** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY AUG 5 ** Artist William Scott paints a San Francisco cityscape at the Creative Growth art center in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, July 5, 2007. Scott, who has been diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia, has had his paintings and sculptures sold in the trendiest galleries, from Paris to Tokyo and beyond. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Galleries, museums more likely to display pieces regardlessof creators' conditions


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 the past 15 years at Oakland's Creative Growth Art Center -- an influential program for disabled artists.

Creative Growth's decades of activism, and tireless promotion of its artists, have helped push the work of disabled artists into the mainstream. While in the past the work of Miller and others might have appeared in shows and exhibits dedicated to the work of artists with disabilities, it's now more likely to hang alongside that of other contemporary artists.

One Miller drawing was recently purchased by the New York 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 psychologist Elias Katz and his wife, teacher 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 as artists.

Just as evolving public policies like the Americans with Disabilities Act have created more protections and opportunities for the disabled, Creative Growth has helped do the same in the art world.

"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 UC Berkeley. "There was no comparison to the mainstream. They were sequestered away in that category."

The program's resident artists aren't teachers, per se, but they encourage the artists to work with new materials and techniques.

Then they leave them alone to work.

That spurs creativity along the lines of San Francisco artist William Scott's large, colorful architectural renderings of his home city, and portraits of gospel singers. Scott, who has been diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia, has had his paintings and sculptures sold in the trendiest galleries, from Paris to Tokyo and beyond.

One of Creative Growth's biggest success stories was the late sculptor Judith Scott.

Scott -- who had Down syndrome and was deaf, mute and blind -- had been institutionalized until she came to the center at the age of 40. With no sign language or any other communication skills, her only interface with the outside world was through sculptures made of twined fibers, string and other materials.

This month, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is displaying Scott's work alongside other contemporary artists with no biographical information to call attention to her disability.

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

"That's what distinguishes Creative Growth -- the way that they further the careers of the artists by contextualizing the work with other contemporary artists. They've made huge strides in that area," Bishop said.

Sherwood said the additions of the center's work to collections at SFMOMA and NYMOMA are indicative of a historic shift in attitude.

"Judith Scott prominently displayed alongside (Mark) Rothko and Ann Hamilton is a sign of change," said Sherwood. "Before the last few years, these artists would not be shown together. Only recently do we see disabled and non-disabled artists showing in the same shows."

That shift is also beginning to permeate arts education.

Sherwood's graduate and undergraduate students study alongside William Scott and other artists for part of her course.

"There's been an aesthetic shift in art schools and MFAs and contemporary art galleries where academically trained artists are searching for something fresh and new," said Tom di Maria, Creative Growth's director.

Of course, the success of Creative Growth's artists has also meant a steadier stream of money for the non-profit.

William's Scott's paintings can earn anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500. A drawing by Miller, who can turn out more than a dozen in a day, recently sold for $1,800, di Maria said. Other work can go for $10,000 or more.

Fifty percent of the art sold through the center goes back into the program; the other half goes to the artist. As a state-approved day program for the disabled, Creative Growth is also partially funded by the government.

The center's success has also inspired other similar organizations, such as San Francisco's Creativity Explored.

While much has changed in the

opportunities for disabled aritists,

di Maria believes the success of Creative Growth hinges on getting people to focus less on the artists' biographies.

Creative Growth's mission, according to di Maria, is to have its artists' work seen for its merits.

"There's all these hangups about the words. Is it Outsider Art? Is it Art Brut? I just really like to think about who's a self-taught artist, what does art teach us about culture?" he said.

"And who are the artists of our era? I think we are really looking at changing some of the definitions around what is seen as an art object."

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