Everyone who walks into Oakland's Creative Growth leaves with the same feeling of amazement -- of discovering some rare jewel or experiencing a supremely human moment.
Matthew Higgs, director of White Columns, recalled his first visit, "When I walked in, I was overwhelmed, I think I was struck by this extraordinary model of cooperation. The working atmosphere was staggering. It really challenges your ideas of what constitutes self-taught, naive, or outsider art. Creative Growth has created a space and program where those terms no longer apply -- an environment as substantial as an art or graduate school."
Everyone also leaves wondering why, since Creative Growth's been around since the '70s, they've never heard of it. It may be one of the Bay Area art world's best kept secrets. But all of that is changing. The world is catching on to Creative Growth. And like when your favorite underground band signs with a major label, you begin to wonder how they will deal with their newfound success. So I had a quick correspondence with the tireless Tom di Maria, Creative Growth's Executive Director, to find out.
TB: Three years ago, when I first wrote about Creative Growth, your agenda for the art, which was up until that point mostly viewed in the context of outsider art, seemed to be to get it into the flow of the contemporary art world. And have it accepted on the same terms as the art made by non-disabled contemporary artists. I remember you explaining your goal was to get a Creative Growth piece into SFMOMA's collection.
Well, SFMOMA currently has a Judith Scott on view in the permanent collection. The Oakland Museum owns another, and they are willing to acquire more of your works. Three of your artists have shown at White Columns in as many years. Your artists also show regularly in SF galleries like Rena Bransten. You just received a lifetime achievement award from the Bay Guardian. Things seem to going along swimmingly. So what's next -- rest on your laurels or even bigger schemes?
TdM: I always have big plans for Creative Growth because our artists are so inspiring.
First, we are close to finishing the one million dollar-plus renovation of our building. This will offer our 140 artists a better, safer and more organized studio and healthier place to be. This has been a major priority for us and I am pleased that the end is within reach.
Our next big move will be to open a gallery for our artists, and other artists not from Creative Growth, in a location outside the Bay Area. This will allow us to further represent our artists directly, increase their sales income, reaching new collectors, and allowing us to partner with contemporary artists and others whose approach to art speaks to our own. We have just identified a place for the gallery, and we will announce it in a few months.
TB: Wow, the gallery idea is terrific. You're not gonna leak out anything more about the gallery? Come on, how about what city it is in?
On a related topic, as you know there have a been a trillion articles and essays about how the huge infusion of cash is wrecking the contemporary scene (the most infamous of them is probably Saltz's recent piece "Has Money Ruined Art" in New York Magazine). Obviously, it would seem collectors buying more art is beneficial to Creative Growth -- more money for your artists, your programs etc. Have more people been buying your art? If so, have you experienced any downside?
TdM: You'll be one of the first to know the location, but we are hammering out the last details and I don't want to jinx anything. My selection criteria included looking for a space in a location that was not overly saturated with galleries, a city with a good art reputation, serving a diverse audience of collectors, and being receptive to the intersection of art brut, outsider art and the way we are pushing the boundaries from those into contemporary art.
In terms of money and the collector, our prices have risen a great deal over time, but we are still small potatoes compared to what the market can bear. I feel that our price rise has been more the result of how we contextualize our work than all the new speculative money that is flooding the fairs and galleries. I love that our artists are earning income from their work, not in institutions, not selling Christmas cards or pencils. It rocks my world.
TdM: Dan Miller is certainly someone to watch out for. Dan is an incredible artist. He writes series of words and numbers, one on top of each other to form magnificent abstract patterns that are graphic depictions of his thought process. He just had four of his drawings acquired by the drawing department of MOMA in New York. Not a bad claim to fame for a local man with developmental disabilities that many had written off as being not a real part of the world in which we live.
Dan's work reminds me of how much art can serve as a means of communication between the maker and the viewer -- really expressing a clear and personal vision and encounter with the world that might be similar or different from my own, but that challenges me as a human being. I welcome the fact that a person with a developmental disability challenges me intellectually.
Creative Growth Art Center is located at 355 24th Street in Oakland, CA. Through January 25, 2008, the center will be filled with original artwork, limited edition t-shirts and gifts, and notable Outsider Art publications.