Is New York Ready for Everything? James Brett Is in Town

An insider on the outs with ‘Outsider’

the shop of everything exhibition 4 selfridges by sophia schor kon1 e1327532287845 Is New York Ready for Everything? James Brett Is in Town

The Shop of Everything. (Sophia Schor-Kon)

James Brett is a busy, tightly wound man who can say—for anyone else it would be a gross exaggeration—that he is occupied with Everything.

The Observer met Mr. Brett, founder of London’s The Museum of Everything, in the lobby lounge of the Bowery Hotel two Sundays ago. He’d just flown in that afternoon, but by the time we arrived, at 6, he’d already installed himself on one of the lounge’s couches, where he was perched before a nearly empty cup of coffee and a mostly untouched bowl of mixed nuts. Beside him on the sofa were his weapons of choice: notebooks, papers, a BlackBerry, a white iPhone. A thickly bearded man, he wore a pin on the lapel of his jacket that said, in a loping blue and red script forming a circle, “Everything.”

Hitting the ground running is par for the course for Mr. Brett. The three-year-old The Museum of Everything is nomadic: When not in the midst of one of its exhibitions—there have been four to date—it is embodied by Mr. Brett. He almost invariably introduces himself as The Museum of Everything. “I’m James Brett. I’m The Museum of Everything.” This is accurate; he has a tiny staff. He’s pretty much a one-man band.

The museum is dedicated to what most of us call outsider art. Mr. Brett, whose speech comes rapid-fire, has long been vocal in his disdain for that term, a catchall for a hodgepodge of self-taught, folk and vernacular creations, as well as art by the mentally ill and handicapped. Nevertheless, this week he is launching his first foray into New York at the Outsider Art Fair (which runs through January 29 at 7 West 34th Street) with an installation of his Shop of Everything, the store that accompanied his museum’s latest iteration in a gallery inside London’s Selfridges department store this past fall, an exhibition of work by 200 people with disabilities (ceramic cameras by Alan Constable, is deaf and blind; fantastical scenes painted by Marianne Schipaanboord, who is deaf and has cerebral palsy). Mr. Brett was in New York last week showing some of Everything’s catalogues at the Metro Art Show, but his Outsider Art Fair outing is more ambitious, with lithographs, travel bags, stationary, home ware and clothing.

We were surprised he was showing at the Outsider Art Fair.

“Me too,” he replied, and launched into the “long philosophical rant” that is his objection to the term. The gist is that, far from being “outside” the tradition of art-making, so-called outsider art is actually central to it, in the sense that it represents a pure form of creativity that harks back to original forms of human expression, such as cave painting. He thinks the term carries shades of a kind of cultural segregationism, and bigotry. Creativity, he maintains, comes before language. He zipped through the history of the material. The artist Dubuffet’s becoming interested in Art Brut. Collectors acquiring work by mental-hospital patients. MoMA founder Alfred Barr’s taking an interest in vernacular art. Then he stopped. “People liked the coolness of the name ‘outsider.’ The more it infiltrated, the more everybody was an outsider artist. When I made the museum, I would get no end of people coming up to me and going, ‘Hi, I’m an outsider artist.’ Every good artist thinks they’re a bit of an outsider. Let’s be honest: every good artist is probably a bit of an outsider. So what the hell does it even mean?”

The message “Death to outsider art! Long live the outsiders!” currently appears on Everything’s website. What would Mr. Brett have the Outsider Art Fair change its name to, we asked? He thought for a moment. “How about just Outside? How about Not the Outsider Art Fair?”

During his Selfridges show, he put together a panel discussion that included artist Antony Gormley and Hayward Gallery curator Ralph Rugoff, among others. He plans to screen it at the Outsider Art Fair this Friday. The title and subject—Mr. Brett’s idea—was “Is It Art?” “A really fatuous title,” he said. “Because I wanted them to discuss, Can somebody who cannot conceive of what they do as art be an artist?”


The timing and location of the first Everything was significant: Mr. Brett launched it in October 2009, during London’s Frieze Art Fair, the city’s most important commercial contemporary art event, in a building directly across Regent’s Park from Frieze’s massive tent. (Two subsequent Everythings have also coincided with Frieze.) He counts the contemporary art world’s denizens among his friends and colleagues, and made daily forays into Frieze, to promote Everything, which was doing a show in which contemporary artists like Ed Ruscha and Annette Messager were asked to pick out work by, well, outsider artists; he was rewarded with attendance of 35,000 for a four-month run. In its two-month run, the Selfridges show attracted some 100,000 souls.

The closest thing New York currently has to The Museum  of Everything is the American Folk Art Museum, these days arguably better known for its financial troubles than for its exhibitions. Recently, the museum had to abandon its gleaming, 10-year-old building on West 53rd Street for smaller quarters across from Lincoln Center. Is it possible that Mr. Brett’s model of aggressively reaching out to the contemporary art community might be instructive for the Folk?

