From outsider to mainstream

As art brut hits a popularity high and finds its way into contemporary art museums and galleries, experts and collectobate on the dangers of success and the strategies to still find new art brut artists.

Russia C hr

The Museum of Everything Exhibition #5, Moscow 2012, For ‘Russia C’

As art brut hits a popularity high and finds its way into contemporary art museums and galleries, experts and collectors debate on the dangers of success and strategies of survival.

Article published in 9 languages (see links at end) in a slightly different version by on 17 January 2013

“First of all, art brut is not a definable art movement”, explains Sarah Lombardi, who heads the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, the first of its kind and the largest in the world.

The Lausanne museum was founded in 1976 on the basis of the collection of French painter Jean Dubuffet who coined the term art brut to define “an artistic operation that is completely pure, raw, reinvented in all its phases by its author, based solely on his own impulses”.

“What is new is that art brut is no longer confined to the shadows of the art world”, Lombardi said, admitting with a smile that Jean Dubuffet had not foreseen the current trend.

Out of the ghetto

Numerous prestigious venues, including the 2013 Venice Biennale, have recently organized events around art brut. But the novelty is a new focus that highlights not the eccentricity, but the creativity of art brut, also known as outsider or raw art. The frontiers with mainstream art are dissolving.

“Dubuffet believed that art brut would overturn traditional museums, acting like a counter-power, but, in fact, the opposite has occurred: art brut is being swallowed up by the art world, including by the contemporary art market”, Lombardi said.

She mentioned the outsider art fairs that now take place alongside large commercial fairs, like FIAC in Paris and the London and New York editions of Frieze.

Outside market forces

The paradox, Lombardi pointed out is that art brut artists, whom she prefers to refer to as ‘authors’, never work for recognition or money and cannot therefore respond to market expectations. Whole bodies of work are often only discovered after the artists are deceased, she added.

It is our duty to protect these truths, she indicated: “That is our motor.”

The objective of the Biennale that Lombardi recently launched (see picture gallery of the inaugural exhibition on the theme of Vehicles) is precisely a reminder of that role, as well as to reveal the extraordinary wealth of a collection that already contains 63,000 pieces, up from the 5’000 originally donated by Dubuffet.

Of course, the museum cannot work outside art market forces, she acknowledged, “but we prefer to get there ahead when we can!”

Asked why art brut is experiencing sudden widespread recognition, Lombardi answered: “Art brut has a spiritual dimension that contemporary art often lacks.”

Strange dealings

Whereas art brut museums (see list) tend to remain outside the art mainstream, galleries are doing everything they can to get in. They need to sell, after all.

For the past 25 years, Cologne gallery owner, Susanne Zander, has been a tireless discoverer of art brut, which she considers should be appreciated alongside contemporary art.

She and her gallery partner, Nicole Delmes, like to borrow the term “conceptual outsiders” from NY Times critic, Roberta Smith, to describe the conceptual mono-manias of artists who work obsessively in single mediums, creating a complete world of their own with their art.

Zander suggested in a phone interview that outsider art is gaining ground in response to the virtualization of the world. “In a digital era, people are searching for roots, for authenticity” she said, adding that she spends more than half her time searching for art that she qualifies as strange.

“You can show me 1’000 works, and I’ll immediately be able to single out the important ones,” she said.

“The stranger the work, the greater the possibility for me to step inside and see the world from the perspective of the artist, even if only for a few moments,” Zander said.

Judging by the artists they show, Zander and Delmes have a penchant that goes beyond art brut, if we are to look at the highly erotic fantasies of William Crawford, a San Francisco prisoner in the 1990s (see on Joshua Bellow’s art blog) or their upcoming show dedicated to an anonymous cross dresser who photographed himself over seven years under the identity of Martina Kubelk: Clothes – Lingerie.


Martina Kubelk, untitled, Polaroid (8,3 x 12,5 cm) from the photo album “Martina Kubelk. Kleider – Unterwaesche” (Martina Kubelk. Dresses – Lingerie), 1988 – 1995, consisting of 365 Polaroids and 23 Vintage Prints, 32 x 27 x 8 cm  Courtesy Delmes & Zander / Galerie Susanne Zander, Cologne

see additional images

An intense solitude is perhaps the common point between the individuals who used artistic expression to escape into the worlds they created.

Other examples include Horst Ademeit’s “secret universe”, which is revealed through the obsessive documenting of his surroundings, or the Polaroids of TV stars by the mysteriously identified Type 42 (Anonymous), whose work has just been acquired by the Elysée museum.


Type 42 (Anonymous), untitled (Archive Nr. TP001/Fame is the name of the GameSophia Lauren), 1970s, mixed media on Polaroid, 8,3 x 10,8 cm, Courtesy Delmes & Zander / Galerie Susanne Zander, Cologne

A collection of 950 Polaroid’s by an unidentified author was discovered in New York in the Spring of 2012. Probably taken between 1969 and 1972, the fleeting moments of television and movie stars -captured before the advent of video – indicate the obsessive nature of the photographer. The Elysée Photography Museum in Lausanne has recently made an important purchase from the collection, further blurring the frontiers between outsider and established art.

In Zander’s view, there hasn’t been a significant shift in the art market; her collectors are still the same as before. She notes, however, “that the public is much more interested”.

Outsider art should not be treated differently, she insists: “It doesn’t belong on dark walls.”

Everything for everyone


James Brett at The Museum of Everything, London 2013, in front of figures from the Rock Garden of Nek Chand in Chandigarh, India. Photo Christoffer Rundquist

“Jean Dubuffet was brilliant, but deceptive and something of an artistic fascist,” announces maverick James Brett, a British filmmaker who is also the founder of The Museum of Everything. Brett has turned his passion for “outsider art” (a term he dislikes) into an adventure that now dominates much of his life.

