The Curious Case of the Museum of Everything: Notes on Curating ‘Outsider Art’


‘As is the case in other branches of the consciousness industry, so here, in a subtle way, our values are being negotiated. In fact, art institutions are political institutions. One could say that they are part of the battlefield where the conflicting ideological currents of a society clash’ (Hans Haacke).


Introducing The Museum of Everything


In October 2009 The Museum of Everything opened its doors for the first time. The display was housed in a former diary in Primrose Hill, North London and hosted over 200 items of what museum curator James Brett has described as ‘untaught’ or ‘non-traditional by ‘artists and creators outside modern society’. The Museum website boasts that the exhibition was an unprecedented success and quotes Tim Griffin, former editor-in-chief or Artforum magazine praising the exhibition for ‘eliding (if not flaunting) the familiar, fixed categories and platforms of contemporary art circles and for skirting presiding and arbitrating tastes in both subject and form.’ (See Museum of Everything official website).


Designed to coincide with the London Frieze Art Fair, the Museum of Everything defined itself implicitly, if not explicitly, in opposition to the mainstream and corporatized institutions of the art world. Unlike other more ‘established’ institutions, the Museum prided itself on its mobile, nomadic, ‘pop-up’ status. The cultivation of the image of the Museum of Everything as an ‘alternative’ arts space was further enhanced by the hip branding and expert marketing of the venture which used celebrity cachet and excellent online promotion to nurture an aura of novelty, modishness and secrecy about the Museum. The obscurity of it location only added to the original and bohemian quality of this ‘home’ exhibition space which had the ad hoc, cobbled-together feel of a squat.


Set here, Exhibition#1 played host to many emerging names in the field of Outsider art, as well as established figures such as Aloïse Corbaz, Augustin Lesage and Martín Ramírez while Exhibition #3 mainly displayed the vast folk-art collection of Sit Peter Blake. Exhibition #2 witnessed the Museum of Everything set up shop in the Tate Modern for 3 days in a temporary exhibition in May 2010, while Exhibition #4 was showcased from the Ultralounge exhibition space and iconic shop windows of Selfridges department store on Oxford Street. The Museum website acknowledges that it had become not only an extension but even ‘a highlight of Frieze 2011’, and visitor numbers show a steady increase from 10,000 in 2009 to 100,000 by 2011.


This paper will use The Museum of Everything as a central paradigm for reflecting on the contested and contentious site of ‘Outsider art’ in the domain of contemporary art, both as a historically determined and contemporaneously re-defined genre. Drawing on issues such as the historical and contemporary status of Outsider Art and the formal and curatorial practices which characterize its setting in gallery space; this essay will argue that the curation of Outside Art in the contemporary context, illustrates perhaps more vividly than any other field, the politicized, vexed nature of the contemporary art apparatus, imagined by Haacke as a ‘battlefield where the conflicting ideological currents of a society clash.’


The History of Outsider Art


‘Outsider Art’ has always been a pluralistic, unfixed and unstable category embracing multiple labels and definitions that have morphed over time. Historically speaking the terms finds its origins in the collections and archival work of psychiatric professionals such as Hans Prinzhorn and Hence Walter Morgenthaler in the early twentieth century. However the French artist and collector Jean Dubuffet (1902-1985) acted as the genre’s most important sponsor and advocate, responsible for coining the term ‘Art Brut’. For Dubuffet Art Brut was not merely the remit of the institutionalized and psychotic but could encompass the work of all of those marginal ‘others’ alienated from mainstream society. For Dubuffet, Art Brut was characterized by ‘spontaneity and a pronounced inventiveness, owing as little as possible to conventional art and cultural clichés, and created by anonymous people outside professional artistic circles.’ (Dubuffet quoted in Ferrier 1997, p.12). For Dubuffet the notion of secluded, ‘self-sufficing’ genius was extremely important. This was work, which according to him, existed in an idealised ‘pure’ state beyond the reach of the public and commercial worlds. As such it represented a pure, uncontaminated example of intuitive, apriori human creativity free from the debilitating influence of culture, education and market infrastructures. To such art he could ascribe the qualities of ‘uncurbed invention, and ecstasy of intoxication, complete liberty.’ (Tuchman 1992, p.11).


However, even during Dubuffet’s lifetime it was acknowledged that this was an unrealistic and idealised vision premised on a questionable fetishization of ‘otherness’ and ‘apartness’. Thus the subsequent modification of the term Art Brut to ‘Outsider Art’ by Roger Cardinal in 1972 reflects not only a shift in emphasis from the production to the producer but also a critique of Dubuffet’s notion of ‘a production totally estranged from culture’ as ‘simply imperceptible.’ (Musgrave 1979, 23). It is also symptomatic of the ever-broadening notion of the term itself, which for multiple reasons (including changes in clinical practice, the development of psychotropic drugs, the emergence of technologized networks and expansion of the art market), made the existence of the pure, creator-genius with an implicit relation to psychiatric practice, increasingly untenable.


