Artists with disabilities sell work at Gateway Arts



Alison Doucette, who has been an artist at Gateway Arts for around nine years, enjoys working on Canvas with embroidery floss and is currently working on a gothic apple with this medium. Doucette’s favorite piece of hers is an image of Tom Brady and the Patriots logo that she sold to the Kraft family.

The prominent center for artists with disabilities in the Greater Boston area springs into action every morning at 9 a.m. Artists chat as they work, catching up with friends they have known from anywhere between one month to 50 years.

Founded in 1973, Gateway Arts is a nonprofit art center for adults who have a developmental disability, suffered a major brain injury, are on the autism spectrum or have a serious mental health diagnosis. The center aims to support its approximately 70 artists with an outlet for artistic expression and a workplace of warmth and collaboration.

According to Director Gregory Liakos, Gateway Arts opened during a period when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts shut down many institutions that supported those with developmental disabilities and mental health diagnoses. Through Gateway Arts, artists can cycle through different mediums, working on both long and short-term projects in the studios.

“People who cared about these individuals were trying to find opportunities for them to integrate fully into community life. And the founders of Gateway had the vision to see the arts and creative expression as an important part of that process, that persons with disabilities have just as much capability to express themselves creatively, a story to tell the world, through painting or poetry or sculpture, as everybody else,” Liakos said.

Alison Doucette, who has created art at Gateway Arts for around nine years, focuses on canvas work, sometimes incorporating embroidery, and frequently depicts major figures including former president Barack Obama, Disney characters, Betty Boop and Kobe and Gianna Bryant.

“It calms me. If you’re stressed out, you can do art and it doesn’t talk back to you,” Doucette said.

In addition to providing a space for artists to express themselves, Liakos said the center allows the artists to forge meaningful bonds with staff and fellow artists. Doucette said she treasures memories with the center’s facilitators, including music trivia with Artistic Director Bill Thibodeau.

Similarly, Liakos said his favorite element of working at the center is his relationship with the artists.

“Getting to know each of them, getting to see the way they see the world, learning about different communication styles, learning that there are an infinite number of ways to experience life and express it, and appreciating that though they may have a disability, they have limitless potential when it comes to their creative selves—that’s a powerful thing to experience every day,” Liakos said.

Studio Facilitator Etta DeMartino said artists have formed a community among themselves. She fondly recalls one artist, who loves learning languages, gifting another artist books so they could learn Japanese together for the holidays.

“They all know each other really well. Some have been here for only a few months, some have been here since [the center] started,” DeMartino said.

Every month, the Gateway staff selects an artist of the month to celebrate. According to DeMartino, artists love to cheer each other on for the selection.

Most of the artwork created in the studios goes on sale in Gateway’s store, which is directly downstairs from the studios, and was opened in 2000. Liakos said studio facilitators and artists hold conversations to determine when a piece is complete and ready to be sold. Artists receive 50% of the profits of their work.

“The store has always been a big part of the Gateway mission because it’s a significant incentive for artists to be able to sell their work to the public, as well as exhibit it in the gallery,” Liakos said.

As the center reaches its 50th anniversary this year, Liakos said Gateway Arts aspires to engage more of the community with their art and mission.

To reach a broader audience, Thibodeau builds partnerships with local organizations, like the Fuller Craft Museum, which will showcase a fiber exhibition by Gateway artists until June 2023. This past November, five Gateway artists painted backdrops for a ballet at the Boston Center for the Arts by Abilities Dance, a Boston-based dance troupe promoting inclusion through dance.

Despite state contracts funding the studios, Liakos said Gateway Arts faces financial challenges to provide support to artists and function as a center.

“The state is very generous, but the contracts don’t actually cover all of the costs of what it takes to provide service to the artists,” Liakos said. “We have to fundraise for that, and it’s a very competitive philanthropic environment in Greater Boston, so we have to constantly make the case for financial support. That’s important, and it’s necessary, it’s part of our job. But it’s not easy.”

In 1977, four years after Gateway Arts’s founding, the center merged with the Vinfen Corporation, a nonprofit that supports people with disabilities, brain injuries and behavioral health diagnoses across the Commonwealth. According to Liakos, Gateway Arts remains Vinfen’s only art program.

“Vinfen provided the behavioral and clinical infrastructure for the program so that each artist now has a creative work plan. They also get the clinical, social and emotional and, in some cases, psychological support that they need, whether with our clinical staff here or working with the families and caregivers to get that expertise,” Liakos said. “Now, it’s a holistic approach to every individual artist.”