Academic, Adamson Collection Trust, Wellcome Library

Art, Power and the Asylum: Exploring the Adamson Collection

‘Retaliation’ ©Adamson Collection/Wellcome Library

 Art, Power and the Asylum: Exploring the Adamson Collection

“What is the value of art created in the asylum, who does it belong to, and how should it be used?”

Three questions, relating to the mainly anonymous artists of the Adamson Collection, recently posed to the general public and contributors from the fields of art, mental health, libraries and ethics.

We gathered at the Wellcome Library’s intimate Reading Room in July, for three seated discussions, to answer these questions. Organised by the Wellcome Library and Adamson Collection Trust, speakers included Dr David O’Flynn, Chair of the Adamson Collection Trust, Beth Elliot, Director of the Bethlem Gallery, and Marc Steene, Director of Pallant House Gallery, and artists and makers with lived experience of mental health distress.

©Adamson Collection Trust

The first discussion concerned creative control – who owns the art, how should it be used, and by whom? The second covered whether artists should remain anonymous or be named. The third straddled the ‘A Word’ – is the work made in asylums ‘art’, or ‘medical record’?

Together, we attempted to tackle both the overarching questions as well as the minutiae that sprung forth whilst discussing each far-reaching topic. The debate was cyclical, paradigms constantly shifting between patient, artist, clinician, context and setting.

While answers remain complex, and ideally dealt with on a case-by-case basis, particularly within the Adamson Collection, the debate also helped to make great strides towards how art made by contemporary marginalised artists in the modern world should be handled, and, most pertinently for Mental Spaghetti, in this ‘age of the internet’.

 About the Adamson Collection

The Adamson Collection, curated between 1946 and 1981 by Edward Adamson at Netherne Hospital, currently holds about 5,500 objects, including drawings, paintings, ceramics, sculptures and works with other media.

‘The Tear’ ©Adamson Collection/Wellcome Library

“Diverse and original, the collection holds a great number of works by female artists, including late sculptor Rolanda Polonska. Parts of the Collection were shown at major international exhibitions of Outsider Art, including two at the London ICA (in 1955 and 1964) and others in Egypt, Canada and Israel.”
– Wellcome Library

It is important to note that Edward Adamson was an artist, not a clinician. His involvement with Netherne and its residents was first initiated when he was a visiting artist giving lectures.The collection started circa 1946, when Adamson was given some drawings on toilet paper by one of the closed-ward patients. In 1948, Adamson was awarded a full time appointment as Art Director. Adamson continued to work at Netherne until his retirement in 1981.

Netherne was finally closed in 1994, due to dwindling patient numbers, and later redeveloped. What remained of the Adamson Collection was recovered by Dr David O’Flynn, psychiatrist and Chair of the Adamson Collection Trust, who housed the collection in the closest of quarters – his own personal storage space – until an agreement was struck with Wellcome Library to become custodians of the work.

The Heart of the Matter

This article is written from Mental Spaghetti’s standpoint. Included are quotes and provocations from other participants. To retain a level of impartiality we have kept the speaker anonymous, unless the speaker has gone on record elsewhere, in which case we will attribute a name to the comment.

1. Creative control: who owns the art, how should it be used, and by whom?

Primarily the art belongs to the artist.

Should the institution or individual take ownership of the artwork? Does the copyright position change if art objects are viewed as property of the institution? Did Adamson keep the artworks because it was one of the scant possessions residents were allowed? If the individuals asked for their artworks, were they allowed to keep them? Who benefits from the art and the archive?

The artwork was made in a liberating environment, described as ‘an oasis’, that encouraged artistic ownership and license by giving each artist a studio space, much like in a traditional college setting. The work was made in its purest form – art brut – by mainly untrained hands. The intention was not for the art to be sold as a commodity or inspected, digested and used as medical record. It is known that Adamson did not select artworks to be displayed in the art room, he did not want to encourage favouritism.

The art should be used as it was intended – as art. How do we know what the intention was? Adamson, as previously mentioned, was not a clinician, he was not pathologising the output of the individuals he worked with. Although some of the art was analysed by other Netherne therapists, in an attempt to see patterns in colour schemes or symbolism in subject matter, thankfully we have moved beyond making assumptions such as “schizophrenics make poor colour choices” or that depicting blood equates a predilection for murder. Adamson played a huge part in moving away from those practices in art therapy.

In the case of materials used and on whose property, often, like places of work, anything created on site, any materials purchased by the staff, is property of the organisation. In some cases this even extends to intellectual property. The example of ownership of patient and clinician co-authored medical records was given, that there is an argument that the organisation provided the materials, therefore own the notes. Surely this is the perfect catalyst for mental health art practitioners to create meticulous contracts protecting the future ownership rights of inpatients and service users?

What in the event of the artists’ death? If there is no instruction for how the art should be used, in what context, and by whom? We can learn many things from how the Adamson Collection Trust handles the work of their artists. Best endeavours have been made to trace back living relatives. It would be invaluable for art organisations and trusts, going forward, to have access to guidelines written on the back of their experiences, from recovering the collection to negotiating its new home at the Wellcome Library, and everything in between. Should any custodian or trust should be arranged for an artist, decisions regarding when, where and how to show the art and represent the artist should always remain in line with how the artist would have wanted.

2. Should artists should be named, or remain anonymous?

We started the debate with a provocation on the the power of naming; pet names, nick names, being called by only your first name, or your full name. Different names, different meanings.

If your parents call you into a room by your first name, it’s usually a lot less fearsome than being called in by your full name. Does that analogy underline the argument against using an artists’ full name? Possibly, but it can equally be looked at in a different way.

