Access to Art College Resources and Accredited Training for Artists in Supported Studios

“Well before you get to exhibition stage, this is about how people with a learning difficulty are integrated into all sorts of areas of personal and professional development. So are art colleges going to become inclusive? … For this work to expand, the number of opportunities for disabled people to be part of practice needs to expand. So it has to be acknowledged as being important, artistically, not just therapeutically.”

Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre in Fox & Macpherson (2015)

A primary consideration of the Expanding Realities Project has been the provision of access for artists in supported studios to 3rd level education. As an idea, it has been explored from many angles. What form could this access take? What aspects of access to a 3rd level institution were of most value? What level of engagement might there be between mainstream students and the artists in supported studios? What existing models of practice are there? Could accreditation be awarded? What type of arts engagement could be accredited? Would accreditation be a priority for the artists?

Locally and internationally these questions have been explored. The common factor across all conversations was an acknowledgement of the lack of any formal structure to accommodate artists within 3rd level arts institutions. Equally was an acknowledgement that the motivation and interest of artists in relation to 3rd level access was possibly as varied as the artists themselves. Everyone was in agreement that 3rd level education, even within the creative arts has been designed to accommodate a very particular type of learner.

“In Western societies where firm attempts to provide primary and secondary education to people with intellectual disabilities are made, there is still one big challenge, that of opening third level education to people with intellectual disabilities.“ O’Keefe, Garcia Iriarte, Kubiak, (2016, p.308)

Examples exist within Ireland, the UK and further afield with our Spanish partners, Debajo del Sombrero, where adults with intellectual disabilities gain access to 3rd level education. The nature of this access varies and is presented here, along with comments from one of the GASP artists, Rosaleen, who explained what she valued about her time in CIT CCAD.


Ireland – Certificate in Contemporary Living


Trinity College Dublin have been offering a two-year certificate for adults with intellectual disabilities, Certificate in Contemporary Living, since 2007. Since its inception the course has been rolled out in five additional colleges and Institutes of Technology across Ireland. This course is aimed at people with an intellectual disability who are motivated and interested in pursuing their education within a third level institute. Within this course, the emphasis is on developing learning and social networks, as well as career opportunities.


Whilst the course is developing all the time and graduates of the course are now becoming active researchers in further course developments, “critical barriers remain to be addressed if people with intellectual disabilities are to become active participants and achieve meaningful outcomes within post-secondary education, employment and the wider society.” O’Keefe et al (2016, p.317) One of the course’s ongoing priorities is to be accredited on the National Framework of Qualification.


UK- Rocket Artists


The Rocket Artists in Brighton are a group of artists with intellectual disabilities who are “supported by a community of people and organisations that work together with a collective vision for the making of art through inclusive learning”

They work alongside students on the MA in Inclusive Arts Practice at the University of Brighton, receiving professional development opportunities and practicing as artists. However, they receive no official qualifications for their time spent in a 3rd level institute.

Alice Fox, one of the founders of the Rocket Artists, explained in conversation in 2012 that the artists were more interested in the access to a 3rd level institute and the skills they learned in this context than they were in receiving accreditation. Whilst this may be the case, in her book Inclusive Arts Practice and Research: A Critical Manifesto she asserts that it is important that “narrowly constructed academic models of art education continue to be challenged” Fox & Macpherson (2015)

There is a strong collaborative component to the work of the Rocket Artists, both within Brighton University and their own studio practice. Through this collaborative practice, the artists and artist-facilitators who work with them “hope to challenge a certain public imaginary of the Contemporary Artist which tends to remain stuck in the idea of an individual personality who is able to validate their work by personally articulating it within a complex conceptual basis.” Fox & Macpherson (2015)

Whilst Fox and Macpherson advocate strongly for educational change, the change they seek is not based on clear resolution, but more on the need for openness and enquiry, an education “based on co-enquiry and a respect for difference, and that involves the practice of freedom rather than domination, including the freedom to inquire.” (2015) Challenges with communication are often outlined as a primary difficulty within 3rd level education. Within the context of the art world, they advocate for the value of engaging with these communication challenges, stating that “work made with people with complex communication needs that is unresolved or provokes discomfort is as important to see as work that is solely uplifting.” (2015, p.25)


Spain – Debajo del Sombrero


In Madrid, Debajo del Sombrero have a number of ongoing programmes within the art college. Artists from Debajo del Sombrero participate in life-drawing classes and in sculpture classes at the college. This work is not accredited.  Support staff identified benefits and challenges in their engagement with the Institute.

Of the identified benefits, staff said that the college provides an alternative environment to work. Within their regular studio space the artists are supported to work in a very individualised way. At the art college, the experience is structured around a core activity, with the development of the relevant skills that accompany that activity becoming a focus. Students in the college are encouraged to interact with the artists and engage with their art work. In this way, the artists become role models for students who sometimes struggle to express themselves as freely as the Debajo del Sombrero artists.

There are also challenges in the relationship with the college. Debajo del Sombrero are very dependent on staff interest in their work. Their attendance at the college is not part of an official programme and there is therefore no long-term security. Some staff think the artists should not be entitled to access the college space without being registered officially as students taking a module.

Again, the issue of verbal skills was raised, with a concern that demonstrating learning outcomes for certification tends to rely on language. This excludes people with limited verbal skills. Even at the most basic levels of our current education system, verbal comprehension skills are required.

