Exhibiting Contemporary Craft Today

Exhibiting Contemporary Craft Today

Sarah E. Condon
The craft world has been developing and growing rapidly since the late 1990s and into the 21st Century. A new generation of craftspeople, or makers, has come into their own, influencing and participating in everything from internet websites to museum exhibitions. And they are not slowing down. These makers have expanded to exhibiting craft in a variety of venues, including the web, print publications, craft fairs, boutiques, galleries, and museums. While makers have been very resourceful in exhibiting their craft on their own, it leaves curators in galleries and museums to figure out where craft fits into their venues, and what craft means to the established art world. How galleries and museums decide to exhibit craft, if at all, has been an evolving, and sometimes controversial, practice. While some museums have chosen not to represent this movement at all, or to assimilate craft into their general definition of art and design, other museums have been established for the express purpose of exhibiting contemporary craft. Looking in-depth at organizations and venues in which contemporary craft is exhibited today is important to understand how the term craft has gone from a somewhat negative connotation in the art world to a movement in its own right.

One of the main issues with museums that are deciding to exhibit craft as a main part of their mission is whether or not to embrace the term craft. If a museum does use the term craft, especially in the name of the museum, there is sometimes a slight fear that the museum won’t be taken as seriously as other art museums. A few years ago, there was a lot of discussion of this issue. In 2002, the American Craft Museum in New York changed its name to the Museum of Arts & Design, dropping “craft” from its name. The California College of Arts and Crafts also dropped the “craft” out of their name. However, at the same time, the Fuller Museum of Art changed its name to include and embrace the term craft, becoming the Fuller Craft Museum. The Fuller saw a great need for a contemporary crafts center in the New England area, and nobody else was doing it. According to Andrew Maydoney, who is on the Board of Directors at the Fuller, “Five months after the museum’s rededication and name change, membership increased by 44 percent and attendance surpassed anything the museum had seen in recent years.” Another museum that embraced the term craft is the San Francisco Museum of Craft + Design, who decided they needed to emphasize their commitment to craft by including the term in the name of the museum. Founder JoAnn Edwards explains, “”We were afraid that we would lose something that is important to our history and culture,” she says, speaking about the word “craft.” “Instead, we decided to embrace it. If people think [the word is all about] macramé and pot holders, then we haven’t done our job very well in educating them.” Other museum directors would personally like to insert the term craft into their museum’s names but are afraid that the issue is too controversial for their delicate museum to handle.
This was the case with the Bellevue Arts Museum, which was built on crafts with the successful Bellevue Arts and Crafts fair, yet predicts that their museum couldn’t handle a name change. However, the executive director, Michael Monroe, thinks that debate between the terms “art” and “craft” is dwindling. He says, “You don’t hear that so much anymore.” Monroe goes on to say that it shouldn’t matter whether or not a museum uses the term “craft” in its name, “The work is judged on whether it adds some value to the human dimension. In the final analysis, it’s the quality of what’s in the building that counts.” The Museum of Arts and Design and the California College of the Arts agree, and claim that they are not belittling the term craft, rather acknowledging that the term craft is now a part of the high arts. “The artificial boundaries between art, design, and craft that were so important to the nineteenth-century academies no longer exist,” says Simon Blattner, chair of the CCA’s board of trustees. However, the problem with not including the term craft is that this is a time where craft is becoming redefined and shaping itself into a new movement.  It is too important to assimilate. Museums should be forward-looking and seek to expand the definition of “craft” if they are to truly understand what the new generation of makers is actually doing with their work. This has been happening more recently with museums such as the Museum of Contemporary Craft, and the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.  What these museums have done is to include the word “contemporary” before the word craft. This emphasizes that they are showing high quality work and alleviates most controversy over the name. Looking at the differences in the names of these institutions will help us understand the differences in their exhibitions of craft.