This expansion of the notion of outsider art, demonstrative of a contemporary anxiety about what ‘outside’ could possibly mean in a globalised age, has engendered a crisis of definition reflected by the spiralling proliferation of possible players in the field. This is reflected by the nebulous nature of many exhibitions of Outsider Art such as Naivety in Art at the Detagaya Museum, Tokyo in 1986 which displayed: ‘the art of self-taught, completely alienated persons, who have often been isolated in mental hospitals’ beside children’s art, voodoo art from tribal Africa, and graffiti. (Tuchman 1992, p.10). The slippage of Outsider art so seamlessly beside other artistic forms is indicative of the position of radical semantic ambiguity that now marks the genre. Some commentators feel that the title is not appropriate to artists who apprehend and exploit the art market such as Alain Boubonnais and Louis Soutter in contrast to the ‘insane art of self-taught visionaries’ (Tuchman 1992, p.6) such as Adolf Wölfli, Madge Gill and Martin Ramirez, while others feel that these concerns are anachronistic or dangerously essentialist, and that any category of non-mainstream, canonized Western art (such as ‘primitive art’ or naïve art) could fall under the umbrella term of the Outsider.


This open-endedness has led some to concede that ‘the anarchic spirit with which all the Outsiders are linked cannot easily be made to fit into ready-made social and historic theories’ (Musgrave 1979, p.14). In this case it is precisely the ‘anarchic spirit’ of Outsider Art which has become its defining feature. Within this ever-widening bracket, ‘otherness’ has been increasingly conceived not within the exclusionary and politically incorrect praxis of mental health, but as an exteriority whereby the ‘outsider’ is configured itself in spatial, anti-institutional and political rather than in physiological/psychological or aesthetic terms. This new vector of understanding the Outsider is emblematized by Cardinal’s use of the homeless as a master metaphor for the Outsider, since they are also dwellers in luminal, in-between, ‘transitional’ zones.

This was, in fact, an implication that Outsider art carried with it from the beginning since ‘Dubuffet himself recognised that Art Brut is not a territory which lends itself to definitive mapping’ (Musgrave 1979, p.23) it could only really be defined as ‘the mobile contrary to the fixed point represented by conformist academic art’. (Musgrave 1979, p.23). That he saw Outsider Art as being fundamentally incommensurate and antithetical to the values of the commercial art world is graphically illustrated by his decision to forbid his permanent collection to ‘enter the cultural circuits of art promotion’ (Hall 1994, p.70)as well as his decision to preface his exhibition catalogues with statements such as ‘L’Art Brut Préféré aux Arts Culturels’ (Art Brut in Preference to the Cultural Arts) (See Hall 1994, p. 64) and ‘Place à l’Incivism’ (Make way for disobedience). (Hall 1994, p. 66).


The Heterotopic space of Outsider Art


For Dubuffet culture, capital and the museum institution were one and the same, and he believed that in order to preserve the authenticity of Outsider Art, it had to remain aloof from market systems, economic activity and circulation. As such, the ‘alien territories’ (Musgrave 1979, p.36) of Outsider Art operating on the spectrum between inside and outside, private and public, maps surprisingly well onto Michel Foucault’s notion of the ‘heterotopia’ which he describes as: ‘something like counter-sites , a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sties, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.’


Using Foucault’s notion of the heterotopia as the theoretical frame for understanding the phenomenon of Outsider art allows us to plot and give a name to this ‘alien’ territory, which exists yet exists precisely to debunk and deviate from the ‘utopian’ space of conventional artistic practice. Increasingly, it appears that the only enduring feature which marks a genre ‘congenitally resistant to codification’ (Andrada 2006, p.20) is precisely its recalcitrance and resistance to the mainstream, corporatized  institution of art – its nonconformity, its heterodox status. In its ‘perversity’ and in the private worlds which it propounds, it is constitutionally, axiomatically set against the commercial economies and publically available discourses of the conventional art media.  It is an ‘art which flourishes outside the system.’ (Musgrave 1979, p.18).


