Outsider Artists. Today, they are winning over the art world. Once relegated to the margins of the market, Outsider Art has been embraced by dealers, collectors, auction houses and fairs over the last few years. Christie’s Outsider Art Department held a sale on 17 January 2020 which brought in a staggering, and record-breaking, $3.3m for the genre. So, why is ‘Outsider Art’ selling for thousands today? And is it a trend worth investing in?
What is Outsider Art?
The term ‘Outsider Art’ was coined by British art historian Roger Cardinal when he published his 1972 book ‘Outsider Art’. He shone a light on art made by anti-academic, and self-taught artists, such as Jean Dubuffet (1901 –1985). Today, the term encompasses artists with disabilities or mental illness, and is increasingly applied to others on the margins of art and society: the homeless, ethnic minorities, migrants, and folk artists.
Outsider Art for sale
Outsider Art – in its broadest sense – is booming. Established three years ago, Christie’s now has a dedicated ‘Outsider Art’ Department. Their third annual sale saw works selling for exceptional prices.
It was led by self-taught artist Bill Traylor (1853 – 1949). Today, he is regarded as one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. A black man born into slavery in Alabama, he was an eyewitness to history: the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, and the steady rise of African American urban culture in the South.
His drawing ‘Man on White, Woman on Red / Man with Black Dog’ went for $507,000. Back in the 1970s his work sold for just $300 by Chicago-based art dealer Carl Hammer.
Traylor’s record-breaking prices were followed by the likes of labourer-turned-artist William Edmondson (1874–1951), whose stone carvings sold for between $150,000 and $175,000 each.
And Clementine Hunter’s (1887-1988) colourful folk paintings of life in Louisiana sold for between $6,250 and $21,250.
Henry Darger (1892 – 1973) is another Outsider Artist who has been embraced by the art market. He was a reclusive hospital janitor and dishwasher who led a secret life as a prolific visual artist and epic novelist. One of his watercolours, depicting a mythical creature of his own creation, sold for $40,000 in the Christie’s sale.
Where else is Outsider Art for sale?
The Outsider Art Fair or OAF is the place to find and buy work by outsider artists today. It takes place in New York City and Paris, the former taking place in January and the latter in October.
This year’s New York fair demonstrated that the genre is growing. It launched this year with 65 exhibitors, up from only 30 in 2018. Participating dealers now span the globe, from Hong Kong to Paris and London.
Celebrity collectors – such as Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes and Matt Dillon, who all attended this year – are further endorsing the genre and creating a cult of influential collectors for Outsider Art.
If you’re in London, then head to the Gallery of Everything. This commercial gallery, located in Mayfair, shows major historical master artists alongside newly discovered makers. Prices range from the hundreds to the tens of thousands. But Gallery Director James Brett tends to avoid the label ‘Outsider Art’:
“We tend not to describe what we look at as Outsider Art. It is an old term that is more than a little problematic. We tend to talk about artists outside the canon, or beyond the mainstream market”.
As Outsider Art increasingly becomes accepted by the canon of art history, it does become a problematic, unhelpful, and even misleading label.
Why are Outsider Artists so popular today?
From margins to the mainstream, why is Outsider Art so popular today?
Just as women artists have come out of the shadows, and queer art is gaining mainstream recognition, Outsider Art is also being celebrated. It reflects a shift towards a more inclusive, revised art history. More on this later.
Much Outsider Art also shows artists channelling and exploring mental health issues through their work. Some artists create escapist worlds of their own, others focus on using art as a cathartic type of therapy. The popularity of such work echoes our growing interest in and awareness of mental health, and art’s ability to improve our well-being.
Thirdly, in a technology driven world, the fact that many of the works are made with found objects, or craft-based materials, adds to its appeal.
Is Outsider Art worth investing in?
But to answer the question on every collector’s mind: is it a trend worth investing in? Or is it a brief voyeuristic side show for the art world?
Museums, rather than auction houses, hold the answer.
As we enter a new decade, it’s already clear that it is bringing considerable change for the art world. Museums are moving towards a more inclusive presentation of art history, with a focus on women artists, queer art, non-Western narratives and Outsider Art.
New York’s MoMA has just had an explosive $450million rehang, embedding self-taught artists, such as Minnie Evans (1892 – 1987), into the new narrative. Similarly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has embarked on an ambitious renovation project of 10 galleries devoted to a more expansive view of British art. In the U.K., Tate has committed to celebrating more women artists, who have, in many respects, been relegated to the side-lines and undervalued by museums and art history since the start.
American textile artist Judith Scott (1943 – 2005) is an example of an outsider woman artist being recognised by both museums and the art market. During her lifetime, Scott was very much an art world outsider, largely as a result of her deafness and Down’s syndrome but also because her work with craft-based materials. Today, her ‘Outsider Art’ sculpture belong to the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the Museum of Everything in London. This is reflected in the recent Christie’s sale: her sculpture made from yarn, fiber and thread realised a significant $25,000.
Given this context, Outsider Art is most definitely having more than just a passing moment. Outsider artists are gaining wider and enduring recognition by curators, art historians and museums, which bodes well for their long-term success in the art market. Both William Edmondson and Bill Traylor have been given major museum shows, cementing their importance as self-taught artists.
For new collectors, it’s an excellent genre to engage with. Much of the work has universal appeal, and the label Outsider Art is now a celebrated one. Whilst the top prices are on a par with Post-war and Contemporary Art auction sales, there is still a way into this market. Emerging names, reflected in prices at Christie’s recent ‘Outsider Art’ auction, include Indian painter Acharya Vyakul (1930-2000), who realised prices of $1000.
As museums, galleries and auction houses embrace Outsider Art, it’s certainly a trend worth investing in for collectors.
But I am left wondering if these artists, once shunned by the art world during their lifetime, are now being exploited. Outsider Art is an easy, lazy label; it’s a cult amongst collectors. But does it help the dealer over the artist?