This week we sit down with artist and curator Helen Ralli, founder of Hart Club, a gallery founded to champion neurodiversity in the arts. Disillusioned with the commercialisation of the art world, Helen founded Hart Club on the principles of community, inclusion and collaboration, inspired by the authenticity and innate visual language of those she works with.

What is Hart Club?

Hart Club’s is an organisation that was founded in 2018 to champion neurodiversity within the Arts. We commission original artwork and content that focuses on collaboration and celebrating the intersection of ideas and differences in artistic approaches and ways of thinking. Hart Club provides a platform for artists to access creative and financial recognition for work that so often goes unseen.

Our core aims are: To champion neurodiversity in the Arts. To forge working relationships between artists. To build confidence, community and wellbeing. To gain creative and financial recognition for artists and to encourage conversation around diversity and inclusion.

How did you come upon the idea?

On reflection, the seed of Hart Club was planted in April 2012 when I had the honour of working with the late great artist and musician Daniel Johnston. Then, in 2017, while I was curating an exhibition which celebrated neurodiversity called Great Minds Think Different, I had the great fortune of meeting the Camberwell Incredibles. This collective is formed from a group of 12 learning-diverse adults based in a social action centre in South London, who meet twice weekly to socialise and create art. I was blown away by the innate honesty and vibrant expression that underpinned their various practices and it was the first time in a long time I’d felt excited in a visceral sense about art. In the face of this brilliance, what didn’t add up was that in the twenty or so years since forming, they had never had a public-facing exhibition in a gallery. That incongruity is what ultimately inspired the creation of Hart Club.

How do you find the artists that you work with at Hart Club?   

We have a growing network of individuals we work with as well as close relationships with organisations and charities that are dedicated to facilitating disabled artists. We work closely with these groups to try and remove barriers to access creative opportunities for the people they support.

With the lack of opportunities for our community we have already become a bit of a hub. As awareness about Hart Club organically grows, more and more people reach out to us to connect. We are hoping that with the opening back up of our space (in London SE1) this Summer we will have even more opportunities to grow this creative network.

Do you think that there is a difference between art therapy and ‘proper’ art?

I think that art is – or at least can be – extremely therapeutic both in the production and the absorption of it. In many ways this is just an innate property of being creative and therefore I hesitate to draw a distinction between the two.

How has your work with Hart Club impacted your view of the wider art world? 

Before Hart Club I was feeling pretty jaded. I said in a previous interview: ‘There’s nothing like the commercialisation of everything to suck the joy out of something’ and I stand by that this includes art when it is handled purely as a commodity.

So many of the artists I work with now have an authenticity and innate visual language that somehow seems unweighted by the notion of external judgement and financial capital. This is a sacred thing.

It’s no secret that people who have additional needs or have different ways of communicating and behaving are often excluded from mainstream society. As a result, their creative output lies in the shadows and this is all too prevalent in the art world. The broader social implications of this kind of invisibility and lack of contact is incredibly damaging – and that is not only for those impacted directly by this exclusion but by society at large who misses out on the joy and beauty that diversity brings to life.

What are your future plans for Hart Club? 

We are currently fundraising to launch an alternative Arts school which feels quite surreal as it’s been a dream of mine since being at Camberwell a decade ago! Even back then, art school was a pretty homogenous environment and with the tripling of fees in recent years it has become even more exclusionary.

Hart School is our antidote! It’s a 3 month Arts programme that is designed to be totally free, inclusive and accessible. The opportunity is open to adults of all ages and prioritises those who are typically excluded from similar opportunities due to financial barriers and lack of specialised support for disabled artists.

Our team has also been busy developing a fully customisable new website with features such as larger text, image only web pages and an alternative font that is specifically designed for people who are dyslexic. We are so proud of this site which was designed with the understanding that everyone is unique and therefore each visitor can choose how to view the site in the way that is best for them.

We also have a brand new online store so you can support Hart Club and the artists we work with directly while beautifying your environment!

Has Hart Club changed you? 

Yes, immeasurably. It has reignited my love and appreciation for art, my understanding of its value and my own relationship with making. The raw talent and perspectives of the artists I work with jolted me out of a narrow pathway and expanded my perception of the place and purpose of art and community.

Compared with your experiences of traditional art galleries, what does Hart Club do differently?  

I’ve never worked for a ‘traditional’ gallery so I can’t answer extensively here. What I do know is that our focus is on supporting the artist as a person rather than a product, and on taking into account the individual’s feelings, aims and desires above anything else.

You are both a curator and an artist. How do you balance your curatorial projects with your own art-making? 

Honestly I wish I had (and am working towards having!) more time for my own making. Hart School is an opportunity where I think that will come to fruition as its an environment where everyone involved is both learning, making and teaching in tandem. The realities are that my responsibilities often lie with fundraising and project management but to be honest, however challenging, it’s always worth it. I feel like creating an environment like Hart Club is itself a work of art, and I feel proud to be involved.

When and how did you start working with ceramics?

I quit a more commercial curation job in 2016 and was having a real identity crisis. I felt really at odds within myself and what I was spending my time doing. I started looking after kids and then in my spare time going to council-run adult learning art programmes. I took up ceramics, etching and screen printing in order to reconnect with making, and working with clay was the thing that really clicked. These classes were such a new and nurturing environment. My social group before that was adversely limited and I relished being the youngest person in a group of people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. It was worlds away from my time at art school, and in many ways far more creative…. and cheap!

How do you define the artist-curator relationship? 

For me, it’s about friendship and collaboration. It’s grounded in enthusiasm, respect and the acknowledgement that we need the support of each other and our community to achieve our full potential.

What is Hart School and what do you hope to achieve with it? 

Hart School is a dream come true. It’s designed to be a radically inclusive, non-hierarchical and collaborative learning environment that supports participants to develop confidence in their creative practice. We also want to build bridges with brands and partners such as YMC to build a network for our future scholars who typically lack access to opportunities in the creative industries and the chance to work alongside those within.

You can support our fundraiser directly or check out our art auction on The Auction Collective until July 11th. Over 80 artists such as Harley Weir, Sara Berman and Ian Davenport have donated works to raise vital funds to make Hart School happen! 

How have you found the process of fundraising such a large sum for the realisation of Hart School?

Both challenging and affirming, as with my experience at large over the last 3 years! Hart Club is a magnet for kind, creative and generous people – from the artists we work with to our team and volunteers who make what we do possible. I have been blown away by the support from friends and strangers alike from day one. As this support and possibilities for collaboration continues to flourish it gives me faith and resolve that anything we set our mind to is possible.

What is your relationship with basketball? 

I love that you asked this question! Basically my sister started a super informal and friendly basketball crew for women and non-binary people in Los Angeles where she lives. I was always super shy playing sports at school because I hated the competitiveness and was so body conscious at that age. I just struck it off as something I didn’t engage with… I think a lot of people do that in regards to being creative too! Anyways, taking part with her made me realise that sport, like art, should and could be accessed by everyone so I started a similar group in London back in 2015 called S.L.A.W. Basketball (South London Amatuer Women’s). We had an amazing weekly meetup group for a couple years but since starting Hart Club I haven’t had the time…. but maybe this is a sign that it’s time for a reunion!

A final question for you. This year we are asking all of our Journal interviewees to complete the following phrase to help us celebrate 25 years of You Must Create (YMC):

You Must Create… access to creative opportunities for all. 

It can be a phrase or just a word. For us, you must create is both a mission statement and a call to action.