Exhibiting Outsider Art


How have Galleries responded to the challenge of exhibiting art which can perhaps only be defined by its private, uncodifiable discourse and its resistance to the institution? Art which was never (in some cases) intended for an audience? Dubuffet dealt with the paradox of making outsider art publically available by rehabilitating his art in ‘homes’ set in explicitly non-urban, tranquil environments which resembled the original contexts from which many of these works sprung. Dubuffet developed this ‘extra-cultural’ framing, as a way of compromised between making his collection available to the general public while preserving the acommercial spirit in which the works were originally conceived. Described later by Michel Thévoz as an ‘Anti-museum’ Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut in the Musee de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, acts as both a benchmark and a challenge to those who wish to display Outsider Art today.


More recent exhibitions of Outsider Art have been marked by a contrasting desire to either integrate it or rehabilitate it within the world of mainstream art –thereby normalizing it—or to stress its difference by presenting it in ‘alternative’ and unorthodox contexts. Such divergent practices have commercial implications as well as consequences for the gallery setting and gallery status. For example, the American Folk Art Museum in New York which opened in 1963 took the Museum of Modern Art as a model for its institutional framework, reflected both topographically (it is adjacent to this institution) but also in its internal bureaucratic structuring. In contrast to this more traditional museum, institutions such as the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore (1995) sought to present Outsider Art as an ‘alternative space’ – echoing Dubuffet’s original intentions for his collection. This museum fostered what has been described as a ‘new age aura focusing on the ‘visionary’ rather than the more traditional categories of self-taught, folk, or outsider’ (Fine 2004, p. 254) and sponsored events such as ‘Goddess Sleepovers in which women spend the night partying at the museum.’(Fine 2004, p.254). However, other than blockbuster exhibitions and galleries-cum-medical institutions such as the ‘House of Artists’ in Austria and the ‘Living Museum’ in New York, Outsider Art, at least in America, still remains a pariah genre, a ‘very small niche’, a subculture about which larger, more traditional institutions are deeply reticent. Maclagan notes that many of the most ‘prestigious’ American museums do not routinely exhibit self-taught artists, just as ‘few curators specialise in self-taught art.’ (Fine 2004, p. 258).


The Outsiders Exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London.


Such cautionary behaviour on the part of ‘major’ institutions is perhaps unsurprising given that the very presence of Outsider art within the museum space must, of necessity, throw the politicized nature of the art museum into relief, rendering visible the web of normative social values and economic infrastructures to which it is a part. The difficulties of exhibiting Outsider Art within the institutional frame is brilliantly elucidated by the cagey language that the Hayward Gallery museum editor expressed as a foil to Richard Cardinal in the foreword of the exhibition catalogue to the landmark Outsiders exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London (1979). While Cardinal hailed the exhibition as a ‘rediscovery of the power and extent of the imagination which remains triumphantly alive’ (Musgrave 1979, p.14), the catalogue editor introduced a rather telling disclaimer to the effect that:


‘The Arts Council does not normally invoke the cautionary notes that ‘the views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily of the editors’ in its exhibition catalogues. But in this case as one of the major cultural institutions in the brightly-lit centre of the city (cf Dr Cardinal’s introduction) we have been invaded, at our own invitation, by ‘outsiders’, and we cannot be expected to accept entirely claims of artistic and spiritual dominance made on their behalf.’ (Musgrave 1979, p.7)


As one of the first major exhibitions of Outsider Art in Europe, and key to defining the terms by which we understand it today, the conflict that we see emerging in the pages of this important text (representing the voices of art institutions and academic experts) is symptomatic of the bellicose, ambivalent and divisive discourse which characterises the display of Outsider Art within institutions.




Though bigotry and prejudice still continue to reign in many of the most important European and American art institutions, this does not reflect the rising commercial profile of Outsider Art. One European collector notes that while interest in Outsider Art used to be restricted to a ‘comparatively small circle’ in the 1980s with only three major collections, now many of the more established names in Outsider art fetch ‘astronomical’ prices. The commercialisation of Outsider art is perpetuated from within and without- reflected by its broader appeal in a market sense, but also in the increased awareness of the art world from among the ‘Outsiders’ themselves. In this regard, the business acumen of artists like Michel Nedjar who ‘travels widely’ and whose ‘work is widely reproduced and sells for substantial sums’, (Maclagan 2009, p. 105) is typical. As a result of this, Outsider Art has increasingly been seen as working in cooperation with major institutions rather than against the grain of them and thus endorsing ‘those mechanisms which consecrate and commercialize the artistic endeavour’. (Hall 1994, p. 64). The historical ironies have not gone unnoticed, and in particular collectors and arts professionals are concerned that the increasing permeability between the Outsider and market worlds may affect, to their detriment, the quality and ‘authenticity’ of the works themselves, as well as the integrity of the Outsider label.


