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What Is the Outsider Art Fair?

What Is the Outsider Art Fair?

Art collectors know the Outsider Art Fair is the best place to discover new raw talent. 

By its very nature, Outsider Art isn’t always easy to find, but the aptitude and authenticity are unmatched. The Outsider Art Fair provides the perfect place to find the next Basquiat or Mose T.

Join us on our journey as we discover what makes the Outsider Art Fair so unique. 

Let’s jump in!

What Is Outsider Art?

For thousands of years, untrained artists have created art. Cave painting didn’t require a four-year art degree. However, it wasn’t until 1947 that French artists Jean Dubuffet coined the term art brut

He used this term to describe art created by artists who were “unscathed by artistic culture.” By that, Dubuffet means that these artists create work that does not try to mimic the work created by artists in the larger artistic landscape. 

In 1972, British scholar Roger Cardinal wrote that Outsider artists create because they’re “possessed of a creative impulse.” Expressing that impulse outside public view defies art history and societal expectations. 

This boils down to the definition of Outsider Art we use today. Outsider artists are untrained individuals who work from an internal creative impulse without reference to the larger art world. It takes many shapes and forms, but raw creativity is the electric buzz at its heart. 

What Are the Origins of Outsider Art?

Social outcasts have always been with us. For centuries, we kept these individuals locked away from the public view. Asylums seemed the perfect place to keep people dealing with severe mental illness. In the 1920s, two psychiatrists published books about the art created by inmates in these asylums. 

The first book focused on Adolf Wölfli, a criminally insane child molester. Through his years in the asylum, he created over 40,000 pieces of art. German Expressionists loved his work and incorporated some of his style into theirs. A second book focused on hundreds of inmates and influenced other art movements like the Surrealists. 

Jean Dubuffet brought Outsider Art to the masses with his 1947 exhibition in Paris featuring art brut (raw art). Because of the post-war world, Dubuffet’s exhibition could have just faded into history. 

But in 1972, Roger Cardinal published his study titled Outsider Art, followed by an exhibition in 1979. Outsiders cemented the reputation and importance of Outsider Art moving into the 21st century. 

What Is the Outsider Art Fair?

The first Outsider Art Fair (OAF) in 1993 brought together a wide range of Outsider artists for an international show. Sanford Smith created OAF to help outsider artists exhibit their work. 

Until 2013, Smith ran OAF in New York City and had exhibitions twice a year in the Puck Building. Then, in 2013, Andrew Edlin bought the fair through his company Wide Open Arts and relocated to the Metropolitan Pavilion. 

The purpose of the fair is to exhibit work by untrained artists and bring them to a broader audience. And they’re successfully doing that. Beginning in 2013, Wide Open Arts produced exhibitions with sixty artists at a time. 

They also expanded the fair to Paris in 2013, so the curators reach an even broader audience. However, controversy is never far from the art world, and OAF is not immune. 

The art fair promotes certain styles by popularizing Outsider Art and curating the work exhibited. Other artists see the work and then copy elements in their art. This goes against the definition of Outsider Art as not mimicking other artists. 

Another source of controversy is the nature of the artists. As we noted earlier, many of these artists are mentally ill, in jail, or developmentally delayed. Curators don’t always take their responsibility to the artists as seriously as they should. The danger of exploitation is real, especially since there aren’t agents involved to protect the artists’ interests. 

Where Is the Fair?

Founded in New York City, the Outsider Art Fair occupies the Metropolitan Pavilion twice a year. Sandy Smith took the name for the art fair from Roger Cardinal’s book Outsider Art

Smith led the Outsider Art Fair at the Puck Building for twenty years. In 2012, Edlin came on board as financial support and purchased OAF in 2013. Since 2013, several venues have housed the organization, including Center 548 and, most recently, the Metropolitan Pavilion. 

Wide Open Arts expanded to Paris in 2013, continuing the concept of Dubuffet’s original Art Brut exhibition. At first, l’Hotel Le A housed the exhibition and saw thousands of visitors pass through its doors. Close to the International Fair of Contemporary Art, OAF-Paris settled at Atelier Richelieu and L’Hotel le Duc in recent years.

OAF-NYC and OAF-Paris present several exhibitions throughout the year. OAF-NYC takes place in January and OAF-Paris in October. There were plans to hold a third exhibition alongside Art Basel in June 2018, but Edlin called it off and didn’t reschedule. 

Can I Virtually Attend the Outsider Art Fair?

There are no plans to offer the biannual Outsider Art Fair as a virtual event. However, some online resources impart the spirit of the event. 

An integral part of the events each year is artist talks. Curators bring in exhibiting artists and scholars to discuss the work shown. Several of these are available on the OAF website. A few documentaries on the site also explore the origins and ongoing legacy of Outsider Art. 

Beyond the official film archive, many videos online provide a walkthrough of the galleries. YouTube channel NYC Gallery Openings has an exceptionally detailed video tour that’s over an hour long. 

Resources like these bring the spirit of the Outsider Art Fair to you when you can’t visit in person. 

How is Michael Stipe of R.E.M. Connected to the Outsider Art Fair?

Michael Stipe hails from Athens, Georgia, near the home of southern Outsider artist R.A. Miller. Stipe discovered Outsider Art as a young man and even featured Miller in one of R.E.M.’s popular music videos. Afterward, Stipe collected Outsider Art wherever he traveled with R.E.M. 

In NYC, Stipe lived just down the street from the Andrew Edlin Gallery and dropped in frequently over the years. Edlin approached Stipe because he was aware of his personal collection. Outsider Art Fair exhibited Stipe’s art in March of 2022, including luminaries of the Outsider Art genre.

You can see some of Stipe’s collection online, but you’ve probably seen some of it before. Stipe spent years as R.E.M.’s visual director, and he included many of these works in album art and videos. 

Where Else Can I See Outsider Art?


Founded in 1991, The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (Intuit) is an exceptionally well-curated museum of Outsider and Folk art. Intuit exhibitions feature artists who overcame personal struggles, marginalization, or didn’t follow a traditional path to art. The museum is in the heart of Chicago, a hotbed of Outsider artists. 

The museum houses over 1,300 works and resources for scholars and artists. They hold non-circulating collections of unique objects that you must see in person. Several study rooms exist as well, including the Henry Darger Room. Darger left his mark on the Outsider Art world and gifted his archive to the museum. 

Whether you’re just curious or want to dig deep into Outsider Art, Intuit has something for everyone. Jump off the blue line at Chicago Ave and check it out! 

Outside Art Gallery

In addition, we have many pieces of Outsider Art in our personal collection, which you can see at Outside Folk Art on Instagram or in our Artsy gallery. 

Celebrating folk and outsider artists, our gallery gives voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans. We’ll also offer pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when.

Is a Trip to the Outsider Art Fair Worth It?

Authenticity is hard to come by these days. But, the artists featured in OFA exhibitions are known for their raw creative expression. The Outsider Art Fair is a must-see if you’re an artist searching for inspiration or a collector who’s building your collection. Check out both locations if you’re able and get an original piece for yourself. 

Have you been to the Outsider Art Fair? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

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