Let’s talk art, let’s have a conversation: The largest collections of Outsider Art in the UK

Modernism, cubism, surrealism, expressionism, impressionism… outsider.

By Manchester's Finest | 17 March 2020

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Categories can go on and on, with subdivisions, influences, styles. But let’s strip all of these away and – if it can be categorised – we’re left with Outsider Art. Probably the only one from the list not readily and easily recognisable.

Maybe I’d like to replace the word ‘outsider’ with visceral. From the heart, not from influences. Although, then again…from the heart relies on the purest of influences. Personal experience.

The phrase ‘art brut’ was first coined by Jean Dubuffet in 1964. ‘Raw art.’

He started collecting works that he considered to be free from ‘social constraints.’ British writer Roger Cardinal introduced the title Outsider Art in 1972 as an English language equivalent. So how can we categorise an art movement that, by definition, is not a category?

As always Mr. Google can provide some words:

‘Outsider art is art by self-taught or naïve art makers. Typically those labelled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. Often outsider art illustrates mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.’

For the team at Hulme’s Venture Arts, who work with learning disabled artists and have previously been featured in Manchester’s Finest, putting together both their own outsider artists and non-learning disabled artists was designed to lead to a conversation. And, after five months of collaboration, those conversations have led to an exhibition of work, anchored by the question, ‘Is being labelled an Outsider Artist liberating or isolating?’

‘Other Transmissions: Conversations with Outsider Art’ is on view at the Whitworth until June. And as always, a Venture Arts show well worth seeing. But the Whitworth was also a fulcrum in the process of creating this exhibition, because it is the home to one of the largest collections of Outsider Art in the UK, with over 1,100 artworks by almost 130 artists.

The Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection was a great starting point for the residency group – James, Joe, Andrew, Amy, Frances and John – to start their conversation and collaboration.

The works produced and now on show cover light and sound pieces, costumes, interactive questions, drawings and digital illustrations. Plus a group made film. In short there are no boundaries, no genre, no other influences than those worked through during five months of conversations. Just strikingly original works belonging to no movement or school.

But the debate goes on as to whether ‘Outsider’ is a pejorative word or a badge of pride. The artists discussed how they do or don’t like to be labelled. And who labels them.

On the residency, Frances Heap said, “It was refreshing to work with five other artists whose paths wouldn’t ordinarily cross. It was fun and challenging. It pulled me out of my comfort zone, which was what I wanted. And has also been a good tool for reflection.”

Go along and have a look. Maybe make your own mind up about whether the phrase ‘Outsider’ is a good or bad one. A categorisation of what can’t be categorised. I’m not personally concerned about the ‘ins or outs’ of being an outsider – or not. This exhibition is of the heart and, you can see, warmed the hearts of the artists inside out.


‘Other Transmissions: Conversations with Outsider Art’
Venture Arts in collaboration with Castlefield Gallery and The Whitworth,

Until June 14th at The Whitworth.