Cork – GASP

GASP attended CIT CCAD for two days a week over a number of years. During this time, they accessed a studio space to work. It was set up as an open studio so on occasion other individuals dropped in, but they were in college on days when the students weren’t so there was limited engagement with college students. This was seen by their facilitator, Hermann, as one of the challenges of the experience. He also identified nervousness amongst the students as a difficulty when it came to engaging with the artists. There was a fear of the unknown.

Some of the positive outcomes of the experience relate more to the location of the building than the fact it was an art college – The building used was shared by artists and arts organisations and was in close vicinity to other arts organizations. This brought with it increased visibility of the artists in the city. People could also visit the studio easily and called by to purchase and commission work. This all enabled GASP to identify more clearly as artists.

Rosaleen, one of the GASP artists, identified three aspects of the studio experience in CIT CCAD that were very important to her:

  • personal space to work
  • opportunity to leave the day services unit and meet new people
  • identifying with and belonging to somewhere


Personal space to work

 She talked about how much she liked coming into the studio space to work. In contrast to the limited personal space available in the day services unit, she loved the space of the studio and the big table. Even with the other artists around she still felt like she had her own space, and this was something she really valued. She said she couldn’t wait to get painting!


Opportunity to leave the day services unit and meet new people

 Rosaleen also talked about limited opportunities to leave the day services unit prior to the GASP artists beginning their residency in CIT CCAD. In addition to the art-making she really enjoyed meeting new people, getting to know others through the studio practice, but equally through the tea breaks in the college kitchen area and local cafés. The weekly visits were an opportunity to see new places and feel connected.

Spassiani, N. et al (2017, p.10), in an article on the experience of students with disabilities in university in Ireland echo Rosaleen’s emphasis on the social aspect of being in college, listing “making friends, … talking to people around college, like other students, professors and staff from […] the cafeteria” as the most valued aspect of college life. They continue, “Because college is in the city centre, students get to walk about the city during lunch breaks, go to different shops or have lunch at different restaurants in the city.”


Identifying with and belonging to somewhere

When asked whether she would like a certificate for the studio work, she responded very enthusiastically and recounted tidying her room recently and finding lots of certificates she had received in the past for golf and gardening. A certificate, she said, tells you “you belong to someone and to a place you’ve never been. It means a lot!”

She believed that the other GASP artists would love certificates too. Whilst Rosaleen is well able to talk, however, a number of her fellow artists are less fluent and this could cause difficulties depending on the type of certificates being sought for their work. We chatted about what might be required of all the artists to meet the requirements of an accredited certificate and felt a certificate for their art-making would be better than a certificate that required anybody to write about or verbalise their practice.


For consideration

There is much to consider when we explore the motivation and interest of adults with intellectual disabilities to access a range of resources of Art colleges. The issue of accreditation seems to be the biggest ongoing issue. In education, the student has to fit into a system, whereas supported studios meet the artist’s needs. A supported studio set up within an art college, similar to the way the Rocket Artists work does seem a particularly useful model, accommodating the need for personal space to work with the opportunity to learn and meet new people.

Our learning has not all been focused in one direction. As the Expanding Realities project developed we began to realise that we can learn a lot from the supported studio model that could be brought to an art college setting also. In supported studios artists are treated as artists as soon as they arrive, rather than as students who want to be artists. Within the supported studio, good practice is about finding a way to connect the artist with their own language. At Debajo del Sombrero a primary goal is connecting people with what they want to say. “You can make suggestions, give options but it’s about supporting expression of one’s own language. Our principles are respect and authenticity. It doesn’t really work as a curriculum.” Luis Saez (in conversation 2015)

As we discussed issues of access to 3rd level education within the Expanding Realities Project one theme became clear. There is a need for ongoing dialogue in this area. Our education system needs to be challenged, opened up and explored, and similarly our concept of art and the artist needs to challenged further. “It possibly poses awkward questions on the nature of art and the way society/ a community relates to the artist, and who the artist is? What is needed, as in all relationships we find ourselves existing within, is a dialogue.” Ed Kuczaj (in discussion 2015)

This is an area ripe for further research and as we move forward into this new territory it is critical that we open ourselves to learning through those whom we have supported to develop their own language of expression.

“What the practice of Inclusive Art requires is collaborative dialogue: an acceptance of our incompleteness as practitioners and a capacity to unlearn as well as learn from each other. The artist-facilitator is not the expert in this relationship. Rather, they are an artist who is coming into being collaboratively.” Fox & Macpherson (2015, p.26)




Fox, A. & Macpherson, H (2015) Inclusive Arts Practice: A Critical Manifesto Routledge: London and New York

O’Keeffe, Molly; Garcia Iriarte, Edurne; Kubiak, John; O’Doherty, Siobhain; Murphy, Tomás: The impact and journey of the Certificate in Contemporary Living (CCL) – a third level course for adults with intellectual disabilities at Trinitiy College,Dublin (Ireland) – In: Buchner, Tobias [Hrsg.]; Koenig, Oliver [Hrsg.]; Schuppener, Saskia [Hrsg.]: Inklusive Forschung. Gemeinsam mit Menschen mit Lernschwierigkeiten forschen. Bad Heilbrunn : Klinkhardt 2016, S. 306-319

Natasha A. Spassiani, Noel Ó Murchadha, Maria Clince, Kieran Biddulph, Paula Conradie, Fiachra Costello, Lisa Cox, Eavan Daly, Orla Daly, Claire Middleton, Kelly McCabe, Maeve Philips, Steve Soraghan & Kristina Tully (2017): Likes, dislikes, supports and barriers: the experience of students with disabilities in university in Ireland, Disability & Society, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2017.1320272



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