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Museums thrust autistic artists into the mainstream

OAKLAND, California, USA: Daniel Miller scrawls words with a Sharpie pen: "Drill. Saw. Lumber. Pine. Carpenter. Router." Within minutes, he fills the page with a dense cloud of letters and lines.

Miller, who is severely autistic and speaks mostly in one- or two-word bursts, has worked for 15 years at the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California - an influential programme for disabled artists.

Creative Growth's decades of activism and its tireless promotion of its artists have helped push the work of disabled artists into the mainstream.

One Miller drawing was recently bought by New York's Museum of Modern Art for its drawing collection. Another Creative Growth artist, Judith Scott, has had her work posthumously displayed since May at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

"It's a significant moment," said Matthew Higgs, of New York's White Columns art gallery, which has shown Miller and other Creative Growth artists. "This indicates the level that (Miller's) work is operating at. Dan's work is now permanently in the pre-eminent collection of drawing in the world."

Founded in 1974 by a psychologist, Elias Katz, and his teacher wife, Florence Ludins-Katz,  Creative Growth grew out of the disability rights movement of the 1970s. Its innovation was to give people with severe physical and mental disabilities the opportunity to develop.

"They were only classified in the past as disabled artists or as 'outsider' and 'folk' artists," said Katherine Sherwood, a painter and professor who teaches a class on art, medicine and disability at the University of California, Berkeley.

The programme's resident artists are not teachers, as such, but they encourage the artists to work with new materials and techniques. Then they leave them alone to work.

That spurs creativity such as San Francisco artist William Scott's large, colourful architectural renderings of his home city, and portraits of gospel singers. Scott, diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia, has had his paintings and sculptures sold in prominent galleries.

One of Creative Growth's biggest successes was the late sculptor, Judith Scott. Scott - who had Down's syndrome and was deaf and mute - had been institutionalised until she came to the centre at the age of 40. Having no communication skills, her only interface with the outside world was through sculptures.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently put Scott's work on display alongside work of other contemporary artists.

Janet Bishop, the museum's curator for painting and sculpture, said the museum made "a conscious choice to show the piece with other examples of contemporary art."

Sherwood said the additions of the centre's work to museum collections indicated a historic shift in attitude.

"Judith Scott prominently displayed alongside (Mark) Rothko and Ann Hamilton is a sign of change," she said. "Before the last few years, these artists would be shown together. Only recently do we see disabled and non-disabled artists showing in the same shows."

(Source: Associated Press, August 23, 2007)

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