Back to the Museum of Everything


In many ways the Museum of Everything epitomises the contradictions and ironies implicit in contemporary approaches to curating Outsider art, as well as the growing corporatization of the Outsider phenomenon. Despite the organization’s professed ambition to create a kind of counter-site (to the Frieze, to the institution) in 2009, and its purported aim to curate ‘alternative spaces’ for ‘untrained’ artists, the Museum has expanded into an empire, whose flexibility lends itself perfectly to the mechanism of global capitalism and the commercial art world. Thus the Museum’s mobility has allowed it to become a pliable touring phenomenon, part gallery, part shop, which can appear at a number of explicitly corporatized venues such as the New York Outsider Art Fair and Metro Art Fair. Exercising the formidable power of celebrity, Brett has strategically placed his Museum on the interstices between event, pop culture and an ‘underground’ cult of the unrepresented. However we may question the ethics of a gallery practice which uses celebrity commentary and rotating celebrity boards to adjudicate, and arbitrate the work by people with handicaps. Adrian Searle, a reviewer from the Guardian also found this awkward.


By renaming the ‘Outsider art’ as ‘the Museum of Everything’, James Brett stresses the values of inclusivity, creates powerful and seductive message suggestive of the democratization of art and carefully neutralizes the history of physiological and psychological difference which so fundamentally underlies the genre. While this could be done in the interests of political correctness and a desire to refocus on the artwork instead of its provenance, the Museum of Everything carefully reframes Outsider art to make it more digestible, and creates a false sense of jubilation and festivity which is foreign to the origins of much of the art represented and the spirit in which it was created. Instead what is emphasized by the whimsical, flippancy of ‘everything’ are the values of homespun ‘coolness’, ‘oddness’ and randomness’ which is the real marketing appeal of this venture while there is still commercial mileage to be gained from ‘quirkiness’. Indeed the Museum website which infallibly redirects back to the Museum Shop or media links, and whose rhetoric is both colloquial and deliberately ‘scatty’, precludes any possibility of seeing the Museum as a serious contribution to the annals of Outsider Art curation. A far cry from the ideological values and anti-institutionalism which originally upheld this category of art, James Brett’s business empire has reduced and hegemonised all the items of his collection, by established artists or not, to the same status as the knickknacks in the museum gift shop.


The startlingly rapid transformation of the Museum organism from counter-cultural, subverting heterotopias to a kernel within the heart of the global arts industry, testifies not only to the business acumen of museum curator and entrepreneur James Brett, but also to the desirability, market appeal and branding power of Outsider art within the contemporary arts apparatus. This may bear out Gary Fines’ remark that there is something in the ‘user-friendly’ nature of Outsider art that makes it particularly susceptible to the MOE style of branding and highly responsive to market values since ‘Much self-taught art is colourful, apolitical, and viewer-friendly, suitable for sponsorship and purchase from major corporations.’ (Fine 2004, p.240-241). Indeed the Museum website proclaims its gratitude to sponsors such as Absolut, Peroni and the Royal Bank of Canada and no more explicit sign of the Museum’s demise as a genuine organ of outsider values could be sought than their most recent exhibition site – the shop windows and store-exhibition-space at Selfridges, an unmistakeable and iconic symbol of consumer capital. The story of outsider art in the contemporary exhibition context throws into relief the increasingly desirable status of the Outsider logo, demonstrable of the fact that even, perhaps even especially, there is a market value placed on ‘deviance’ and ‘self-engrossment’ as a contemporary ‘model of expression.’ (Andrada 2006, p. 18).


Can there be an Outside?


This has led critics like Gary Fine to question whether Outsider art ever could, even conceptually, exist outside of the market economy since ‘This stuff doesn’t become ‘outsider art’ until someone PAYS for it. It may have been created by an artist in a vacuum totally removed from financial gain or reward … but until it reaches the market … it isn’t art.’ (Fine 2004, p.209).  Perhaps ultimately, the MOE bears witness to the incredibly insolvent nature of the late-capitalist framework which has the power to absorb and digest even the most, at first, unsympathetic, oppositional and iconoclastic agencies, providing ‘the standard of intelligibility’ (Hans Haacke quoted in Harrison 2010, p. 934) for all.


