Boosting creativity, confidence, and community in people with disabilities
Art Ability started as an 8-week art exhibit at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital in Malvern, Pennsylvania, 20 years ago. But unlike other art galleries and exhibits, Art Ability only features works by artists with disabilities. “When we saw the incredible work that these artists were doing in spite of everything they were going through, we realized that they deserved recognition for their talents,” said Sherman Fleming, Art Ability curator. Since the first exhibit in 1996, Art Ability has grown to have an annual 12-week exhibit, a permanent collection at the hospital, artwork for sale online year-round, satellite art exhibits, and interactive demo days.
Anyone with a physical, cognitive, visual, or hearing disability is eligible to submit their artwork to the annual Art Ability exhibit as long as the work has not been displayed at another gallery and was created after the onset of their disability. Artists who work in a variety of mediums have an opportunity to show their work at the exhibit, as they accept submissions of works on paper, canvas or board, photography, mixed media, sculptures, jewelry, and fine crafts. Accepted works are displayed at the annual exhibit held at the Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital from November to January.
After the exhibit ends, unsold works of art are stored and listed for sale online. When the pieces from the exhibit are taken down, the hospital’s permanent exhibit goes back up. “Our permanent collection grows every year, thanks to generous donors who purchase works from the new exhibition and donate them to the hospital,” says Fleming.
Art Ability works to inspire people and teach them about disabilities. Every year they have a few interactive demo days, where people tour the permanent collection or the annual exhibit. During the half-day program, Art Ability artists have a chance to share their craft and their story, teaching others about their disability. Afterwards, the participants are separated into small groups where they are guided through the creation of their own work of art by one of the artists. Art Ability also hosts satellite exhibits a few times a year in venues such as store fronts, community centers, and art galleries. These satellite exhibits help raise awareness of disabilities as well as work to inspire others with disabilities to get involved with art.
This program is an excellent opportunity for these artists. The chance to not only see their artwork displayed in a public forum, but also to reap the financial benefits of a professional artist is a special experience for them. Artists receive 80 percent of the proceeds from the sale of their pieces during the exhibition and are also eligible to win cash awards from nine different categories. “But beyond that, the artists are encouraged to continue following their passions, and embrace the healing benefits of the artistic process itself,” says Fleming. “We’ve long been aware of art’s ability to heal, and have incorporated that into our rehabilitation programs.”
Dreams can come true, thanks to Art Ability. “It is difficult enough for any artist to find venues to exhibit their artwork, yet artists encumbered with grave disabilities face much more formidable obstacles finding exhibition opportunities to showcase their work,” says artist Ralph Mindicino, a multiyear participant in Art Ability. “The wonderful curators, organizers, and staff are to be commended for all the dedication and hard work they have put into making these occasions such a great success. Their endeavors are a tremendous benefit for the many disabled artists who, like myself, have taken part in these exhibitions throughout the years.”
With the annual exhibit and satellite galleries raising awareness, it seems there’s nowhere for Art Ability to go but up. “We have enjoyed 20 years of growth and success, and our plan is to sustain the momentum,” says Fleming. This program deserves continued success in the years to come. Whether as an artist, volunteer, or exhibit attendee, if you’re involved with Art Ability you are certain to have a positive experience. “It’s so heartwarming to look around a room of people who are dealing with these diseases and disabilities, and see the huge smiles on their faces as they share what they’ve created.”
Learn more about Art Ability and view this year’s artwork at art-ability.org.