Forrest Neander’s paintings are styled by weaving colors and textures, acrylic on canvas. His brushes of choice are his very own hands, dipped in paint to create sweeping abstracts. Forrest’s mother, Julia Neander, says painting is Forrest’s way of expressing himself as a person with disabilities who communicates nonverbally.
“Art makes me feel happy, and I like to share my art with others,” said Forrest, who is no stranger to the arts scene. His most recent showing was at an exhibit in Shoreline titled “Coming Home,” arranged by a local youth-led initiative called Student Art Spaces.
Founded in 2018 by two high school students, the Seattle-grown organization’s mission is to “amplify student voices in art through gallery exhibitions and events.” At its center, SAS is about equity for young people and making the art world accessible to young people, especially young people whose identities have been consistently marginalized and sidelined.
“Artwork for people with disabilities is a whole other underserved population,” Julia Neander said of the various needs.
Forrest has been painting since 2011 and has sold multiple paintings, but it’s still not easy to break into the arts scene. Julia sees the pivot to move online in covid as a time of transition for the arts — something SAS has done increasingly well. When an effort such as SAS purposefully looks to bring in all kinds of young artists, it changes who has access and is then visible to the world.
“You’d never imagine that people with different abilities could be so creative and make something so wonderful,” Julia said of the many people with disabilities who express themselves with art. If it weren’t for the exclusivity of museums and gallery spaces, this would not be a surprise.
Disparity and tokenization
Taylor Wang and Alice Mao founded SAS in 2018 in Issaquah, springing to action when they saw an art world where artists, curators and decision makers at art institutions around the country were overwhelmingly white. Wang found that disparities existed in every aspect of the art space. A 2019 study, which surveyed 18 museums, found that men accounted for 87.4 percent of their artists. When it came to race and ethnicity, the disparity was also striking; 85 percent of the artists were white, 9 percent were Asian, 2.8 percent Latinx, 1.2 percent Black and 1.5 percent other.
Statistics on the numbers of professional artists who are people with disabilities are hard to come by. A report by the National Endowment for the Arts, Art Works and the National Disability Center noted that disabled communities in the art world were often an “afterthought” when it came to diversity in the field.
As for ageism, even when young talent is recognized, youth artists become a “placeholder” of sorts. SAS founder Taylor Wang has been in this position before, where the excitement of being a young person in a room full of seasoned professionals slowly wears away.
“Then you find out you are just there for the token points, like being the only representation for the entire generation,” Wang said of the way tokenization strips young people of agency and the right to represent themselves. The SAS mission is to reclaim agency, Wang said, “making sure youth don’t feel tokenized in these spaces and that their voices are actually being heard and taken into account.”
SAS has turned out to be sustainable, replicable and adaptable to a shifting world. It has managed to create a nationwide and increasingly worldwide network of young artists and activists, which is only growing in an online-centered covid world. There are currently 21 chapters, most of them in the U.S., but with more opening up around the world in Australia, Canada, India and Qatar. Collectively, they have showcased over 200 artists and reached more than 500 people.
Transforming the art space
Wang has loved creating visual art since she was a child, but she struggled to see people who looked like her receiving recognition in the gatekept world of galleries and shows. “I didn’t see anyone I could look up to in the art world necessarily, especially [no] Asian females who are doing art and actually making a living off of it — being exhibited at museums and galleries,” she said.
This access barrier wasn’t just imposed from the outside through arts institutions.
In Wang’s Chinese and immigrant community, she received messages that art was not a real profession, and that being a doctor or lawyer — as cliché as this sounds — was the right way to go.
Only after Wang started to get involved with youth arts initiatives at the Bellevue Art Museum and Seattle Art Museum could she glimpse a future where art was more than a hobby. The game changer was being able to exhibit her art in gallery spaces: the art world’s public stage.
“For me, exhibiting and being able to showcase my work in these amazing places, like Seattle Art Museum and Bellevue Art Museum, it kind of gave me a confidence boost,” she said.
The main platform for artists to gain recognition is through gallery shows, and the process to get there is competitive and expensive, leading to the age-old perception that a creative career is only for people who can afford it. In one recent transaction, Wang spent $200 framing works of her art and shipping them to a gallery.
