Organizations Outside the Art World Are Better at Reaching Underserved Populations

(image courtesy Alzheimer’s Los Angeles)

LOS ANGELES — I did not know, when I first saw Willem de Kooning’s late 1980s paintings, that he had suffered from Alzheimer’s. I just knew that he made this work when he was older, and that, while still aesthetically masterful, they seemed far more minimal, less conflicted and less overfull than his earlier work. The marketing of this as a late-career renaissance — a Christie’s catalogue dismissed those who identified his “stark change in style” with his changing health, arguing that “this late” and “quite distinct” work “was actually a result of clearer thinking” — felt uncomfortable, especially given the $8-10 million price tags. Later, when I learned of his Alzheimer’s, the vagueness in the paintings read differently to me, and the work became more interesting because it registered a neurological shift, but the marketing remained just as off-putting. When Michael Glover wrote about a Skarstedt Gallery exhibition of late de Koonings in 2017, he described the gallery director brushing away his questions about Alzheimer’s, saying “a new lightness” had entered de Kooning’s work. Admitting his “decline” would potentially pose a threat to his market, and since he painted much faster towards the end of his life (rumors have percolated over the decades that disproportionate “help” from studio assistants accelerated production), the market for his late work remains healthy. But what would be the harm in admitting that de Kooning’s own changing mind changed his work? Isn’t fear of such honesty mostly rooted in the art world’s own inability to accept that artwork has value even outside of genius narratives, markets, or other blue-chip metrics for success?

I was reminded of these questions while painting trees for just over an hour in the San Fernando office of Alzheimer’s Los Angeles, an organization that offers support and programming for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers. I had come in an effort to learn more about the organization’s support by a relatively new Los Angeles city grant, the Community Impact Arts Grant (CIAG), meant for non-art organizations that offer arts programs. The facilitator of the painting session, Karen Jackson, held up as an example a painting of trees with changing colors. One woman, who sat next to me, frequently asked what she was supposed to be doing while rendering an off-center purple and brown trunk with a tasteful spattering of leaves. She had even brought with her a drawing she’d finished at home: a fruit bowl with a Matisse-like quality, a little flattened and a little festive. Another woman wrote lines of tiny text that arced out, like branches, from a vague shape on the left side of the page. A former NYPD officer who made jokes as he worked (asked if he wanted more water, for his brushes, he said he’d prefer scotch), painted a wide, brown abstracted trunk with no leaves at all.

(image courtesy Alzheimer’s Los Angeles)

These art sessions, called “Memories in the Making,” happen monthly. Selly Jenny, an artist and advocate from Newport Beach California began the “Memory in the Making” program at the Orange County branch of the Alzheimer’s Association in 1988. Jenny’s mother, who had died in 1984, suffered with Alzheimer’s and Jenny became interested in how creative expression, like visual art, could help trigger memories buried by the disease. The program later spread across Greater Los Angeles and then the rest of the country. Studies since have shown that art-making does help by giving Alzheimer’s patients something outside of language to focus on, stirring up memories. In “Memory in the Making” sessions facilitators always ask questions: What was fall like where you are from? Do you remember the colors of the leaves?

Over the past three years, the Community Impact Arts Grant has helped Alzheimer’s Los Angeles expand the program, into Asian American communities first and now into East Los Angeles. The whole premise of the CIAG grant is that organizations outside the art world may already be better equipped to reach underserved populations. Since the city’s Department of Arts and Culture — known for six decades as the Los Angeles Arts Commission until the Board of Supervisors designated it a department earlier this year — introduced the CIAG in 2017, it has awarded approximately $1.54 million to arts programs run by non-art organizations. The first three years of the program were considered “demonstration years,” essentially a test phase to prove the program’s worth. This year, for the first time, the Board of Supervisors approved an increase in the annual total award funds from $500,000 to $750,000. Most awarded organizations receive between $10,000 and $15,000.

Kristin Sakoda, executive director of the Department of Arts and Culture, told me that the department wanted a program “that would actually reach people where they are.” Sakoda, who has been with the city since 2018, took over from Laura Tucker, who directed the Arts Commission for 25 years and under whose watch the CIAG program began. “There was really a desire to see if we could reach more diverse constituents,” said Sakoda, who believes that they have thus far succeeded.

A study the department released earlier this year compared the range of CIAG funding to the city’s other pre-existing Organization Grant Program (OGP), which funds more traditional arts nonprofits. Overall, it found that “a larger share of CIAG grantees served populations that historically have less access to the arts.” The study evaluated the two programs based on the zip codes they served as well as on reports provided by grantees. The CIAG grantees served a larger percentage of zip codes primarily inhabited by people of color, people who made below the county’s median income, and people living below the poverty line. According to the reports by CIAG grantees, 90% of those served qualified as low incomes, compared to 58% of those served by OGP recipients.

