A.R.T. interviews Anthony Marcellini of Progressive Art Studio Collective A.R.T. interviews Anthony Marcellini of Progressive Art Studio Collective

Established in 2021, Progressive Art Studio Collective (PASC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to nurturing independent artistic practices for individuals with developmental disabilities and mental health differences in the arts.

PASC Program Manager Anthony Marcellini spoke with A.R.T. staff Ricky Ruihong Li about a brief history of art and disability in the United States. This conversation offers first-hand insights that challenge conventional notions of support, broaden the definition of literacy, and recognize diverse abilities for artists who perceive the world differently.

A.rt R.sources T.ransfer: How did the Progressive Art Studio Collective first come about? What is the larger context in which PASC is situated?

Anthony Marcellini: PASC is based on models that emerged 50 years ago when individuals with disabilities were deinstitutionalized, or when most psychiatric institutions were closed, in the 1970s and ‘80s. This period coincided with the emergence of new programs, both public and private, designed to support people with disabilities. Some of these initiatives were work-centric, while others placed a strong emphasis on fostering artistic expression.

Early disability art studios, which we now call supported art studios or progressive art studios, drew inspiration from movements like Art Brute and Outsider Art, which brought to the art world’s attention the creative endeavors of self-taught artists, many of whom had developmental disabilities and/or mental health differences. The recognition of artists outside the mainstream, and a subsequent art market for their artwork inspired the establishment of several early progressive art studios, such as Gateway Arts (Brookline, MA, 1973), Creative Growth (Oakland, CA, 1974) and Spindleworks (Brunswick, MA, 1976), followed by many others. These programs aimed at providing open studios for artists with disabilities to independently produce artwork, while also serving to promote disabled artist’s artwork.

Services to Enhance Potential (STEP), of which PASC is a program, was launched around the same time in 1972, providing disability services in the Detroit area. Although some art programs have existed at STEP, they were classroom-based, not studio-based, until I launched the PASC program in 2021.

Detroit has a high per-capita population of disabled people, but has had limited programs to support independent creative expression. PASC is the first progressive art studio in Detroit and Wayne County, established almost 50 years after some of those early progressive art studios, reflecting both the years of economic disinvestment that enabled this 50 year lack of independent studio based art programs, while also a changing landscape for Detroit and new desires and demands of the disabled population here. PASC now runs three studios and two galleries in Detroit, Southgate, and Westland and works with over 180 artists.

A.R.T.: What is PASC’s approach in addressing this gap and providing long-overdue support to artists with disabilities?

AM: The PASC program welcomes any disabled individuals interested in art. Whether self-taught or completely new to art, participants are encouraged to explore and experiment. It is a completely hands-off, anti-pedagogic approach. We encourage our studio art advisors (practicing artist staff members) to observe participant artists' natural inclinations, then provide subtle suggestions such as materials, tools, and references over time to foster experimentation and exploration. Confidence and independence-building are some of our primary objectives, distinguishing this program from many others catering to individuals with disabilities, which are often characterized by direct teaching, training and constant direction/redirection.

PASC fosters an environment where participants are not directed in their creative pursuits, but rather given the freedom to explore their creativity and unique ways of working, however unorthodox. The focus is on encouraging individuals to expand and challenge their artistic horizons, through larger or smaller projects, more expressive or detailed artworks, tailored to each individual's preferences. Through this process, participants develop a practice of confidence and trust in their own way of working. Over time they understand themselves as professional artists, gaining encouragement through exhibiting their artwork, the audience’s response, as well as sales. Overall, the program serves as a catalyst for building self-esteem, empowerment and independence through creative expression.

A.R.T.: How did you first learn about A.R.T.?

AM: It was in the late 1990s when I was still a college art student at Virginia Commonwealth University that I first encountered Art Resources Transfer, as then both a bookstore and a publisher of conversations between artists. On a trip to New York City, a fellow student recommended the A.R.T. bookstore in Chelsea. I visited the space and met A.R.T. founder Bill Bartman, who was then running the store. He was incredibly nice and encouraging to me. I bought some of the earliest A.R.T. publications, like Vija Celmins' and Allan McCollum's books. These publications were a valuable resource for a budding artist, providing in-depth discussions with artists on their artistic practice.

I later worked with Alejandro Cesarco, when I was a curatorial assistant at the NYC gallery Art in General. Alejandro, who was working at A.R.T., rekindled my connection. Later when I launched PASC I learned about the A.R.T. Library Program that distributes art books to underserved communities and reached out to Alejandro to see if this program might support PASC. A.R.T’s commitment to amplifying the voices and practices of contemporary artists has remained an invaluable aspect of my artistic life.

A.R.T.: Some might say that both organizations provide certain kinds of support to address social issues in and with the arts. Let’s switch gear to talk about the framework of support. How do you understand it through your work at PASC?

AM: The term “support” is a concept some in the disability community find problematic, as it has ableist connotations impling a dependency upon something or someone to hold someone else up. In grant applications, we strive to find alternative words, acknowledging the nuanced nature of this term. The support we aim to provide at PASC tries to avoid creating dependency; rather we try to create pathways towards independence.

Our approach encourages individuals to access tools beyond us, fostering self-sufficiency. We also believe that trust is essential for a reciprocal relationship between the institution and the individual. Mutual trust, between PASC staff and artists, forms the basis for effective support. Generosity is another crucial element, distinct from charity. It involves giving oneself to empower others to thrive. Building trust and extending generosity are key components of our support framework, allowing us to elevate those we work with.