And what about craft that bridges the gap between what is considered “art” and “craft”? Andrew Wagner, editor-in-chief of American Craft magazine, feels that the term craft itself is difficult to define. He says, “People are searching for freedom from the strict confines that have been hoisted upon so many creative endeavors. At its essence, at its very root, craft is about process, technique and material.” Amy Shaw, who owns Greenjeans, a small craft shop/gallery in Brooklyn who exhibits work by artists who straddle this divide and are difficult to categorize, has come up with her own definition of craft after much consideration and thought. Shaw says, “At the end of the day, there are only two defining characteristics that I can’t seem to argue against: 1) craft is the root of all made things; and 2) craft cannot be divorced from function (which doesn’t mean a work must be functional to be craft, but rather that any craft work is in some way dealing with function, whether by being functional or ‘queering’ function by subverting expectations).”

Many museums and galleries are interested in this bridge between art and craft, creating exhibitions that make people question the differences and similarities in art and craft, and how you can or cannot define the two terms. The Museum of Arts and Design frequently curates these types of exhibitions. Recent exhibitions include Klaus Moje: Painting With Glass, Totally Rad: Karim Rashid Does Radiators, Elegant Armor: The Art of Jewelry, and Permanently MAD: Revealing the Collection. A recent panel discussion at the museum, Living in the Blur Zone: Art, Craft, Design, and Creativity, with MAD Chief Curator David McFadden, Sally Morgan of Morgan Lehman Gallery, Steven Sergiovanni of Mixed Greens Gallery, and Marc Benda of Friedman Benda Gallery explains how many artists today are working within a framework that cannot be defined. Their website states, “A new generation of creators has risen to prominence in the past decade. Unwilling to be categorized or defined, they seldom work in a single medium, nor are their works susceptible to facile classification as art, craft, or design.”

In the exhibition Permanently MAD, the Museum of Arts and Design’s website states that the show “offers new ways of looking at artworks, outside of traditional hierarchies of art, craft, and design. Exhibition sections allow viewers to draw connections between works of all media, presenting fresh insights for those familiar with the Museum and for those visiting for the first time.” The website also includes images and detailed information, including curator’s statements, about selected objects in each exhibition. In many exhibitions at MAD, a catalog or book accompanies the exhibition, so that it lives on after it has come down. The museum also has many programs, tours, and interactive activities for the public to be involved in.

Galleries are also realizing how important craft is to exhibit, as we have seen in many galleries across the United States (and beyond), including the Lawton Gallery with its Craftivism exhibition. The Craftivism exhibition at the Lawton was guest curated by Faythe Levine, included many artists that are active in the grass roots, handmade movement and craft community, and traveled to many venues across the United States. These exhibitions bring a new awareness of craft to people in smaller cities who don’t have access to the large contemporary craft centers and museums.

Other museums and galleries are devoted entirely to craft, producing exhibitions producing exhibitions that stress the importance of contemporary craft today.  A recent exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was Cultural Convergence: Recent Acquisitions in Contemporary Craft, curated by Elizabeth Argo. This show was presented as being important in the museum’s history, as “contemporary crafts were among the first works of art to enter the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art when it was founded in 1876, and since that time the acquisition of these objects has expanded steadily. This exhibition highlights…a group so varied it encompasses the Museum’s departments of American art, costume and textiles, East Asian art, and European decorative arts. Each year these departments acquire contemporary crafts made of clay, glass, metal, fiber, and wood.” This statement not only reflects the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s stance on the importance of exhibiting and acquiring craft in their collections, but also how they define the term craft.

The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA and The Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, OR stand out to be the frontrunners in exhibiting contemporary craft in the United States today. The Fuller’s mission states that they “will become an international forum for the recognition and exploration of craft”. Current exhibitions include Craft in America-Expanding Traditions, The Sixth Sense: Contemporary Jewelry from Korea, and Days of Spring-Memories of Intimate Connections, Wood Sculpture by Christian Burchard. The Museum of Contemporary Craft states that they are“a vibrant center for investigation and dialogue, expanding the definition of craft and the ways audiences experience it. At the Museum, craft is engaged as a verb as well as a noun, pondering what it means to “craft” something.” Recent exhibitions include Mandy Greer: Dare alla Luce, Darrel Morris: The Large Works 1999 – 2008, and Toshiko Takaezu: Recent Gifts.

