We've all heard that the art world is notoriously exclusive, full of ivory towers and white cubes accessible to a precious few. In large part, that's true. The museums, institutions, and money of the contemporary art world belong to a select group of people. Yet, vigorous and vital artistic production takes place outside of those narrow confines. So, where's the line? What does it mean to be an outsider? Is it whom you do or don't know? Is it where you live? Does it have to do with the color of your skin or your gender or your sexual orientation or how much money you make?
After the success of artists such as Henry Darger or Thornton Dial, untrained artists whose works now command big money and broad attention, the line that defines what exists inside or outside of the art world has grown blurrier. When the 20-year-old Outsider Art Fair returned in early 2013 with new owners and a location in Chelsea, crowds flocked and critics gushed about the event, which essentially placed "outsiders" at the global epicenter of contemporary art.
Jerry Saltz, the sharp-tongued art critic for New York Magazine, seized that moment to issue a rallying cry: "MoMA and other museums once drew strict lines between insider and outsider because they were beset by accusations that modern art could be made by disturbed people and untrained artists. Thus 'outsider art' had to be left out in the cold, out of fear. [...] Museums: I say it's time for you to set aside these old chauvinisms. There are no more excuses. You're on the wrong side of history. Your definitions of art are reductive and insular where they need to be inclusive and expansive."
Perhaps on cue, it was strongly suggested by a story in the New Yorker, published a few months later in August, that the Metropolitan Museum of Art's division of modern and contemporary art is considering a significant acquisition from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Bill Arnett's massive Atlanta based collection of work by untrained African-American artists from the South. That could mean one of the collection's artists profiled in this issue, Lonnie Holley, could be part of rewriting those old exclusive lines of the traditional art world.
Georgia, of course, has a grand history of outsiders. Visionaries and folk artists including Howard Finster, St. EOM, R. A. Miller, and Nellie Mae Rowe achieved varying degrees of commercial and critical success. They're among the best-known artists to have come from Georgia. In the case of Finster, he was elevated to pop star status.
If our understanding of "outsider art" is changing, we wondered, where else are the art world's rules changing? For this year's arts issue, we took a look at some artists and institutions that exist in that blurry area between inside and outside the arts establishment to ask some questions: Can a museum in the suburbs be more engaged with the city of Atlanta than the museums within it? How should literary success be defined? Where are the boundaries of performance?
Through asking such questions, we hoped to get a better focus on the blurriness of those lines.
— Wyatt Williams