Nick Tamsen in the PASC Southgate Studio using the book William De Kooning: Drawing Seeing/Seeing Drawing as reference. Image courtesy PASC.

A.R.T.: PASC’s website states that the organization is based on a participant-driven model, which is widely adopted by many art programs addressing disability across the US. What does this model look like at PASC?

AM: We emphasize a person-centered program—which echoes a nationwide shift in disability programs to allow individuals with disabilities to make their own choices. This is manifested in many ways in our studio and culture. We hold monthly meetings with all artists to ensure continuous feedback, allowing them to share their thoughts and experiences. Although some individuals may initially hesitate to lead or speak up, we make a major effort to help them articulate their needs and desires, and recognize their agency and responsibility. On a day-to-day basis we are adaptive to individual interests. Individuals may request specific materials or activities, which shapes the structure of our program. For instance, for a while we were mostly a 2D program, but when an artist started producing sculpture independently, it encouraged others to try sculpture, launching the new discipline of sculpture or 3D work into all of our programs.

In the near future we're adapting this participant-driven approach to exhibitions as well, encouraging our artists to engage as curators. With our new gallery opening in Detroit this spring, we aim to have PASC artists curate several exhibitions, collaborating with experienced curators to grasp the curation process, to better understand how their artwork and others artwork becomes part of an exhibition, and for their perspective to be presented.

A.R.T.: What are the challenges you encountered navigating or communicating the important work of PASC within the art world?

AM: I'm not entirely sure that the art world is ready for, or fully open to, artists with disabilities. While notable institutions like SFMoMA and New York’s MoMA feature artworks from studios like Creative Growth, NIAD, and Creativity Explored, and MoMA has showcased self-taught artists like Joseph Yoakum, there still seems to be some resistance to artist who are positioned outside the mainstream art market. Although there’s been a gradual inclusion of some artists with disabilities into museums and blue-chip galleries, there’s a lingering reluctance, especially towards those who don’t follow traditional art education paths.

Programs like ours challenge and reshape careerist assumptions held by the art world. We provide alternative avenues for both artistic development and exhibition, for artists who do not follow, or are limited in following the conventional artistic trajectory. We contribute to shifting the conversation around who holds the keys or defines the canon of the art world. It's an ongoing effort to break down barriers and broaden the recognition and acceptance of artists with diverse backgrounds and experiences.

An artwork by Randy Rodriquez referencing Drawing Papers 122 Richard Pousette-Dart. Image courtesy PASC.

A.R.T.: What are some of the new projects at PASC?

AM: We recently concluded our first museum show at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), which was a remarkable experience. Our next project involves moving one of our private studios into a public location, and launching our first PASC Detroit Gallery at LANTERN, a mixed-use warehouse, with arts organizations, restaurants, and retail spaces. This shift places PASC at the center of a newly developing cultural district in the East Village area of Detroit, spearheaded by the gallery Library Street Collective, which owns the building we're moving into and several other new developments in the area.

PASC will now be situated alongside art organizations like Signal-Return, Library Street Collective I. M. Weiss Gallery, Pewabic, and others in this burgeoning arts-and-culture neighborhood. The proximity to professional artists and the broader arts community will work towards redefining our artists’ identity from artists with disabilities, to simply artists, integral to expanding Detroit’s arts-and-culture scene.

Opening this spring, our studio and gallery will host frequent exhibitions, exhibiting our artists to a broader audience and generating more sales. This move follows three years of pop-up exhibitions and partner projects that have provided a platform to share PASC with the community. We also plan to host more public programs and conversations, blending issues on disability rights and inclusion, institutional psychotherapy, and art theory, into the dialogue.

A.R.T.: How do you define literacy from your experience? How do questions of literacy intersect with disabilities and how can we expand our understanding of both?

AM: It’s a complex question! Literacy manifests across a broad spectrum within our disabled community. PASC considers literacy not only as an ability to read and write, but also non-liternal/non-verbal responses such as visual literacy or even reacting to stimuli through sense or feeling. Our artists range from those who are entirely non-verbal, to some with minimal speech, and others who are exceptionally articulate. The same variation applies to reading abilities, from those unable to read at all, to some who can read and write in their own way, to others who are extremely proficient.

The books offered by A.R.T. expand the spectrum in which literacy might be defined, allowing individuals from our community to immerse themselves in a range of information, from purely visual to entirely literary. A.R.T.’s catalog reflects the diverse relationships our artists have with literacy in its various forms.

A.R.T.: How do books from the Library Program serve PASC’s projects? How did your participants access and engage with art books in the studios?

AM: We have a library of art books in each studio. Participants access these books for inspiration, reference and sometimes simply to look through or read during down time. Most of our books come from second hand bookshops or free through donations. A.R.T. Library Program books are an incredible resource for our studio as they are new, high quality books that we otherwise would not have had the budget to procure. Some books have presented entirely new perspectives on artmaking to our artists, new ways of working, new styles. But more often than not, these books have served to present examples of similar styles to our artists, giving them the confidence that their way of making artwork is valued, which is key to their confidence. We hope that we can apply again to the Library Program in the future to further support their interests.

Johnie Lockheart at PASC Westland reading African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, IX. Image courtesy PASC.

Join our mailing list to get updates on news, activities, and educational resources.

Follow: Instagram

Support A.rt R.esources T.ransfer

I will give a donation of

You will be redirected off-site to complete your donation.

I want to to the Library Program

A.rt R.esources T.ransfer
526 W 26th Street, #614
New York, NY 10001
[email protected]