“I was wondering how many people have not had this experience because they couldn’t afford the entry fee or they feel like the space isn’t meant for people like [them],” Wang said.
“SAS was really about derailing that sentiment and instead replacing it with ‘art is for everyone.’ No matter what background you are from, you can definitely pursue art professionally or as a hobby — whatever you can see yourself making art as.”
Whether or not art as a profession is accessible to someone who is not white, male or able, within the narrow labels society pins on people, is perpetuated by many things: paywalls, lack of representation and institutional expectations that privilege certain types of content. The themes present in institutional galleries are Eurocentric. Also, Wang points out how often women are objectified in artistic renderings, often by male artists.
SAS directly challenges that myopic vision of “art.” SAS shows represent a variety of individuals and their identities and grapple with the socio-political issues that are important to Gen Z today.
Their first gallery show, titled “The Modern Youth Identity,” took place from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, 2019, and attracted over 200 people — with artwork from around the country and the world. Mao and Wang raised $4,000 to cover the costs of shipping and framing all the artists’ work. The themes that emerged during the show focused on the realities young people face today, with a majority of participants being young, female-identified, queer, Black and Indigenous people of color. The exhibit grappled with school shootings, gun violence, climate change, mental health and media use — all widespread, politically heavy issues that weigh on the personal lives of young adults today.
For these artists, the work isn’t just about aesthetic beauty or even individualized self-expression. It’s much more than that. When young people are given a platform to showcase their reading of the world through their own artistic expression, the result is activism and education that reaches across generational divides.
Their first exhibit, “The Modern Youth Identity,” was housed in an art school. Many visitors were adults in their 50s and 60s who had experienced their formative years in a very different time.
“So we had this really great intergenerational learning going on where they were able to take something away from the art that would not have been possible through just reading a CNN article,” said Wang. “It was really great to see these themes not just reflect in the work but how they are impacting others to just change their mindsets, change their actions even, and really translate into the real world, which is honestly a huge part of what art can do.” Wang says the connections built across generations and perspectives and the potential they had to change people’s worldview has remained at the core of SAS projects.
Creating online communities in a COVID world
As this past summer saw an uproar against police brutality and the Black Lives Matter protests have become the largest movement in U.S. history, SAS has pivoted to support the cause for antiracism. Groups around the country have come up with different fundraising ideas, and Wang is heartened to see how chapters rallied to raise funds for the BLM movement by selling original artwork.
“I saw this recurring theme that youth are trying their best to engage with these heavy-hitting topics — whether it is mental health or even just violence on a very real racial level [and] sexism, misogyny — which we felt weren’t being talked about enough in galleries, museums,” said Wang.
SAS defies the institutional barriers that allow for gatekeeping: competition and the strict standards of what is considered professional art.
The youth-led initiative is not only a space for young artists to show off work; young people are the decision makers and have choice at every step of the process.
They approach curation and gallery creation from a more collaborative mindset than the traditional hierarchy in art and cultural institutions. Young people get hands-on experience organizing a show and curating alongside having their own art featured. While they certainly don’t do this alone, partnering with local arts and equity groups, they create and execute the roadmap from start to finish.
The young leaders are turning to online platforms to build exhibiting and performing spaces online. SAS Canada and SAS New York City organized separate virtual open mic nights in July.
Student Art Spaces also launched an online, teen-curated zine called “Art during a pandemic” that was recently nominated for the UN Sustainable Development Goals Solidarity in Action Awards, which seeks “creative, scalable and transformative initiatives worldwide that mobilize and inspire.”
Wang is clear that SAS should remain a youth-based movement incorporating high school- and college-aged young adults. Passing on the torch will then become paramount to the initiative’s mission. “We are looking at ways to transition because once we get older, we want to be able to give this platform and kind of pass it on to a new generation of artists,” she said.
Student Art Spaces is continuing to organize online as the world shifts to prevent COVID, but the flagship Seattle chapter is planning a gallery show in Bellevue this upcoming fall. While sharing artwork online has the opportunity for connection during a time of physical distancing, nothing quite beats the exhilaration and experience of seeing a piece of art in person, especially if it is your own.
“It’s really a make-or-break thing,” Wang said. “These exhibitions can really give young artists a confidence boost. Without it, they might not even be going down that path.”
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at email@example.com. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the Aug. 19-25, 2020 issue.