit hopes to someday achieve its vision and no longer need to exist, the need for agencies like V+V is still great. We still receive offers to participate in shows where well-meaning organizers make offers to show the artists’ work “next to the children’s section.” Visitors and supporters often tell us that they admire what we do, and that they enjoy the artwork. We appreciate the former, but we strive for the latter.

Marketing can be an integral part of this process as we find ways to attach meaning and message, and tell people where the value lies – in the work, in the celebration of our diversity and shared experience. Messaging that’s not just about fundraising, or even about the organization as a whole – marketing that celebrates the artists singularly. For each artist’s assets, his/her work, his/her talents – yet that still must be balanced with the need to fund agencies that support this work.

Therein lies the challenge. Many people still struggle to look beyond disability. Historically, our culture often identifies a person with a disability as disabled first, and then moves on to other components of the person’s identity that may or may not have any connection to their disability – artist, athlete, parent, student…

Through its ten year history, V+V has grown, changed, and shifted messaging to accomplish its goals of not only facilitating the creation and appreciation of art, but the fostering of relationships and advocating for inclusion of the artists who work at the studios in the arts community and hence our community at large. Moving away from branding that highlights “Outsider” terminology, we have strived to promote the artists in a professional, polished way while still embracing the unique, nontraditional environment and celebrating the fun, creative work that takes place within the walls of the studios. Yet we recognize that when the artists are involved in exhibitions outside of the V+V gallery, they are no longer participating in an arts activity within an environment that serves people with disabilities. They are participating in the arts community as artists. The more opportunities for the artists’ work to be seen and interacted with in environments that celebrate their talents outside of the colonization of a “disability services agency”, the more we move toward a truly integrated and inclusive culture.

Christa Zielke served as the Marketing Director for Visionaries + Voices from March 2012 to May of 2013, when she moved into a new role with the Saul Schottenstein B’s Special Needs Connection. She also works as a freelance writer.

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