Review: The European Outsider Art Association Conference 2019

Outside In’s Kate Davey attended this year’s European Outsider Art conference in Stockholm, Sweden (24 to 26 May, 2019). Hosted by arts organisation Inuti it focused on ‘quality and equality in the outsider art world.’ Here she shares the interesting topics and ‘medley’ of inspiring art it involved.

Work at the Inuti Studio

The European Outsider Art Association (EOA) acts as an umbrella organisation for cultural workers dedicated to the promotion of outsider art or non-traditional art in Europe. Every year, the Association hosts a conference somewhere in Europe focusing on a topical theme within the sector – some of you may have attended the EOA conference hosted by Outside In at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester last year. This year’s conference was hosted by arts organisation Inuti and took place in Stockholm, Sweden, from 24 – 26 May, focusing on ‘quality and equality in the outsider art world.’

The conference was a jam-packed and inspiring medley of lectures, panel discussions, performances, and lots and lots of art! On the first day, we were welcomed to the conference by several of the artists Inuti works with, as well as by Thomas Roeske, president of the EOA and director of the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg.

Thomas gave a lecture outlining the theme of the conference and delving some of the way into the question of quality and how we assess quality within the outsider art world. He noted that to some extent, we must talk about quality and best practice because there is so much art, and so little time and space to experience it all. Most people agree that it is difficult to give an objective criteria for assessing quality, but Thomas suggested that we could consider things like:
• How original the work is
• How unique the artist’s skills are
• Whether a struggle for expression is evident
• Whether the work is obsessive in its nature

Artwork at the Inuti studio

It is interesting to think about the existence of a criteria for quality, because even if we do have a suggested outline for how we might assess work, considerations of this nature will always, to some extent, be subjective. Outsider Art is perhaps even more difficult to assess than ‘mainstream’ art because it is not a movement; there are no distinctive features, content or form that define works that might fall under this category.

Thomas also noted how quality is highly dependent on context. For example, words like ‘Gothic’ and ‘Baroque’ were at one time considered to be derogatory terms. Now, art or architecture that is considered Gothic of Baroque in style is celebrated by many. The cultural value of a work is often related directly (certainly in the art world) to its monetary value, and our assessment of outsider art takes influence from our judgement of contemporary or ‘mainstream’ art. The idea of quality can be divisive, particularly in an area like outsider art, where people’s connection with a work is generally very personal or relational.

To break down these barriers that exist at the borders of the art world, we should continue to demand space for outsider or alternative art, without feeling like it needs to fit in with what exists in the mainstream art world already. We need to be giving artists role models they can aspire to, keep curating quality exhibitions, and start talking about art in a human and accessible manner, rather than by using academic or intellectual language that can alienate many.

Later that afternoon, after a visit to one of Inuti’s three studio spaces, a panel discussion considered artists’ interactions with the art world. The discussion was chaired by Marc Steene, director of Outside In, and included representatives from supported studios and commercial galleries, as well as artists. The panel looked at what barriers face artists when they engage with the art world. The responses included things like communication, money, diversity, and hierarchical structures. The idea that artists do not see role models in positions of authority that they can relate to or aspire to be like was a big talking point.

The day concluded with a presentation from Minna Haveri and Paivi Lilja from Finland about ethical thinking in art activity in supported studios. Minna and Paivi asked the audience to think about key ethical questions we need to be asking. Suggestions included how we select work for exhibitions, and whether we should exhibit work by artists who may not have an understanding of what this really means. Finally, we got to enjoy the opening of collaborative exhibition ‘Travel Agency: Inner Journey’ at a second of Inuti’s studios.

The next day, we were up bright and early as we had a long bus journey to the town of Sala, about 1.5 hours away from Stockholm. We passed traditional Swedish fir trees and Swedish-Red Houses as we travelled through the countryside. Mid-morning, we arrived at ‘Little Istanbul,’ an environment created by Jan-Erik Svennberg, inspired by his many trips to Turkey. His small-scale replicas of structures from the Ottoman Empire included the Blue Mosque, Topkapi, Dolmabahce and Anadoluhisari. As well as his buildings, Svennberg has created a series of expressive paintings of Ottoman sultans, Turkish presidents and military servicemen which are on view in a tool shed in his garden.

After a fun creative workshop inspired by Svennberg’s creations, we were back on the bus and on our way to the Agueli Museum in Sala for the afternoon. We heard from Becca Hoffmann, director of the Outsider Art Fair, about how the Fair has globally gone from strength to strength in its two locations: New York and Paris.

Kate Davey, fourth from right, on the Living Collections panel

I took part in the second panel discussion of the conference, which focused on ‘Living Collections.’ I spoke about Outside In’s Step Up: Exploring Collections course, and how we hope to engage artists in the research and interpretation of renowned museum and gallery collections throughout the UK. I was joined on the panel by Dr Cheryl McGeachan, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow who has been working with Joyce Laing’s Art Extraordinary collection for the past seven years; Anne-Marie Atkinson, a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University; Hannah Bjorklund, representing Inuti; and Nina Roskamp and Bertold Schmidt-Thome, from Geyso20 in Germany. The panel was large, and it felt like there was more to be said, but it was fascinating to hear about the work other organisations are doing in relation to collecting, interpreting and exhibiting work in this area.

What was great about the conference was that dotted throughout, we got to enjoy artist presentations and performances from some very talented Inuti artists. It was an absolute pleasure to learn about their work. The performances of Inuti artist Anders Wettler really stood out for me. Almost surrealist in style, Anders’ short interventions were incredibly confident and absorbing.

After a long day, it was great to be present for the opening of the Nordic Outsider Craft exhibition at the Agueli Museum. Reminiscent of Outside In’s 2016 collaboration with Craftspace, ‘Radical Craft,’ the exhibition included work made in unique and unexpected ways. It was really wonderful to see such an ambitious exhibition at a museum situated in a small town in rural Sweden.

A busy weekend meant little time for reflection, but many of the ideas raised during the conference are topical to the work the Outside In team do every day – from how we select work for exhibitions, to how we support and encourage artists to access various parts of the ‘mainstream’ art world. One of the most enjoyable things about the annual EOA conferences is the opportunity to meet with, talk to, and learn from colleagues from all over Europe who are as passionate and dedicated as we are about sharing this wonderful work.

Next year’s conference will return to the traditional, looking at how, why and where Outsider Art originated in different parts of Europe. I have no doubt it will be just as inspiring!

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