The department’s study did not parse the differences in the kinds of services the two categories of organizations offer. However, generally speaking, traditional arts nonprofits who receive OGP funding more frequently mount exhibitions of established or historical artists. In contrast, CIAG recipients give training, as well as exhibition or performance opportunities, to unestablished artists and people new to the arts. In other words, the CIAG programs emphasize the usefulness and value of making art over exposure to canonical art.

At a time when arts institutions are applying for grant money to “reach underserved populations,” and staging events or opening satellite spaces in gentrifying neighborhoods they have traditionally ignored, the CIAG program serves as a reminder that there are other organizations, many of which already champion the arts and know how to meet their communities’ needs, who could serve as vital partners for these institutions. Unsurprisingly, organizations who already have a presence in low-income neighborhoods, and who already work with people living with mental illness, physical illness, homelessness, or histories of incarceration, are well-equipped to bring art to these populations.

An artwork by Amadeus at the Alcott Center for Mental Health Services (image courtesy the Alcott Center)

This year’s 58 CIAG recipients included nonprofits running theater programs for veterans, media arts training for LGBTQ youth, artist mentorships for newly arrived immigrants, dance and violence prevention classes for sexual abuse survivors, and performance workshops for the formerly incarcerated. One of the grantees is the Alcott Center for Mental Health Services, which has run its Studio Art Program for over two decades. With the $12,000 they received through CIAG this year, they hope to enlist a formally trained art therapist. For the past two decades, they have employed teaching artists rather than therapists to run studio sessions, which means that artists who participate cannot receive therapy credit (many clients who use the Alcott Center’s services are either court- or state-mandated to participate in a certain amount of therapy). Numerous artists who work at the center already have some expertise, if not also formal training.

In the Alcott’s art room, a series of minimal, futuristic works by an artist who goes by Amadeus hang on the wall. He makes these by cutting into colored boards with an X-Acto knife, designing the shapes intuitively, but working with precision. Some look like renderings of spaceships, others like abstracted musical instruments. When Amadeus, who has been making art for decades, lost his storage unit recently, the Alcott Center acquired a significant number of his artworks. They plan to frame a selection of them and sell them at the annual art sale, from which artists receive the profits. The center only works with clients who qualify for public assistance, and, as Development Manager Nate Collins explained, some have difficulty maintaining traditional jobs and their art-making provides them with a stream of income. In preparation for the art sale, the center enlists an appraiser familiar with both insider and outsider art to recommend price ranges for the works.

The Alcott Center (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Despite the thriving, longstanding mythology around the mad artist, in reality, the art world often has not embraced artists who actively struggle with debilitating mental illness during their lifetimes. Martín Ramírez, now revered as a 20th-century folk artist, did all of his work in obscurity at the DeWitt State Hospital, and it was saved largely because first art aficionado and psychologist Tarmo Pasto and later medical director Dr. Max Dunievitz squirreled his works away. Ramírez’s first gallery exhibition opened in 1973, 10 years after he died. Marjorie Cameron, though loved by many of her peers, did not receive institutional attention or support until after her death, and destroyed a number of her own works during periods of mental and emotional instability. It did not help that her work made forays into “strange” topics like the occult and unabashedly portrayed female sexuality.

Marc Israel, “Art Class” (image courtesy the Alcott Center for Mental Health Services)

In their fierce 1978 essay “Art Hysterical Notions of Culture and Progress,” Joyce Kozloff and Valerie Jaudon described the origins of art world hierarchies in a straightforward way that still stands up:

Since the art experts consider the ‘high arts’ of Western men superior to all other forms of art, those arts done by non-Western people, low-class people and women are categorized as ‘minor arts,’ ‘primitive arts,’ ‘low arts,’ etc. […] The myth that high art is for a select few perpetuates the hierarchy in the arts, and among people as well.

Because of such hierarchies and myths, being an artist, at least one who engages in established contemporary art worlds, requires functioning at a relatively high level and wanting badly to succeed in a competitive arena — either wanting to break into that exclusionary realm, or being willing to butt up against it perpetually. The fact that not all artists are equipped with the physical and emotional resources to do this in itself limits what art gets made and seen.

The premise of the CIAG — that nonprofits that already work outside the art establishment may be best suited to increase the reach of arts programming — could play a modest role in destabilizing the hierarchies that perpetuate exclusion. This is not to say that in Los Angeles, and the United States generally, greater civic support for the arts could not eventually have a similar effect. But CIAG, in its success thus far, is a reminder that the art world is not necessarily the best equipped to diversify itself, and that deferring to activists and public servants who have already effectively reached diverse populations may be among the most expedient ways to increase art’s accessibility.

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