Thoughts on our Outside In visit

Mental Spaghetti took a rather scenic South Downs-traversing train trip to Chichester last week, to meet our friends at Outside In, hear their latest news, and to finally check out the fine collections on display at Pallant House Gallery – more on that later.

If you’re reading this right now, it means you’ve found our site, which presumably means you’re interested in the arts and mental health…which almost certainly means you’ve heard of Outside In.

Founded in 2006, by Pallant House Gallery, the Outside In programme is led by Executive Director Marc Steene and his team, and “provides a platform for artists who see themselves as facing barriers to the art world due to health, disability, social circumstance or isolation.” 

Since Outside In started, it “has engaged more than 5,000 artists traditionally excluded from the mainstream art world, 170,000 audience members and 80 partner organisations nationally”, and has “held over 30 exhibitions and currently supports 2,000 artists.”

Detail of foyer installation at Pallant House Gallery, partnership project between Outside In and Graylingwell Heritage

Marie went down to meet Outside In manager, Jennifer Gilbert, and communications manager, Kate Davey, (who also runs KDOUTSIDERART, a thoughtful and informative blog focusing on Outsider Art, and artists). We spoke about our own projects, what direction we’d like to take Mental Spaghetti in, and what Outside In had been up to recently, what they have coming up (Nek Chand! See this post here).

Then we came to talk about the Step up programme.

Step Up is the training and professional development arm of Outside In which offers two courses, one to train artists as workshop leaders and another, which offers the skills needed to make critical and contextual studies of gallery collections. Whilst on the programme artists are trained over ten sessions to lead workshops and to carry out research, which currently happens with the collections at Pallant House Gallery.

Jennifer explained to me that artists on the Outside In:Step Up programme can really choose whether to disclose their experiences of lived mental health difficulty once out in any professional setting, as, unless dealing with future employers, groups or individuals who are aware of the programme, it carries no glaring ‘we’re working with mental health service users’ tagline. At this point I should make it clear that, like Mental Spaghetti, Outside In work with people from all sorts of backgrounds and reasons for experiencing life on the margins, yet mental health difficulties always feature in some way.

What I find really interesting about Outside In and the Step Up programme, as well as it being a fantastic programme and opportunity for artists, is the tone of their activities and initiatives (which I first gathered from their smart and clever name), and the subtle and sensitive approach to marginalised individuals ability to infiltrate a mainstream on their own terms. Artists have the option of not disclosing their mental health or related experiences, if they so wish.

Detail of foyer installation at Pallant House Gallery, partnership project between Outside In and Graylingwell Heritage

The discussion for me was of particular interest as, well, you can’t really get away from our name and its connotation – we’re Mental Spaghetti, for crying out loud, literally! We’ve found that it suits the artists we feature, at the point of their participation in our workshops, exhibitions or being featured on our website, in a sort of ‘coming out’ way. But we have been met with criticism at times, and our tongue-in-cheek name has caused offence before. A good example being that we’ve just had to change our latest show title, ‘Barking Mad?’, to something a little less contentious for the area of, er, Barking. Understandable, of course.

The discussion with Jennifer and Kate carried on a similar theme chewed over with Bobby Baker and her Daily Life Ltd team sometime last year – how to make it known you are working with service users, and how to promote mental health awareness, without either being bogged down with the more corporate, heavy image of mental health – all clinical and medical and officey – or coming across as not taking things seriously enough.

How can mental health awareness be just that – being aware – but not something that is forced on people, yet highlighting the plight of awareness at the same time? Treating people differently if their needs require, or to be aware of their differences and needs, but not making a big deal out of them, or making people feel even more on the outside.

For artists, being aligned with Outside In provides a serious way of integrating yourself into the art world, and any community or workplace, having the choice to proceed without fear of stigma, or without being pigeon-holed as a ‘mental health artist’, or similar. I asked Jennifer if this approach has faced any criticism from anyone who may see it as shying away from being associated with mental health awareness, but of course, it has not.

Tile installation in Pallant House Gallery foyer

With just three team members and Marc at the helm, Outside In is an exciting and impressive organisation, led by people who personally care about their artists and Outsider Art (although, do remember, not all the artwork they featur is Outsider Art). Jennifer has a Masters in Art, Health and Wellbeing, her passion lies with Outsider Art, Kate has Masters in Art History and Museum Curating, specialising in the ethics behind curating exhibitions of Outsider Art and Hannah, who I sadly didn’t meet this time, also has a passion for Outsider Art and a degree in Fine Art. You can meet the team, virtually, here!

I would urge absolutely everyone to check out Outside In, but especially artists looking to have their own online gallery, the opportunity to sell work on their site, and to further develop skills and experience not as readily available to those who find themselves marginalised or behind barriers of accessing the mainstream art world. I would also urge you all to go and visit the gem of a gallery that is Pallant House.

To those in the know, Pallant House Gallery is home to a large cache of impressive British art (but not only), with about 50% of their collection in storage (this means you need to not just visit once – things change!). Their invigilators are extremely knowledgable about the work both on display, and in storage, and I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of an impromptu one-person guided tour of the permanent collection, before getting lost in the world of Leon Underwood, their main temporary exhibition, running until June 14th. There are three other exhibitions on at the moment, all well worth checking out – more info here.

I’ll leave you with some images from my day in Chichester, but not before I thank Jennifer and Kate for being so kind to spend some time chatting to me – Thank you ladies!

‘China Dogs in a St. Ives Window’, Christopher Wood, on display in the permanent collection

‘Still Life with Bow Teapot’, Bouke De Vries

‘The Three Graces’, Leon Underwood

Francis Bacon

Entrance to main collections and side galleries

And finally, a remaining panel of one of the most enchanting installations I have ever encountered, Susie MacMurray’s ‘Shell’, which I implore you to investigate further, starting here.

‘Shell’, Susie MacMurray

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