Using a first name only smacks nursery school, team building weekends, Ministry of Justice regulations, and tea time at the basket weaving centre. It’s infantilising and patronising. Using a full name gives that person a stage, a more rounded identity; its formality is aligned with professionalism, commands respect, and is as good as a title or the letters after the name.

On the other hand, the art itself is the communiqué to the world, meaningful as a window to peer in to and take something away from. It brings people together, art is a tool for discussion, escapism, understanding and disagreement. In that sense, the art becomes bigger than the artist.

‘…But All He Does Is To Dig Out My Heart’ ©Adamson Collection/Wellcome Library

Why do we need a name? Furthermore, why do we need a name if we have no back story on the artist? It is notoriously difficult, due to privacy restrictions, to trace back deceased artists from asylums. I argue that naming an artist helps us to build a visual image of them in our mind. Accurate or inaccurate, it puts a face to a name. A name allows us to form a figurative representation, a way to remember that artist, what we’d imagine they’d look like, what their interests were, how they lived and what they saw and did.

Adamson wrote the artists’ names on the back of their work. Some of the patients chose to write their names on the front. Are we to to interpret this is a sign of consent? Does not naming the work encourage one to view it as clinical content, to dehumanise the artist, turning their output into data. As one participant commented, “They were anonymous in life, don’t they deserve to not be anonymous in death?”

If you’re of the view that naming an artist is a breach of confidentiality, how staunch you are in that opinion dictates a) whether you should even be taking part in the discussion, as there is no where for your view to go, and b) removes agency from the artist in exactly the same way. To name or not to name – two cheeks of the same backside.

The discussion was, at times, fitful and impassioned, new ideas and opinions jumping out as the topic volleyed back and forth. Above all discussed, what resonated loudest to me, in terms of loss of agency, was the process itself; having the discussion was where I most acutely felt that uneasy feeling of discussing what’s best for someone like they aren’t actually there, though they are. Oddly enough, like a ward round.

3. The ‘A’ word – is the work made in asylums ‘art’, or, ‘medical record’?

How should the collection be defined? Should it be attributed to Netherne and containment? One belief is that the collection is essentially political and subversive. Edward Adamson had a strong anti-discrimination agenda. Should this conversation be continued, and should the art be used to this day in a political context? Does exhibiting the artwork behind the toughened glass of a museum in the art world jepoardise its subversive potential?

So, is the work made in asylums – or, to bring it in to the modern day, in hospitals or as out patients – art or medical record?

“I find the question irritating – I would like to know in whose interest the question is asked, and what are the consequences of deciding one way or another? What hangs on the ‘A word’? Privacy and consent are important. Is the question being asked because there is a subliminal, or even overt, concern about privacy and illness?”

The above comment from an artist and fellow traveller of the ‘mentally interesting’ highway. I choose to call the individuals ‘artists’, not ‘makers’, not ‘patients’. I do not mean artists with a capital A, they are not being unwillingly put on a pedestal, but they are making art and are therefore artists.

Another contributor, a disabled artist attached to an arts organisation, currently exhibition in central London, put forward the notion that all art is record of suffering, pain, anguish, joy and elation.

It doesn’t take containment to express deep depression or malaise, the wish for escape or transportation to another place. Is it perhaps unhelpful to create distinction between artists who lived in an asylum, and those who were at liberty? Does the expectation of liberty colour the art you make? Everything we see colours our art, social, political backgrounds, so it goes without saying that would have influence on work made.

There is a fear of art, a fear of the original, the power and danger. That fear drives us to categorise and contain art. Containment and categorisation, putting things in boxes, describing things, making them more digestible.

©Adamson Collection/Wellcome Library

I think of one young artist I know, who makes incredible trash sculptures, festooned with fairy lights and coloured glass. This particular artist sits somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Whenever I discuss his work with others I am in constant turmoil about whether the prefix the word ‘artist’ with ‘autistic’ or not.

Would someone not on the autistic spectrum make the similar artwork, aesthetically? Probably. Would he want me to put his output in the margin of autistic artist? Does his autism play a part in his artwork? Of course, but, still, how should I represent him and his work?

Or is the categorisation for the sake of selling and adding value? Is it a tactical move to give the art works value, and whose interest would that be in? Artworks from high security hospitals sell out within seconds of being announced. Is this not the sensationalisation of high profile patients to make a bigger profit?

We know that work from the Adamson Collection will never get to market, it is one of the protective measures that the trust has taken to ensure pieces are not sold and passed around as its value increases.

It was suggested that perhaps what we need is a new approach to taxonomy. The location, context and intention of the art can straddle more than one arena, it doesn’t necessarily have to be one presented in one context or another. These artworks can be seen as art, social history and medical record all at the same time, the compulsion to make art, and self definition being key. The work can be seen as all things in one place, or divided into different things in different places, but explanation and context is of utmost importance.

Above all, work created by any individual, that is visual or can be described with formal elements such as line, form, pattern, shape and texture, is art. Primarily that is the essence, the artist or maker is a conduit for the art to be created. Whatever other taxonomy you attach to a physical piece of visual art, it is, at its heart, art. My final thought on all three subjects is to handle people and art with care and sensitivity.

Further Reading
Click here for a more comprehensive biography on Edward Adamson.
Visit the Adamson blog, Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways, here.
For more information about the Wellcome Library, click here.
To search the Adamson Collection at the Wellcome Library, click here.

A selection of Adamson Collection images, housed at the Wellcome Library.

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