“I usually start thinking about doing something about 10 minutes before I do it,” Mr. Brett said. “Well, it’s not quite true. We were going to do a very big show this year in New York.” Before the Folk Art Museum’s troubles, he said, he’d been in discussions with it about planning something there, which potentially would have involved The Museum of Everything’s occupying the museum. He’s already presented Everything in two museums, Tate Modern and the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli in Turin, Italy. He has long wanted to expand into the U.S. and said he’s had “invitations from Los Angeles, Philadelphia,” but wants to start in New York, where he attended film school.

Mr. Brett keeps Everything afloat through indefatigable self-promotion. At the Bowery, he was approached by a waitress, who mistook his pin for the work of a contemporary artist. “Is that David Shrigley?” she asked. “No, it’s me,” he replied, and launched into a pitch for Everything. He apologized to The Observer by muttering, “Endless promoting activity.” His museum has even been the beneficiary of attention from the fashion world: when he mounted an exhibition of the collection of Peter Blake, the artist best known for the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album, in London early last year, a member of the Missoni family took notice, brought in photographer Juergen Teller, and staged that company’s fashion campaign there.


  1. […] James Brett Is in Town An insider on the outs with ‘Outsider’ New York Observer- …and from the source: […]

  2. Jailhouse Brown says:

    James Brett will surely in time suffocate the very thing he seems to have nurtured. He is taking art/not art by artists/non-artists and elevating it beyond it’s purpose and the understanding of it’s creators. Creativity certainly comes before language, but pride comes before a fall. Brett labels himself Everything, there is no irony there. I think he really believes that legend. By plundering the walls of care institutions, lifting, borrowing, stealing, call it what you will, the art work done for pleasure, theraputic release, or an obsessive urge he has then cynically marketed these images on useless gee-gaws for rich chatterers and his own vainglorious purpose and gain. I question whether the artists/creators ever see a shiney dime for their hard work, even though Mr Brett holds it in such great value. Well it certainly gets him places it seems. Let’s see how maybe in his next mercurial train of thoughts, he could spare 10 minutes to figure out an admirable way to give something back to the artists/creators.

    1. Edgeworth Johnstone says:

      Galleries and museums are full of work created without the intention or purpose of being exhibited. To put the shows on needs money, so why not commercially from the rich people that go to see it. I would rather that than grants footing the bill with the tax-payer, as most art projects seem content to. The artists are presumably happy for their work to be exhibited, and people want to see it. I don’t see why any one takes issue with this. You can speculate the creators may not get paid, maybe they don’t, so what? Was this the ‘purpose and the understanding of it’s creators’. I’m sure it’s the norm for artists to go unpaid, or even pay themselves, to be exhibited. You can specualte the MoE’s motivations, but I’ve met James Brett and some of his staff a few times and they seem totally genuine to me. Whatever the motivations, the end result is putting on a good art show for people that want to see it, by people that are presumably happy to be exhibited. Seems more liberating than suffocating to me.

    2. The Museum of Everything says:

      Dear Jailhouse Brown,

      Your concerns are legitimate and we thank you for voicing them.

      The trouble is that most museums have a problem with the work you’re discussing. It lacks context, both historical and aesthetic. It does not translate into mainstream art culture. That’s why it is segregated and called <>.

      However that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be seen or shown. You simply have to choose your ethical line. Either the work remains hidden; or it is communicated to a wider audience. The Museum of Everything chooses the latter – and does its best to present the work in a way that respects its makers and their intentions.

      Of course, you’re absolutely right when you note that much of the early historic work is plunder. Yet modern work is rarely that; and The Museum of Everything does not support the ripping off of any artist, alive or dead.

      Our last show, for example, presented over 400 works from studios for living artists with learning issues. It was the first major European show to suggest that work by these artists can be curated and appreciated as art. The artists and studios were actively involved in and consented to the realization of the project; and if an artist’s image was featured on a product, the artist benefited financially.

      Nor is this all The Museum of Everything exhibits. Previous shows include everything from folkloric and found objects to visionary and contemporary creations. That is also why it is called The Museum of Everything: it does not promote barriers of language or terminology – for example, the term <> – and aims instead to celebrate the truth, meaning and resonance of its artists through the material which it displays.

      In the end, The Museum of Everything believe these artists deserve a place in the history of art. It is up to you – and the rest of man/womankind – whether you agree.


      The Museum of Everything

  3. […] Still seemed unfair, so felt duty-bound to post in the museums defence. The blogs are here and here if interested. If you get a chance to see The Museum of Everything outsider art shows, […]