Judith Scott, born in 1943, spent 35 years separated from her family in an institution of the State of Ohio. She was born with Down syndrome and lost her hearing as a baby due to Scarlet Fever. With her deafness undiagnosed, when she was tested for schools at age 7 they determined she was severely disabled and recommended she be sent to an institution. Thirty-five years later, her twin sister Joyce filed to be her legal guardian and took Judith from the state institution to live with her family in California. Once there, Judith enrolled in the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California. Creative Growth, founded in 1974, was the first organization to provide studio space and artist advisors and instructors to artists with disabilities.
At first, Judith did not appear to be interested in the art techniques offered at Creative Growth. However, when a visiting instructor held a class on fiber arts and sculpture, Judith began to create her own works of art. Slowly, methodically, she built sculptures with fibers and found objects. Creative Growth provides gallery space to display their artists’ work. In 1991, Judith’s work began to be recognized locally, then nationally in 1997, and internationally in 1998. Judith’s work has been displayed in museums and galleries all over the world, including the Palais Joyce, in Paris, the News Gallery in New York City, the Gugging Museum in Vienna, the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, England, and the Museo Nacional Centro Arte in Madrid, Spain.
Creative Growth provided Judith Scott and many others the means to express themselves and gain recognition for their achievements. Creative Growth’s mission statement is: “Creative Growth Art Center serves adult artists with developmental, mental and physical disabilities, providing a professional studio environment for artistic development, gallery exhibition and representation and a social atmosphere among peers.” Founded in 1974, this is Creative Growth’s 40th anniversary. Though today there are more organizations like Creative Growth providing support for artists with disabilities, when Creative Growth was founded it was the first of its kind. This year they celebrate their 40th anniversary with an exhibit titled, “Reclaiming: a New Asylum,” which includes work from artists “for whom a history of institutionalization informs private visions and an intent to communicate initiated far outside popular culture or the contemporary art world.” The exhibit highlights work from the early days of Creative Growth and emphasizes their roots in outsider art and visionary art. Though the organization was originally a place to give voice to outsider artists, and was involved in the visionary art genre, since then it has grown beyond the outsider art model, placing its art and artists in the context of the larger art movements. Although Creative Growth continues to celebrate outsider art, it now espouses a vision of their artists in concert with the international art world.
Museums often do not attempt to reach out to the rich and powerful population of individuals with disabilities. This is not only a missed opportunity for the individuals who are excluded, but it is also detrimental to the museum and its current visitor pool. Individuals with disabilities, as Creative Growth and other organizations since have emphasized, are incredibly capable. As with any museum visitor, they can add to the dialogue within the museum, bringing in unique perspectives. People with disabilities, when brought into the conversation, can challenge museums to rethink their collections, their programming, and their organization as a whole not only to be more inclusive, but to see what happens next. Once a museum is a welcoming and interesting place for people with disabilities, how will their input and voices change the way the museum’s staff and visitors see the museum’s content and even the world around them.
Creative Growth embraced this population, and participated in a movement of advocacy and support for people with disabilities, giving them an opportunity to be heard through their art. For Judith Scott, this opportunity changed her life, opened her world, and gave her a means to communicate and connect with the people around her that she had never been afforded before. We have come so far since the 1974 in the care and advocacy for individuals with disabilities, I would challenge museums to be on the forefront of shaping what’s next.
More info on the story of Judith and Joyce Scott: