There are hundreds of pieces of art listed on the Connected Creators website, and each one tells a story. Officially launched on December 1, 2019, BHMA’s multi-user, e-commerce site puts artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their creativity at the center of the user experience. The idea for Connected Creators emerged out of the success of our Ascending Artist Program, which since the spring of 2017 has provided individuals an opportunity to use art to express themselves, build vocational skills, and attain gainful employment. Director of Vocational Services Andy Anderson always intended to take the initiative further and bring the artists’ work to new audiences. He spent over a year solidifying the concept for an online marketplace with a business plan, cost projections, and market data research, and then started the ongoing process of collaborating with partner agencies, securing funding, and developing the website. With the launch of Connected Creators, Anderson’s vision has come to fruition—giving artists with disabilities a more structured platform to sell their art and achieve greater independence.
The website features bright, engaging, and dynamic creations, as well as writing that highlights the influence art has had on the individual. Our Ascending Artist Program participants work with a wide range of mediums—while they started three years ago with printmaking and painting, they have recently been marbling silk scarves, doing acrylic pours, and photographing nature scenes. Following the donation of a kiln in January, students began experimenting with new ceramic techniques and molding clay into garden stakes, bird feeders, air plant holders, and flowerpots in anticipation of the spring season. Each product listing on the Connected Creators website—from magnets and jewelry, to greeting cards and calendars—also allows visitors to learn more about the individual behind the artwork and the impact that each purchase has. As Carly Ziemba’s biography reads, “There are so many possibilities for people with disabilities. Art has brought so much into my life and has helped me express my personality. When I make art, I feel free, happy and joyful.” By supplying the artists with a virtual space to showcase their work, their abilities, and their stories, they are able to connect with consumers in a meaningful way.
Connected Creators is run out of BHMA’s off-campus studio and offers an authentic work experience for individuals enrolled in our Long-Term Independent Vocational Experience (LIVE) Program’s general vocation track. Student employees provide vital backend support for the burgeoning website operation, explains Assistant Director of Vocational Services and Ascending Artist Program teacher Karen Morison. With some staff assistance, they catalogue and photograph each piece of artwork for website listings. Participants are also learning how to organize and inventory the products available for sale, and they will eventually be involved in completing orders and shipping items. The behind-the-scenes work keeps the online marketplace running smoothly, and helps our students develop valuable, transferable job skills. They are growing their knowledge of using computers in a professional capacity, while also practicing working collaboratively and dividing responsibilities among team members. When additional orders come in, students will increase their autonomy and be in charge of more of the order fulfillment process.
Connected Creators is owned and operated by BHMA, but the enterprise is bigger than our program. Anderson believes strongly in the importance of forging partnerships with sister organizations to share ideas, strengthen community ties, and expand the number of non-conventional vocational opportunities. The online marketplace, which currently features artwork from individuals at Riverside Industries and Sunshine Village, gives other artists with disabilities a space to nurture their creative abilities and refine their entrepreneurial spirit. Having established a grassroots base in the Pioneer Valley, Anderson’s goal now is to expand the program’s reach further with new partner agencies and customers. “We hope to use this platform to unite programs across the country in order to create a reliable network of artists and consumers,” he writes. Though still in its infancy, Anderson is pleased with the initial reception of the site, and he anticipates Connected Creators will continue to increase the accessibility and profitability of artwork made by individuals with ID/DD.
To browse the online marketplace, click here.