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What’s next in outsider art

For a different kind of art viewing experience, head over to Intuit. Located in the River West neighborhood, The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art presents work by artists who, for the most part, have never set foot in an art classroom. Often raw and deeply psychological, their exhibitions celebrate methodologies far less refined than what you’ll find over at the Art Institute; what they lack in honed skill, they more than make up for in heart. Here, you’ll find pure expressions of the human condition. Below, Executive Director Debra Kerr (who previously worked at the Shedd Aquarium), talks about the Center and her own position.

This January, Intuit will exhibit work by Eddie Owens Martin. How did you become familiar with the artist to begin with? What, in particular, excites you about the body of work that will be on view?
In the fall of 2016, Intuit hosted an education trip to Atlanta, in conjunction with our 25th anniversary exhibit, Post Black Folk Art in America. One of the highlights of that trip, for me, was a visit to St. EOM’s Pasaquan, the artist’s home in Marion County, which he built up into a visually arresting world of buildings and walls decorated with his colorful artwork. The environment had just been reopened after being restored with support from the Kohler Foundation, and it was likely more beautiful when I saw it than it had ever been in a single moment in time, thanks to the careful restoration. My own passion is about the role museums and, in particular, Intuit can play in social good and social justice, which is why outsider art resonates so strongly with me. Eddie Owens Martin envisioned Pasaquan as a place where all people of all religions are welcome. I envision Intuit as a place where everyone, no matter their color, orientation, background and ability, is welcome and feels safe and inspired. Martin, himself, lived in New York for a time, engaging in various subcultures of the city, scraping by. So when the opportunity to bring this exhibit, In the Land of Pasaquan: The Story of Eddie Owens Martin, came to Intuit, I was excited and knew our audiences would be, too, by both the arresting art and artifacts and the artist’s story.

In the art world, there are ongoing debates about what “outsider” art really is. At Intuit, how do you like to think about the term?
We at Intuit typically describe outsider art as made by self-taught artists who are or were little influenced by the mainstream art world and are, instead, driven by their own inner vision and need to express that vision. Oftentimes, though not always, these artists have had some barrier to overcome, be it mental illness, violence in their lives, poverty—or they’ve followed an inner voice or spiritual guidance to create art. The term outsider is much maligned, with many in the art world using various terms from vernacular to visionary to intuitive. People don’t like to be labeled; I often say that many think being an outsider seems cool, but, if you’re truly on the outside of society, that’s a scary place to be. But, for now, for better or worse, the term outsider is the one that has been most used to describe this genre. It will be interesting to see how the terminology continues to evolve.

You’ve worked with Intuit for a little over three years. How has your own understanding of outsider art changed throughout that time, as well as your goals for the organization? 
Intuit’s original mission was focused on raising awareness of outsider art and artists, to widen the appreciation for the genre. This mission is well on its way to being accomplished; even in the last three years, I can see how rapidly the genre is gaining popularity and acceptance, both within the museum world and in the wider public arena, which is very exciting. Shortly after I joined the organization, the board and staff changed the mission to celebrating the power of outsider art, which we’ve totally embraced in our programs and our culture. We want everyone who walks through the door or clicks on our website,, to feel there is something for them, that they are encouraged to tap into their own creative power, and that they experience the impact that this work delivers, being channeled from artists who have powerful visual messages to share. These exhibition experiences are enhanced by programs such as panel discussions on the impact of incarceration, the LGBTQ experience and the ethics of working with artists with differing abilities; or films about the artists; art-making workshops; programs to take art out into the communities, such as our IntuiTeen interns do; or our work with Chicago Public School teachers and students. We see Intuit as a premier outsider art museum and one of the most accessible and welcoming museums in Chicago.

You’ll participate in the 2018 Outsider Art Fair in New York. What are you presenting and why?
Intuit functions as a museum, so we don’t sell the art we exhibit. What we are bringing to the Outsider Art Fair in January is our scholarship. Intuit publishes catalogs on the exhibitions we develop, and, among the publications we are bringing, we are excited to share two new catalogs produced this past year as part of our series of exhibitions—Chicago’s Henry Darger—celebrating the 125th birthday of our most closely associated artist and arguably the world’s most renowned outsider artist. Those two catalogs are Unreal Realms and Henry Darger: Author/Artist. As always, we’ll be giving away copies of the latest issue of our magazine, The Outsider, which is available to view on our website at Plus, the people who attend the fair love to sport their fascination with the genre, so we’ll be offering totebags and tees with some of the iconic works from our own beautiful collection of artworks, made up entirely of art donated to the museum.