Art and its Institutions


According to Hans Haacke ‘Irrespective of the ‘avant-garde’ or ‘conservative’, ‘rightist’ or ‘leftist’ stance a museum might take, it is, among other things, a carrier of socio-political connotations. By the very structure of its existence, it is a political institution.’ (Hans Haacke quoted in Harrison 2010, p. 930). This notion of the museum as ‘art-made-institution’ is also echoed by intuitional critics such as Andrea Fraser who quotes Bourdieu when she remarks that ‘The institution of art is not something external to any work of art but the absolute and irreducible condition of its existence.’ (Fraser 2005, p.39). In this discussion of Outsider art it has become clear that even a category of art which is historically predicated on its resistance to the values of the ‘institution of art’, has been subsumed and incorporated into that very same institution. This is manifest in the eventful and amorphous permutations that have taken place within the Museum of Everything, as it is in the broader currents and trends affecting the social and artistic practices of Outsider Art. As such the complete surrender of Outsider art to the commercial markets or the commercial incentives of mainstream institutions, which might be seen as an inevitable development, bears witness to Haacke’s claim that ‘So called ‘avant-garde art’ is at best working close to the limitations set by its cultural/political environment, but it always operated within that allowance.’ (Hans Haacke quoted in Harrison 2010, p.931).


Within this context it is increasingly difficult to believe that any stigmatised field or agency, however ‘outside’ it professes to be, is capable of resisting immersion by late capitalism – of being subtly accommodated for on its ‘inside’. This is indeed the proposition of the ‘No Outside’ thesis. However rather than finding these conclusions dreary, it may be salutary to reflect on two things: firstly, that very few currents in art throw into relief quite as poignantly as Outsider art, the plight that faces the autonomous, creative individual in the face of global monopolies. Equally, few genres of art expose so clearly the mechanism of this framework, since the genre is so ontologically ambiguous and vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation. Indeed the more we think about Outsider art as it exists today, the more we realise that it is a synthetic, constructed category, a reflective surface displaying the values of the ‘inside’ in relation to what they deem to be ‘outside’. This is because it is a terrain, a map, which has no ideology other than its ostensible antagonism to the ‘accepted’. As such, Outsider Art functions precisely as a thermometer and gauge of the institutional mood, whose contours articulate the ambitions of those with power. More optimistically however, Outsider art does not only provoke reflections on what the institution of art is and how it operates, but on what it could be – since it does still, if even abstractly, posit a heterotopia.


Thus I would conclude that even if Outsider art does not posit an authentic island, heterodoxy or alternative space in this historical moment, it does at least suggest a potential ‘outside’ discursive space which gives us an opportunity imagine genuine counter-territories to be activated in the future. As a site characterised by contested meanings therefore, Outsider Art becomes productive as a site for discursively countering normative values and institutional logic and formulating cultural critique. Though the institution may have neutralized the punch that Outsider art can pack for now, it remains a valuable resource, a valuable spatial terrain, a valuable tool. And every tool can be turned into a weapon.


Bibliography and Further Reading




Appadurai, Arjun. 1995. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press).

Ferrier, Jean-Louis. 1997. Outsider Art (Paris, Terrail).

Fine, Gary Alan. 2004. Everyday Genius: Self Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity (London, University of Chicago Press).

Hall, Michael D., Metcalfe, Eugene W., ed. 1994. The Artist Outsider: Creativity and the Boundaries of Culture (Washington and London, Smithsonian Institution Press).

Harrison, Charles., Wood, Paul., ed. 2010. Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing).

Jones, Amela ed. 2006. A Companion to Contemporary Art since 1945 (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing).

Kinley, Monika. 1989. Outsider Art (Japan, Kyōto Shoin).

Maclagan, David. 2009. Outsider Art: From the Margins to the Marketplace (London, Reaktion Books).

Mongmann, Nina ed. 2006. Art and its Institutions: Current Conflicts, Critique and Collaborations (London, Blackdog Publishing).

Vergo, Peter ed.1989 The New Museology (London, Reaktion Books).


Exhibition Catalogues


Andrada, Félix., Martin, Eimar., Spira, Anthony., ed. 2006. Inner Worlds Outside (London, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Whitechapel Gallery press).

Musgrave, Victor., Cardinal, Roger. 1979. Outsiders (London, Arts Council of Great Britain).

Smith., Alistair. 2002. Outsider Art: The Musgrave Kinley Collection from the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Manchester, The Whitworth Art Gallery).

Tuchman, Maurice., Eliel, Carol. 1992. Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art (Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art).


‘The Museum of Everything’ official website, 14.03.2012,

Foucault, Michel. 1967, ‘Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias’. 14.03.2012

Searl, Adrian. 1.09.2011. ‘The Museum of Everything, Selfridges – Review’ 14.03.2012

Lubbock, Tom. 02.11.2009. ‘Out of this World: The Museum of Everything’.  14.03.2012

Von Bredow, Vendeline. 21.10.2009. ‘London’s New Museum of Everything’ 14.03.2012




Fraser, Andrea. ‘Why Does Fred Sandbank’s Work Make me Cry?’ grey room, no.22 (winter, 2005) pp. 30-47