The organizations like Atelier 10, and Atelier Gugging in Vienna, Austria discussed in this essay, are 2 of many psychosocial initiatives that can be found in Vienna today. Both initiatives are similar only in the sense that Art— in particular, visual art— is the theme of the organizations. This essay explores the work of these two institutions, their philosophy and the possible impact these have on psychosocial intervention.
Atelier 10 and Atelier Gugging
The modus operandi of both Atelier 10 and Atelier Gugging, involves the production and exhibition of art produced by a small group of artists with mental disability. Apart from apparent similarities, these two organizations are strikingly different.
Atelier 10 was founded by Caritas in 2012. Situated in an up-market fine-art enclave in the city of Vienna. The look-and-feel of its 1000sqft premises gives no indication that it is a non-profit, charitable organization. Atelier 10 is managed by one full-time Art Director, who insists that his purpose is to select promising artists who are afflicted with psychosocial difficulties, assist them by providing them time and space to create art, and curating these art works for presentation in their art gallery. The art is chosen strictly, and only artists capable of producing world-class work would be selected. There is pre-concerted effort to establish this art gallery as a mainstream art gallery and not that which is associated with a social care organization.
Atelier 10 does not house the artists, but rather provides them with a place to work and a pension.
Art Gugging is an “Art Brut” or “outsider art” museum. It is run by a private foundation supported by the government of lower Austria. It is situated away from the city on sprawling 870 sq yard grounds. The museum was founded in the 1960s by Psychiatrist, Leo Navratil (1921-2006) who transformed the premises from a psychiatric hospital into a place to house artists who are psychiatric patients (or “kunstlerhaus”) and provide for these artists a space to work and exhibit their masterpieces. Unlike Atelier 10, Art Gugging is steeped in history and is known worldwide as a home for art created the mentally disabled. The Kunstlerhaus is home to about 10 patient-artists, and they are equipped with the services of nursing and medical professionals.
On visiting both premises, both organizers emphasized that their role in the lives of the artists is to provide daily structure and not art therapy. The art activity is purely a creative process and work. Both galleries seem keen to challenge public perception on mental illness with relation to art creation.
During our interviews with the spokesmen of both organization we learnt that their purported role is in psychosocial intervention which is not specific to providing psychotherapy.
Art in Psychosocial Intervention
Psychosocial intervention is a collection of initiatives done (mainly by) government and non-profit agencies with the intent to facilitate the integration of people with disabilities into the general population. In Austria, this goes in line with the health authorities aim to improve the quality of life for all persons through the principle of solidarity, by means of a compensating system for balancing our differences between persons with higher need of protection and the general public (Bundesministerium für Gesundheit, 2013).
In the best of times, funding of the psychosocial model of a country is resource limited. Perhaps for this reason, as well as ethical reasons, policymakers have to work towards achieving positive impact from these social welfare activities. In order to understand the impact of a psychosocial model, there has to be a psychological understanding of these social problems. This is “more important than the sum of individual initiatives that specifically come under a psycho-social label.” (Pupavac, 2001).
What can be said of the impact of the Atelier 10 and Art Gugging models of psychosocial intervention? What can be said of the achievement of both organizations?
For sure both Atelier 10 and Art Gugging have produced excellent works of art. This leaves us to question the link between mental illness and art. Many books and reviews have been written on this topic, and the conclusions are varied (Silvia and Kaufman 2011). There are many researchers that believe that mental illness and creativity are totally unlinked (Schlesinger, 2009), since psychosis and other forms of mental instability hinder creative work (Rothenberg, 1990). Having been an artist myself, I would tend to agree with this point of view that creating art requires a certain degree of focus.
There are others who disagree with the above points of view, that through case studies that here is a link between creativity and pathology (Post, 1994 and Nettle, 2001). Seeming to contradict myself, as an artist, I also agree with this point of view. This arises from my experience of experiencing loss of emotional quality of my art following a series of Gestalt therapy sessions.
While it is not within the scope of this essay to answer these questions, I would offer my observation on the art as I see them while in visiting Atelier 10 and Atelier Gugging.
The works in Atelier 10 seems to be more similar to that which one would find in an international art exhibition: formal, stilted but professional. This could simply be that at the time of our visit, the art was arranged in such a way to give me that impression.
The works at Art Gugging gave the impression of playful simplicity. They were accessible and likeable. There is familiarity in some of the works, and I am not thoroughly convinced of the claim that these are pure “outsider art” as described in the article by Cardinal (2009).
Art is a unique experience, which belongs to the art creator and the observer. It is therefore difficult to understand what role art really has in psychosocial intervention.
Art in the context of Atelier 10 and Atelier Gugging is used as an instrument (or a commodity) to provide work to people who otherwise would not be able to find a place in society and at worse, be isolated and institutionalized.
As a form of psychosocial intervention, art is used as a means of creating work, and hence structure for the mentally disabled. This is proven to be a success in Atelier 10 and Atelier Gugging. While these organizations have changed the lives of the artists supported by the efforts, there are still opportunities for accessing the real impact of this mode of psychosocial intervention in society at large: one of which is addressing going beyond providing structure to providing healing. Many artists remain with the institutions for life and don’t get to integrate with society, or become economically viable. This perhaps requires a paradigm shift in thinking of these organizations as a means to integration rather than an end.
Bundesministerium für Gesundheit. (2013). The Austrian health care system: key facts updated version 2003. (pp. 8).
Cardinal, R. (2009) Outsider art and the autistic creator. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, p. 1459-1466.
Nettle, D. (2001). Strong imagination: Madness, creativity and human nature. NY: Oxford University Press.
Post, F. (1994). Creativity and psychopathology: a study of 291 world-famous men. Br. J. Psychiatry 165, 22–34.
Pupavac, V. (2001). Therapeutic governance: psycho-social intervention and trauma risk management. Disasters. 25 (4). (pp. 358-372). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Rothenberg, A. (1990). Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Schlesinger, J. (2009). Creative mythconceptions: a closer look at the evidence for the “Mad Genius” hypothesis. Psychol. Aesthet. Creativity Arts 3, 62–72.
Silvia, P. J. & Kaufman, C. K. (2011). Creativity and mental illness. In Kaufman J. C. & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.). The Cambridge handbook of creativity (pp. 381). NY: Cambridge University Press.