Art and People

Inclusion and Advocacy in the Art Market

Lauren Ericson | February 26, 2019

Though there is a trend towards integration in the worlds of art and business for people of different races, religions, as well as gender and sexual identities, the community of people with disabilities is often overlooked. An Atlanta-area non-profit Synergies Work aims to provide business and networking services for artists with disabilities.


Tuesday, February 19th was a cold, gray, rainy day in the city of Atlanta. Everything one might equate with the city – heat, sunshine, vibrancy, diversity – appeared dulled by the bleak weather as the skyline, peppered with public art murals, barely peeked through the clouds, and pedestrians hurried into faceless buildings. At a time of frustration in a country where we struggle with inclusion, the weather was depressingly appropriate. But meeting with Aarti Sahgal over breakfast was a truly warming experience that day.

Sahgal holds many impressive titles. She is an advertising and marketing expert, non-profit organization founder, immigrant, wife, mother, and advocate for individuals with disabilities. With unparalleled passion, genuine kindness, and business savvy, she has founded the extraordinary Synergies Work.

Synergies Work is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to expanding business opportunities for people with disabilities. She currently assists thirteen entrepreneurs with disabilities, most of whom identify as artists. Sahgal encourages these artists to practice, produce, and learn as much as possible while also providing them with networking opportunities, business trainings, and an ecommerce platform for them to sell their artworks.

Aarti Sahgal and one of Synergies Work's collaborative artist Peter An. Image courtesy of Synergies Work

If the mission and services of Synergies Work sound particularly innovative to you, that is because there is no current model for connecting art and self-employment for individuals with disabilities.

People with disabilities and their families have and continue to struggle with limited resources in all parts of life. Individuals and families must advocate for themselves constantly to receive proper medical care, schooling, careers, and housing. These day-to-day struggles often leave little time for the parts of life individuals without disabilities take for granted – hobbies, a diverse network of friends and peers, and the opportunity for self-employment. Synergies Work aims to make these significant opportunities for self-discovery, learning, and relationship-building more accessible and fulfilling for individuals with disabilities.


SELF-DISCOVERY AND LEARNING
The moment that someone realizes their dream job – that title that captures their learned experiences and their natural interests and skills so perfectly – can be as motivating as it is illuminating. This serendipitous moment is often sadly and unintentionally denied to people with disabilities.

This denial begins with what Sahgal calls “the soft bigotry of lowered expectations.” If a child with a physical disability struggles with the fine motor skills required to tie their own shoes, this does not mean that they will never learn to play an instrument or paint a canvas. However, this is often the unfortunate assumption that some people make, and therefore imply that a child with a disability could not feasibly become an artist.

Most people would deny that they feel this way, and rightfully so. However, most special education resources are devoted to “catching up” the special education population with the general student body, inadvertently focusing on the limitations of a disability. Meanwhile, the average student has multiple opportunities throughout the day for creative pursuits. Later in life, people with disabilities are wrongfully pigeon-holed into low paying part-time jobs that require little skill, creativity, or communication. This is, of course, partly because of the special education system, which did not offer students the opportunity to dream big or skills to pursue more fulfilling employment.

The trend I am describing may sound extraordinarily generalized and unfair to the people who have focused their life’s work on advocating for people with disabilities. To them, I mean no offense. The trend I am describing comes from my own training and experience in secondary education, as well as from Sahgal, a parent of a child with Down syndrome.

Sahgal understands firsthand how difficult it is for people with disabilities to pursue opportunities for self-discovery and learning, particularly in adulthood. Synergies Work steps in by reaching out within the Atlanta community of people with disabilities to discuss passions and goals one-on-one. When Sahgal sees someone’s eyes light up discussing their love for painting or pottery, she encourages them to now identify as an artist. The title “artist” emboldens that person to practice what they love.

Connor Ensign, a Synergies Work collaborator. Image courtesy of Synergies Work
Angad Sahgal, Bird on Branch, 14 x 27 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Synergies Work

Sahgal aims not only to inspire, but also to educate. Because most people with disabilities cannot commit the time or resources to conventional arts education, she hopes that Synergies Work can one day provide studio space, regular trainings, and artist sponsorships to pursue adult continuing education in the medium of their choice.

