For the past 10 years, ArtWorking in Madison has provided professional development services to artists with cognitive disabilities.
As a way to give those with cognitive disabilities a chance to have real careers, ArtWorking creates programs designed to help improve professional abilities.
ArtWorking is part of Work Opportunity in Rural Communities, Inc., a nonprofit organization that puts individuals with disabilities into jobs in Dane County.
According to the National Service Inclusion Project, cognitive disabilities generally refer to disabilities which impact mental processes, such as dyslexia, aphasia and learning disabilities. In 2013, approximately 4.4 percent of people ages 18-64 reported to have a cognitive disability in the United States, according to the 2014 Disability Statistics Annual Report.
Lance Owens, director of ArtWorking, said he spent a lot of time with people with disabilities and realized they did not have access to many good long-term career opportunities. He said many of the options available were janitorial or service-industry jobs available.
“There weren’t real career opportunities in fields people were passionate about, or there was just a lack,” Owens said. “There weren’t very many meaningful career opportunities.”
Owens said his organization offers a mixture of career development and small-business development. He said most of the artists are small-business owners, using the art they create as the main portion of their business.
Calling the programs a “cafeteria arrangement,” Owens said participants may choose from a variety based on what they personally need. He said they provide people assistance in their art and business skills.
Within developing art, Owens said ArtWorking may help with developing artistic styles or understanding technical processes like creating fabric or digital media. When developing business skills, participants can learn about target markets, business plans, product development and book-keeping.
Owens said they have a studio space where artists can work in a larger, more social space or private settings. He said there are about 32 people who use the space, 26 are artists and there are a couple small-business owners who do not have businesses relating to art.
Beth Swedeen, executive director of the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, said for people with significant disabilities it can be difficult for them to fit in traditional businesses.
“At ArtWorking they really show who they are and what they love and then they get the support to make money as well off their art,” Swedeen said.
Swedeen said that many of the artists have been able to generate sizable incomes from their businesses.
Owens said one of the artists is currently participating in the Wisconsin Triennial, a state-wide juried exhibition with the best artists in Wisconsin. He said it is competitive, with most participants being professionally-trained artists or professors at the various universities.
To his knowledge, Owens said this is the first time an artist with a disability has been given the chance to showcase art at the Triennial as well as the first time a self-taught artist has made it into the Triennial.
“It’s the first time in my experience working with people with disabilities that I can think of somebody with a developmental disability competing for a job against a person without a disability on an open playing field and actually beating them out,” Owens said.
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Owens said often when people with disabilities get hired, they have to do things others did not want to do. He said it is extremely rare for someone with a disability to win a position everyone wants.
Owens said ArtWorking is one of the few programs that allows people to participate in community employment while letting those with disabilities compete with non-disabled people in the community. He said they do a lot of art events or art shows in the community.
The participants, Owens said, are able to make a living doing a career they want to do instead of have to do.
“It’s important because it allows people with disabilities to do what they love and earn a living in a way that’s the way they want to do it,” Owens said.
Swedeen said she wishes more support and employment providers would adopt programs similar to ArtWorking. She said she does not know of others who provide this kind of opportunity.
There are a lot of people who have artistic talent, but are not getting the same opportunities, Swedeen said.
Swedeen’s daughter is among one of the artists at ArtWorking. Swedeen said her daughter started a beading business at 9-years-old and wanted to continue working around other artists and ended up loving ArtWorking.
The support of the program, Swedeen said makes a successful environment for the artists working in the studio.
“Every time I walk in there my mood goes up. Every time,” Swedeen said. “You can’t not be happy there.”