Project Art Works is a collective at the intersection of art and care to create the conditions where people with complex support needs can work independently and collaboratively to produce paintings, drawings, sculptural objects, and film.
Together in their Hastings studio, the collective is made up of forty neurodivergent artists, as well as artists, activists, families, and carers, who develop long-term supportive and creative relationships.
Project Art Works was nominated for the Turner Prize 2021 for their practice which celebrates and raises awareness of the dynamic and extraordinary contribution neurodiverse communities make to art and culture. Project Art Works is a lumbung member of documenta fifteen.
Smadar Samson: Could you introduce yourselves and your roles at Project Art Works?
Patricia Finnegan: I am an artist development lead, and I work across the organization on our impact program, as well as with children and families on outreach projects. We also work with other cultural organizations to involve people in our community and experience our culture.
Kate Adams: I'm an artist and co-founder of Project Art Works and a director currently. I come from a position of being also a mother of a man who is now 39 and has very complex support needs. When I started Project Artworks as an artist, I needed to bring art and life together, and in many ways what I learned about the whole network of social care and systems around the impact of the lives of people with disabilities has informed an approach to artistic practice. The first projects that we did were in special schools, because my son attended a special school, and it was quite small-scale then.
I just worked with an artist, a friend, the painter John Cole, and we did some big experiential workshops then to discover how to enable mark-making that is absolutely personalized to an individual's way of being, that embraced who they were, their particular traits and characteristics, nature, and spirit, as well as accepting fully the disability and their ability. And that mark-making’s presence has remained with the organization and our practice. The approach to all our projects is about making something that is often invisible, because of preconceptions around disability in all societies, visible. The practice has evolved and grown according to the context, both of art and social care. That's one of the very interesting things about documenta that would be extraordinary to explore because increasingly as a collective of artists, we are examining the systems that impact people's lives, and we also believe, as Joseph Beuys said many years ago, that everyone is an artist, but our take on that is that everyone has a creative potential to shape the forces, the impact on their lives. And that this content is the sense of much of what we do.
SmSa: Along with the attentive response to the different needs of your artists, Project Art Works has made the artists’ creations highly visible in their own community and far beyond. The exhibition in Hastings Contemporary displayed large, bold, and striking canvases that have finally caught the public’s eye. How do you convey to the viewers the complex layers of support and interaction that have been invested in the process leading to the production of these canvases? How important is it for Project Artworks to convey the context of the artwork?
PF: Well, it's done in multiple ways. We do use a lot of films when we work with people. So, alongside some of those images that you would have seen, there may be films playing about process and how people are interacting with the work, because for some people we work with, it actually isn't about the end product. It's about the process and experience and valuing that. But the piece of work at the end also speaks for itself. It can create a conversation with an audience. Where the work is displayed, we tend to almost always have a studio space so the people that we support can work in front of an audience, which also bridges that gap and understanding around the support that someone needs, but also seeds the agency they have to make work and how they lead in making work on their own terms. Some people are non-verbal, and that’s the way that they communicate to a wide audience. We also collaborate with institutions to connect with people to understand the work so that the institutions can share it with a wider audience. There are many different strands that we work in communicating the complicated needs of our artists.
KA: We've always considered that the best way to communicate is both through presence and direct encounters—both between neurodivergent groups and institutional staff where an exhibition is being held and we are going to do some of that with documenta. It’s the timing that's going to be quite hard. So, we call that “awareness-raising" and this particular methodology, which involves mapping the social care sector for the organization or the institution where they're showing work or having an exhibition. We map around them; we literally create new Google maps that have connections to the care agencies around an institution so that they can see who lives in their locality. And then we build relationships between the institution, their staff, and the social care settings, because people are so invisible in communities around the world.
We’ve always wanted to create a bridge between social care and culture and do it in different contexts, so part of our work with documenta is to create a bridge, certainly locally in Kassel, and then to do drawings that we call cosmologies of care.
We often create drawings that visualize where a person is in the center of a whole network of systems that they are dependent on to show how to navigate through those systems in order to reach life on the outside. Those drawings have started to become quite a major component of exhibitions. The first point of seduction for an audience is the image. And we do think about that as a seduction, and then there are gradual layers within any exhibition space that we curate, layers of insight that our film and these drawings of social care systems create. So, someone coming from a position of never having encountered someone with complex support needs or any of the learnt modes of communication and social engagements will see their ability, skill, and humanity first, and then the implications of disability within a society, and how a society and the systems both enabled and disabled that person to be involved.
