Of the 1.5mn people living with a learning disability in the UK, just six per cent are in paid work. Despite the promises of the 2010 Equality Act, employment rates have shown little progress, with numerous reports of unfair hiring practices. But in a refurbished car park in Peckham, south London, an unusual design studio is working to make a difference, ensuring adults with learning disabilities have a space to become “visible, equal and established artists”.
“When I first started Intoart there was no data on disability in design,” says Ella Ritchie, who founded the project with partner and fellow fine art printmaking graduate Sam Jones. “People with learning disabilities are rarely thought of as cultural producers, which is a missed opportunity for everyone.” Now in its 22nd year, the studio works with 24 artists with learning, physical and sensory disabilities, as well as those with autism. Spanning painters, printmakers, illustrators, ceramicists, and product and textile designers, it’s a hub of creative production.
The idea for an alternative art studio came about when Ritchie and Jones graduated from Central Saint Martins; Ritchie had been volunteering with young people and adults with learning disabilities since the second year of her degree. “I had the privilege to work wherever I wanted,” she says. “When you have learning disabilities you can’t do that. I set up Intoart not for art’s sake but for social justice.”
What started as a 10-week project has since grown into a full-time programme of learning, studio practice and public exhibitions, with Intoart staff working across the board as commissioners, curators, mentors and artist liaisons. In 2018 the organisation moved to its current space at Peckham Levels, allowing artists to experiment with different mediums and scales. “The studio is where I expand my skill set and methods,” says Clifton Wright, whose figurative drawings have been shown at London’s Drawing Room and Whitechapel Gallery. “After 17 years I still come to the studio to get better at drawing, to evolve new ideas and themes.”
Working closely with galleries and museums, the studio’s evolution has been informed by Ritchie’s interest in the role art plays in facilitating social justice. It is also the result of building relationships with voluntary sector organisations, community businesses, support services and the artists themselves. By adopting this collaborative approach, Ritchie hopes to bring together skills from experts working across the public and commercial sectors. “Being an artist means moving forward and not being invisible with my disability,” says Nancy Clayton, who joined as part of the studio’s foundation programme; her work will next be displayed as part of the Intoart Exhibition at Copeland Gallery in June.
On top of its own exhibitions, the studio collaborates with patrons across the globe, facilitating shows, commissions and research projects with institutions such as the V&A and brands including luxury knitwear label John Smedley. Most recently, Christian Ovonlen’s hand-printed silk works earned him the Brookfield Properties Craft Award, while Ntiense Eno-Amooquaye, another member of the collective, is set for a solo show at New York’s White Columns in the autumn. With more than 3,000 works of art in the Intoart collection, the simplest way to show support is to make a purchase, with prints (from £20), ceramics and fashion accessories by both emerging and established artists. You can also make a donation on the website or become a Friend or Patron of the scheme.
Beyond the realm of exhibitions, Ritchie’s next goal is to further democratise Intoart’s output. “While it’s great to have the artists’ work seen and exhibited in contemporary art galleries, the reality is we don’t expect everyone to walk into a gallery,” she concludes. “We want to make our prints available for people to purchase — whether that’s on a pin badge or a jumper. Our mission is to make our message and cultural production more accessible.”