by David Morstad
For more than 30 years, I worked for a large organization serving adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Once a large institution, it had made the transition to community-based services, though many of the old buildings remained on the campus.
One building in particular, home to hundreds of people in the 1960s and ‘70s was the stereotypic institutional structure, with long hallways, shared bedrooms on both sides, and big sunny dayrooms at the ends. Over the years that people lived there, pictures were gathered from donated items, second-hand stores and elsewhere. They were placed behind indestructible Plexiglas and screwed to the institution walls in order to make the place appear less drab.
In time, people moved out into community-based homes and the old building became space for offices and storage. But in the early 2000s, the time had come for demolition. Workers began disposing of the old things in it and, eventually, began unscrewing the pictures from the walls. During that process, it was discovered that a large picture in one of the stairwells did not look at all like a cheap print. It wasn’t. It was an original oil painting on stretched canvas.
Following the discovery, there was an identification and authentication process, a gallery in New York completed an appraisal, and a value was applied. This picture that had been screwed to the wall of an institution stairwell was worth thousands of dollars; in fact, tens of thousands. We had a treasure and we didn’t know.
If the painting could talk, it might have told us. All those years, as we walked by, ignoring it, it might have shouted to us, “Hey! Pay attention. You’re missing something here. Don’t be misled by my surroundings. Don’t be fooled by the way people ignore me. I have value that you’re failing to see. Other paintings hang in homes and galleries. I could do that! I could beautify the world! I could inspire others! You’re missing it!”
But here’s the thing about art: It doesn’t know what it’s worth. Art doesn’t say, “I’m worth $35,000.” Art only knows that it is beautiful. Consequently, we form our own ideas of what constitutes treasure, and they don’t always match reality.
For nearly 50 years, that old building was home to hundreds of people. And in ways we can now see a bit more clearly, they had some things in common with the painting on the wall. They, too, stood silently and watched people walk by every day, not fully appreciating the value of what was right in front of them.
Most of the people who lived in that old building were unable to speak, but if they could, they might have told us, “Hey! You’re missing something here. Don’t be misled by my surroundings. Don’t be fooled by the way people ignore me. I have value that you’re failing to see. I could beautify the world! I could inspire others! You’re missing it!”
Whether the subject is paintings or people, it seems that we don’t always pay attention to how valuable they truly are. In our haste to look past them, we not only miss the opportunity to learn more about them, we miss the opportunity to marvel at the work of their creator.