SmSa: It's a brilliant way of engaging viewers because when people are looking at these diagrams, they may place themselves within these social networks and connect to become part of it.
KA: Completely! We try not to be too politically confrontational because actually it's about our humanity and our shared humanity. It's also about acknowledging the one-to-one. The connection is often there along with the empathy and the tolerance, but often societies, politics, and preconceptions about disability are what’s getting in the way of that human connection. So, we always aim for that intimacy of understanding and commonality of experience.
Giulia Busetti: I find your commitment towards a dialogue with institutions extremely needed, although it must be challenging to write new narratives for neurodivergent artists and to leave associations with art therapy or Outsider Art behind. How do you communicate with the contemporary art world?
KA: The main driver is not to be in the education department, but to be in the exhibition department. It is hugely difficult. We've been lucky in the last year. We've been working on trying to get this understanding that this is of importance and relevance to contemporary art practice. It's so many things, like different ways of making work, what art is even, and what audiences want. Trying to communicate that to curators and directors and exhibition people has been really hard. But we could do it last year because we were nominated for the Turner Prize. We leapfrogged over a lot of barriers, and so now people are going, “Who are these Project Art Works people? What do they do?” The whole idea about using the language of neurodiversity, for example, starts to be a word that you can see and hear in the discourse.
SmSa: Is using the term “neurodiversity” another way for bringing more people into the conversation?
KA: Yeah, language is very complex and it's also like race. It changes and it's part of the evolution of identity, inclusion, understanding tolerance; it is part of that evolutionary process. So, at the moment, we are using the term neurominorities and neurodivergent to describe artists who are autistic or have other ways of engaging. But it may come to a time when we change that because it is just for the moment. It also varies in different contexts, and for this reason it has been a real challenge for us in working with documenta since we don't have an understanding of the structure of the social care system in Germany yet, except for the fact that it's predicated on productivity and that there is a sort of undercurrent of activism.
SmSa: The recent exposure to documenta seems to have opened a unique opportunity for Project Art Works to share your expertise in caring with an art world that is not often associated with care. How would you position yourself within the global contemporary art discourse?
KA: We don't necessarily engage with contemporary art discourse globally. We haven't yet, but we're very open to a conversation and to be interrogated actually, because it's incredibly useful to have these conversations, like with this interview. It's just been so exciting to work with documenta and the lumbung over the past year. I think that what connects us is an interrogation and a willingness to change and to challenge the convention of contemporary arts in our own localities as well as globally, because there is a big difference between the commercial operations of the contemporary art world and the practice of artists who are working in many different kinds of ways that don't have necessarily the artifacts of commerce as a result of the work.
It's been really extraordinary. What will be great for us as an organization and group of artists is to be able to work within the lumbung with audiences from all over the world and also artists to draw these cosmologies of care that we talked about, to interrogate systems, and to see how artists are positioned and how people with disabilities are positioned in different parts of the world. But within this very open and discursive context of documenta fifteen because it's so conversational and empirical, I suppose.
PF: Also, during the global pandemic, we and other collectives continued to work with people because it was important whilst larger institutions closed down. That's why there's a question around care and what that means to culture that overlaps with how we make these spaces relevant for everybody.
GB: Do you have the feeling that though the experience of the pandemic, people are becoming somehow more sensitive towards certain topics?
KA: I think a lot of people that we work with live in the pandemic all their lives in terms of being able to do so. It was quite interesting that we worked with families that are used to having to change their plans, not being able to go places, or places being shut off to them. People that don't have those experiences suddenly had that kind of thrust upon them.
I also think that the pandemic has revealed social care. In the UK at least, people were trapped: care homes became prisons, and they were also trapped in contagion. Two thirds of the deaths through the pandemic in the UK were disabled people because of the system that holds them all together.
I set up a company for my son and signed a contract with a government agent to look after him ourselves. So, we employ care staff, and we have a budget ourselves. So during the pandemic, he wasn't in a care home, and I would have kidnapped him if he had been, because, for families whose adult children were stuck in care homes where they couldn't see or visit them, it was traumatic. It was completely traumatic. What's happened for societies is that there has been an understanding that there is this thing, this social care thing, and people need care and that there were these care homes where they were really cut off. Then, with the great swell of support for people who work in health and care, it was obvious to communities and societies that they are THE valuable people to us all in these moments.