The Museum for Everything was created in 2009 because of Brett’s personal interest in what he describes as “the untrained, unintentional, undiscovered and unclassifiable artists of modern times”.

His nomadic museum, comprising works drawn from many different collections, including his own, has hosted its own exhibitions in London, Turin, Paris, Moscow and Venice to popular acclaim, drawing an entirely new audience to the art he defends, albeit with a larger focus than dictated by Dubuffet himself.

Brett is convinced that the conspicuous consumption of modern and contemporary art prior to the economic recessions contributed to his museum’s success. “People needed to reconnect with the origins of creativity,” he said.

Asked how he went about finding new artists, Brett pointed out that he found them everywhere, but especially in non-egalitarian societies, surprisingly naming the US as one of his sources.

Yet Brett is careful about the language he uses to describe this artform. He does not like the categories of “outsider art” or “folk art”, which to him sound apologetic and dismissive.

Nor does he consider all of the art he finds to be of museum quality. Brett considers that if 10% of the artists are good, 5% are great, but only 1% are truly amazing.

“It’s my job to communicate the truthfulness of this work by presenting only the amazing art,” he said.

The dangers facing art brut

In the wake of art brut’s notoriety, Lombardi pointed out that the term was often used abusively, when for instance, Paris City Hall recently exhibited works produced in handicap workshops under the title Art Brut: absolument excentrique, a trend that is frequent with art therapy classes.

There is a common misconception, including among numerous galleries and merchants that any art produced by marginal individuals falls into this category, but according to Lombardi, this is very far from the truth.

Only when a body of work reflects a strong and complex system of representation – one that is powerfully unique – can it be considered art brut, the museum director insisted, and even then, there must be talent.

She then added pointedly that here is no more talent or creativity among marginal individuals than there is in any population at large. “The phenomenon is very rare,” she said.

The emotional impact of a work of art, the way it makes the onlooker vibrate, remains in her eyes the ultimate criteria.

“One does not become an art brut expert overnight,” Lombardi cautions.


Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne 

Gallery Susanne Zander, Cologne

The Museum of Everything

Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin

Outsider Art Fair, New York, Paris

Additional information:

– Art brut, also referred to as outsider or raw art, is created by individuals who work outside the art mainstream because they are untrained and culturally isolated, whether physically or psychologically.
– There are very few women art brut artists.
– Digital art is a new area of investigation, although it is feared that many hard drives with art brut treasures are being lost.

– In 2013 alone, groundbreaking art brut exhibitions took place in many prestigious venues:

  • In London, the Hayward Gallery presented The Alternative Guide to the Universe, while the Wellcome Collection showed Outsider Art from Japan.
  • In Berlin, the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum organized the Secret Universe series, as well as an exhibition by the visionary Hilma af Klint, a Pioneer of Abstraction.
  • The theme of the 55th 2013 Venice Biennale was based on the Encyclopedic Palace of Marino Auriti, a working class self-taught artist and expanded to include 20th century healers and thinkers.


Art brut museums often include folk or naive art. The following list does not pretend to be exhaustive, but intends to demonstrate the wide variety of institutions and their specificities.

Collection de l’art brut, Lausanne (see link above) is exclusively devoted to art brut.
Musée Visionnaire , a recent offshoot of the Susi Brunner gallery in Zurich extends, to art that is considered visionary, as its name indicates.
Museum im Lagerhaus Stiftung für schweizerische Naive Kunst und Art Brut near St Gallen is dedicated as much to Swiss naïve art, as it is to art brut.

Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art  in northern France is one of the only museums that brazenly mixes all genres.
Halle Saint Pierre in Paris has been presenting outsider art since 2009.
GAIA Museum of Outsider Art in Randers, north Denmark
ITE – Contemporary Folk Art Museum in Finland is a museum dedicated to “visual contemporary folk art”.
Safnasafnið, the Icelandic Folk and Outsider Art Museum is located in northern Iceland.

The beleaguered American Folk Art Museum in New York has downsized to new premises.
The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore is inspired by the Lausanne institution.
USM Museum in Abita Springs near New Orleans is a folk art environment with “1000s of found objects, and home made inventions”.
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago

The Museum of Everything ( Based in London, this independent travelling project introduced the UK contemporary art world to art brut and has welcomed more than 700,000 visitors to its shows since 2009.
The Museum of Everything has been presented in London (Primrose Hill, Selfridges and Southbank’s Hayward Gallery), Turin (Pinacoteca Agnelli), Paris (Chalet Society), Moscow (Garage Center for Contemporary Culture) and the Venice Biennale (il Palazzo di Everything).


FROM OUTSIDER TO MAINSTREAM Art brut joins the market frenzy

VOM AUSSENSEITER ZUM MAINSTREAM Art Brut wird vom Marktrausch erfasst

QUAND LE MARGINAL DEVIENT UNE TENDANCE La frénésie du marché gagne l’art brut

DA MARGINALE A TRENDY La febbre del mercato contagia l’art brut

DE MARGINAL A HITO DE MODA El Arte Bruto provoca frenesí en el mercado

ARTE MARGINAL ASSIMILADA Arte Bruta é arrebatada por frenesi do mercado

アウトサイダーから主流へ 美術市場の狂乱に巻き込まれるアール・ブリュット

من تيار هامشي إلى ظاهرة مهمة هل ينضم “الفن الخام” إلى جنون السوق العالمية للفن؟

从怪徒到主流 原生艺术令市场发狂

КРЕАТИВ Искусство маргиналов: мода или феномен?

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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