Ethical issues in outsider art


I recently joined the European Outsider Art Association   a fairly new organization established in 2009. (Thank you to Nita in Sweden for telling me about it.) Given the lack of dialogue about outsider art in Canada, I was delighted to discover the EOA and find a group of professionals with whom I could explore outsider art issues.

The EOA’s purpose is to strengthen the voice of outsider art by improving intercultural cooperation and dialogue across the European borders. Its objectives are to:

  • create a favourable environment for those in this field willing to share experience, exchange good practice and set up partnerships at a transnational level
  • collect knowledge and share out information on activities and movements in the international outsider art scene
  • contribute to the shaping, development and implementation of national and European policies and legislation
  • create a forum for promoting, exploring and debating the history and contemporary state of outsider art
  • promote the rights of outsider artists

I will be attending a conference in Heidelberg in May (2013), called Ethical Issues in Outsider Art. The purpose of the gathering is to clarify what constitutes an ethically responsible approach to dealing with artists and artwork in the outsider art field. Because outsider artists are often not able to represent themselves in the art world or the art market, the curator, dealer, or buyer has an obligation to act responsibly.

In the past, psychiatrists typically claimed the work of their patients for themselves. But who actually owns the artwork? In many situations, the answer is not clear.

In speaking with the director of one open studio, I learned that it is common practice for organizations that sponsor the workshops or studios to claim ownership of the artwork produced there. This was described to me as an ethical and moral issue. It’s not just that; it is also a legal issue! Copyright remains with the artist unless and until the artist assigns it to someone else. You can imagine the difficulties that arise when the artists are mentally or intellectually challenged.

I am interested to hear what ownership views are among outsider art professionals, what practices are common, and how they can be standardized (and enforced) to protect outsider artists. I will report back from the conference.