SmSa: How do you then reconcile the conflicts of interests or ethical considerations between the contemporary art world and your artists who may not be aware of or consent to having their contribution be part of this global art scene?
KA: Absolutely, it's the ethical tightrope, because we often show work in exhibitions, by artists and makers who can't knowingly consent to their involvement in this big exposure. For this reason, we have a process of collaborative working that monitors assent and dissent in order to achieve consent, both with the individual and with the significant others in their lives. Because if someone lacks the mental capacity to understand the context, there is a whole ethical dimension that we address all the time, but it's one of the ways in which people are excluded because people say: “That's just too complicated. And it's also too difficult to manage the ethical framework.” But the ethical framework can work, although it has to be different to how everybody else functions.
SmSa: Could you give us an example? How do you make it work?
PF: We worked with people for a long period of time. We've known them for years. As Kate mentioned, there is assent and dissent that happens within the studio when someone is helped to make a mark and interacts with the work. Then we continually have conversations with the families and support teams on how we represent that person with the artwork when they're not present in exhibitions. So, there are continual conversations and looking at different ways to gain consent that's not verbal. It could be bringing someone to say how comfortable they'd feel to be in the space or working with people around them. It is a lot of work. I think that's why people shy away from it because it can become quite confusing. There is an assumption that someone can’t agree to something if they can't verbalize it, but there are lots of people with whom we have a connection, people we can understand. It just takes time.
KA: I think it has to do with relationships and monitoring those inconspicuous signifiers—the things that people are communicating very subtly. We take responsibility for the consent. We have accessible consent forms for all people who we work with, and either we support them to understand and fill it out, or we share those with families and key workers. We have people in the space so that they can represent themselves and understand experientially the concept of exhibition. But there isn't a huge international pool of neurodivergent artists because there are no art schools that do this work.
At the moment, we've identified three venues: the top floor of the Stadtmuseum, an exhibition space on the second floor of Fridericianum, and we're talking to the Kunsthochschule to do some work with them. And before the exhibition, we were planning to do two weeks of very intensive collaborative encounters between people from social care settings, and also art students and the lumbung artists. We will take that collaborative and encounter work into those two exhibition spaces with the Fridericianum and the Stadtmuseum, and there'll be installation of sound and stories.
PF: When we work with people from institutions at these encounter workshops, they actually become the more vulnerable persons than the persons with complex needs, because it's such a new experience and they're not used to working or having connections with someone who communicates in a different way. So, by having those encounter workshops before documenta opens, we're allowing that space to people to come, but to become vulnerable and to understand that within themselves as well.
SmSa: Would these workshops potentially embrace the values that drive documenta’s ruangrupa? Values such as Local Anchor, Humor, Independence, Generosity, Transparency, Sufficiency, Regeneration? How do you relate to these concepts and where do you position yourself within the lumbung environment?
KA: I think that this is very nurturing. It feels very welcoming. I also think that ruangrupa are very open to discovery. Within the lumbung, though, disability isn't really present, and we still don't really understand where it is in different communities of the artists' collectives. And also whether some of the practice, and openness, whether that exists at all the lumbung or whether there are other artists who wouldn't want to have any contact with disabled people. So, unless we bring the practice to the Fridericianum and to the Staatmuseum and actually have a presence with the lumbung and within the lumbung, that's also a process of discovery.
We are working with a lot of risks when working with people with profound disabilities. And this I don't think is yet fully understood. We were talking the other day about accommodation in a big meeting, but when we have meetings, they're often having a sort of party as well. So, when we were talking about accommodation, I found that really hard because we won't take neurodivergent artists from our studio to Kassel. The complexity of doing that is huge, it's really huge. I don't think that that's been taken on at all, but it's okay.
SmSa: Well, you’re already bringing such rich and compelling connections to the lumbung. Can you also tell us about your strategy for sustaining your work beyond those hundred days?
KA: At the moment, we're working with a collection of organizations in Hastings, and we're going to open the gallery within a building that is a community asset transfer from our local authority. We are going to be the first inhabitants of this building that is within a collection of buildings on a site in Hastings that is being developed by the community rather than it being a top-down development.
That's a very interesting and complex project because we also want to develop supported housing for some of our artists. We're running a housing summit later this spring, so we're going slightly deeper into some of the systemic barriers to inclusion. We are working on a big project called the explorers, with setting up a national, possibly international network of neurodivergent artists, makers, and supported studios, like Project Art Works.
