Project Onward Gallery & Studio



of an Exhibit

by Sandie Yi

Published on March 12, 2013

  • Description:

    As an artist with a physical disability, I am interested in the social dynamics of disability in public spaces. Project Onward locates on the first-floor exhibition hall in the historical landmark building, Chicago Cultural Center. In contrast to the pristine and quiet gallery space in the Cultural Center, Project Onward throws a lively visual and tactile party with the upbeat, bright colors and unconventional art materials that this group of artists uses. A human-size mannequin dressed in glitter and found objects along with a colorful signage welcoming the visitors—“Project Onward is a studio and gallery for artists with disabilities.”

    Project Onward engages the public through the real-life presence of working artists with disabilities. It has a gallery space joined by an open studio space, where artists work at their own individual station. There are paintings and drawings covering the walls in a salon style; most of the depictions are portraits and Chicago landscapes done by artists with distinctive styles. On the glass shelving, there are several handmade dolls, including a doll with plastic limbs on its chest, wearing brightly-colored found objects and glitters. These dolls boldly present their own eeriness with a combination of every-day life small household objects, like ribbon, plastic toys and buttons that are familiar to the viewers. They seem to be screaming, “I am weird, I am a part of you and look at me!” The over-all artistic style is executed with evidence of careful thought and devotion of time and energy. Most of the artworks share a taste of “naiveness” and “boldness” that are the characteristics of “Outsider Art.”

    All the artwork in the gallery is priced according to professional market standards; they also offer a Portrait Slam, during which visitors can come in and pay for their personalized portraiture. The Portrait Slam aims to break the social isolation that many people with disability experience in society, by “raising awareness, increasing visibility and bringing people together.” People in general think of disability as something that needs treatment, cure and help; in this gallery space, artists with disabilities demonstrate their commitment and devotion to art practice as they share creativity and imagination with the world. An organic human connection and a time to contemplate on human expression offer the visitor the opportunity to invent meaning of art in public space.

    I really enjoyed the artistic energy at Project Onward. There was plenty of visual stimulation. I was glad that there were not too many information labels, which allow the viewers to insert their own narrative interpretations as they look the artwork. I find the combined gallery and studio approach successful in terms of presenting artists with disabilities in the art market. The only thing that I would suggest to change is the description of “A studio for artists with special needs” on the front entrance. The use of “special needs” brings a sense of medical or charity-based models when looking at people with disabilities; there is the potential to create a patronizing dynamic towards the artists at Project Onward which really contradicts how this group of artists has been marketed as professional artists in a prominent cultural institution.

Latest Comments (1)

Project Onward Response

by Kristen Vogt - March 13, 2013

Excellent post on the details of inclusive artwork in a museum space. What do you think the ‘price’ of each piece labeled clearly has as an implementation for the rest of the visual displays? By putting a price tag on art, what does it do for the rest of the visitors’ experiences?

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