These goals perfectly complement the services already provided by Synergies Work, which focus primarily on business essentials like finance, marketing, and budgeting. These subjects, similar to the arts, are often not taught to people with disabilities again due to low expectations. This creates an increased financial dependency on family members who are often already stretched thin. Though many people with disabilities might never be fully independent in the way others might be, these entrepreneurship classes help Synergies Work artists to think of their passion as a business.

The combination of passion and making money motivates everyone exclusive of ability. Synergies Work encourages artists to pursue their passions and provides opportunities to sell their art. The creative freedom of the art world and potential for financial acumen is thusly combined for a population of people previously overlooked in today’s art market and gig economy.



RELATIONSHIP-BUILDING
As mentioned previously, American education and professions inadvertently limit the potential of people with disabilities. This is expounded by the isolation that these people experience as children and adults. Special education populations oftentimes are pulled from the general classroom in order to provide more focused attention. However, this segregates students into clearly delineated classes and friend groups. Even if students with disabilities remain in the general education classroom, integration must be intentional.

People with disabilities are also isolated as they enter adulthood. The jobs deemed appropriate for them often do not require or encourage communication or team building with people with or without disabilities. Small social circles limit inspiration and the ability to network with other people in their desired job field.

Synergies Work hosts multiple networking opportunities through business breakfasts, boot camps, and mentorship. These events build not just friendships, but professional connections as well. Synergies Work also provides business cards to their entrepreneurs and artists, so that they can easily share their information with acquaintances.

Image courtesy of Synergies Work

The perks of these relationships are obvious in terms of social interaction. But they are even more profound in terms of the inspiration they provide artists. Creativity comes from a diversity of experience larger than the comfort of our own personal bubble. Though solitude and space can be beneficial, they can also be lonely and burdensome for overlooked populations.



WHAT YOU CAN DO
On a gloomy day, my spirits were lifted by the warmth, spirit, and hope of Aarti Sahgal. She represents the very spirit of Atlanta, a city that has a history of overcoming bigotry with positivity, innovation, and persistence.

Synergies Work is an exceptional organization touching the lives of several people with and without disabilities. Sahgal has created a strong network, variety of services, ecommerce platform, and creative atmosphere that is unparalleled in the art world. Though she has an impressive team of advisors and board members, Synergies Work needs and deserves additional support.

If you believe in the mission of Synergies Work please visit their website and purchase artwork available in the gallery. Works include mixed media, pottery, paintings, as well as artist-created notecards. There is an impressive variety of works available for any collector or budget.

Yu Qian, Green Braided Bowl, Handmade ceramic bowl, 3 1/2 x 8 inches
Peter An, The Dolphin - 2018 collection Courtesy of the artist and Synergies Work

Furthermore, donations of time and money are certainly appreciated. Anyone willing to provide their unique perspective and life experience in order to help people with disabilities should reach out and get involved. In a complicated time and space, advocating for inclusion is more important than ever.


Aarti Sahgal, Founder & CEO Synergies Work
Synergies Work is a nonprofit that is committed to expanding business opportunities for people with disabilities. This work is a personal mission that stems from life experiences of Aarti. As a parent of a child with Down syndrome she is constantly challenging the soft bigotry of low expectations that excludes people with intellectual disabilities from living their true potential. For the past 12 years, Aarti has been working on building inclusive communities and workforce strategies for individuals with disabilities. In her previous avatar, she worked for 14 years in advertising & marketing. She has a Master’s in Business Management from one of the top management schools in Mumbai, India.

Lauren Ericson
Lauren Ericson works as a generalist appraiser for Pall Mall Art Advisors and is an antiques specialist for Enservio. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in History Secondary Education and her Masters of Heritage Preservation at Georgia State University. Since moving from Connecticut to Atlanta in 2015, Lauren has immersed herself in the markets and museums that comprise the city's unique art scene.

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