We have exhibition plans and publishing patterns as part of that project, because one of the things that's missing is the narrative of neurodiversity and arts. There are no texts. There are outsider art texts. The history of that from the Prinzhorn Collection on, it has a rich history of outsider art, but it's still a separate articulation academically. And beyond that, we will try to establish a consortium within the UK cultural institutions that want to promote and develop and nurture neurodivergent artists and makers and share this learning and understanding.
PF: We're getting quite a lot of requests from galleries and institutions to learn from us. And it's just how we share that without having to necessarily lead on it or do it. But I think it's really interesting that there's an openness to that. That's big, and it hasn't been there before. We've always been knocking on doors before.
SmSa: But throughout this journey of knocking on doors, Project Art Works seemed to have always been focusing on what’s happening inside the studio space. How would you describe a good day at the studio?
PF: Oh, every day.
I suddenly feel very warm when you ask that question because although we're talking about quite big things that are happening, at the heart of what we do is the studio and working with people to make art on their terms. It feels like a fairly simple thing to do, but it's quite overwhelming what that means to individuals and families who see the environment changed. And that is just what's at the heart of it. It’s life-changing.
KA: it's magic. So, a good day at the studio could be anything from one of our artists who has had a long period of distress and not being able to come to the studio at all with complexities around his care and the impact of the pandemic, coming in on working with someone on a painting for 45 minutes before running out of the building. That is amazing, it's an amazing moment. It's just so wonderful. And last week, one of our artists (with all of the publicity we had last year) was interviewed as part of a radio program on two occasions and on both cases, she said she wanted a solo exhibition at the local museum. She'd never told us this. She just said it on national radio. So, we took her to a local museum and she is now curating her own show that will happen next year.
Kate Adams MBE is an artist, advocate, and activist. She is Artistic Director & CEO of Project Art Works. She has initiated and curated many responsive, collaborative projects with people who have complex support needs, families, caregivers, artists, and galleries. Kate co-founded Project Art Works in 1997 to explore an expanded concept of art that was and continues to be influenced by Paul Colley, her son, who has profound and complex support needs. Project Art Works collaborates with many individuals and their circles of support. The work embraces personalized studio practice, peer support, award-winning films, art actions, installations, and exhibitions. Kate’s practice disrupts preconceptions about what people can and can’t do, who they are, and how they live. It reveals other ways of being in the world whilst subtly the exposing the constraints of neurotypical constructs and environments.
Patricia Finnegan has been working as a freelance artist and educator for over ten years. Her practice focuses on elements of painting and printmaking, and she works from drawings and photographs to create layered images on wood, paper, and canvas. There is a focus in her work based around nature and the human form. In 2010, Patricia completed an MA in Art and Design in Education. Through this, she was able to combine research with her work as an artist facilitator. This process has strengthened her evaluation and research skills in all the types of projects that she works on. Patricia continues to explore this field as she feels that the arts can be essential to mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.
Smadar Samson is a curator and designer who works at the intersection of socially engaged art and design. Having graduated in Industrial Design, Education and Psychology, Smadar founded a multidisciplinary design consultancy integrating Inclusive Design in museums, hospitals and cultural institutions throughout England and Wales for over fifteen years. Smadar was appointed senior lecturer in Design at Sir John Cass Department of Art, Architecture and Design, and a postgraduate course leader of the Design Research for Disability master’s program at London Metropolitan University. In California, Smadar earned a Therapeutic Uses of Art certificate at UCSD and applied her artwork to therapeutic settings, public art, and social design. Before completing the MAS in contemporary curating at ZHdK, Smadar curated several exhibitions including Israel- 70 years of Craft and Design at the Mingei International museum. Her current curatorial and design research focuses on social injustice.
Giulia Busetti is an independent curator based between London and Zurich. After several experiences in European art organizations, she is now focusing her collaborative research-based projects on the concept of cultural identity and its conflictual aesthetics, the role of the outsider and the necessity of dis-order, and on all those practices that activate the political potential of artistic practice. She was part of Pneuma (2019 Italian Council Grant) by artist Christian Fogarolli, a trans-European project questioning the concept of mental health in contemporary society aiming to de-construct the binary categorization that distinguishes “deviance” from “normality.” She holds a MA in Art Sciences at KHS Kassel, Arts & Cultural Management at King’s College London, and is currently part of the MAS Curating program at ZHdK.