The Fuller’s exhibitions include other events and activities in relation to the shows, creating the opportunity for visitors to turn into active participants. For example, other programs with the current Craft in America show include a presentation by Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, talking about her own work and the work of her late father, studio furniture maker, George Nakashima; a public opening reception with a presentation by Carol Sauvion, Executive Director of Craft in America; Jo Lauria, Chief Curator of Craft in America and lead author of Craft in America- Celebrating Two Centuries of Artists and Objects, and Steve Fenton, one of the authors of Craft in America – Celebrating Two Centuries of Artists and Objects; a film showing of Maloof , including an introduction and dialogue with Jonathan Fairbanks, Consulting Art Historian for Craft in America and Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Emeritus, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; a Presentation by internationally known textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen; and Luminaries event honoring Sam Maloof and Jonathan Leo Fairbanks. They have a similar amount of programming for their other exhibitions as well. In addition, the Fuller has also formed community collaborations with area organizations for their exhibitions. Again using the example of Craft in America, the Fuller has partnered with the North Bennet Street School and the Society of Arts and Crafts to offer programs in conjunction with their exhibition. At the North Bennet Street School, programs include an artist talk by Cynthia Eid, a lecture by Tom Conroy, a demonstation and lecture by Alan Lacer, an artist talk by Shanna Leino, and a lecture by Sam Maloof. The Society of Arts and Crafts had screenings of the films Maloof and Craft in America, with presentations by Gretchen Keyworth, the director at the Fuller Craft Museum.

All of these extra programs and community collaborations within the context of each of their exhibitions prove that the Fuller Craft Museum is indeed fulfilling their mission to become “an international forum for the recognition and exploration of craft”. In addition, the Fuller has outreach programs outside of the context of individual exhibitions. One of several examples is their outreach presentations where museum educators come to schools, community organizations, and businesses to lead interactive presentations supplemented with a hands-on craft activity. At the Museum, the Fuller has a plethora of workshops, family events, lectures, special events, and custom workshops for adults and children to choose from and participate in. The Fuller creates a sense of community that relates to the concept of craft and sustains a relationship with the visitors to the Fuller Craft Museum to keep people coming back for more exploration of craft.

The Museum of Contemporary Craft presents “present curated exhibitions and installations that examine the current, future and past of craft through today’s lens.” Their exhibitions seem to focus on artists that also align themselves with the current new wave of crafting and the handmade movement. Their recent exhibition of Mandy Greer’s artwork is a good example. The Museum of Contemporary Craft has a multimedia component on their website that presents bonus material for each exhibition. For example, with Mandy Greer’s exhibition, multimedia components include being able to watch videos of Greer discussing Dare alla Luce’s installation, process, and materials, as well as watch the actual installation of the work. Visitors to the website can also listen to a conversation with Greer and curators Stefano Catalani and Namita Gupta Wiggers, and listen to an interview with artists Mandy Greer, Darrel Morris and curators Stefano Catalani (Bellevue Arts Museum) and Namita Gupta Wiggers (Museum of Contemporary Craft) by Eva Lake, Art Focus, KBOO Community Radio. The Museum of Contemporay Craft, like the Fuller Craft Museum, also includes additional programming within the context of individual exhibitions. With Dare alla Luce, there was a panel discussion CraftPerspectives: Curating the Work of Mandy Greer and Daniel Morris; an exhibition tour and walkthrough with the curator; an evening discussion Craft Conversations: Glenn Adamson’s Thinking Through Craft; a lecture CraftPerspectives: Craft in the 21st Century: Directions and Displacements by Glenn Adamson, and a premiere of the film Handmade Nation by Faythe Levine.

Other programs at the Museum of Contemporary Craft besides those presented with an exhibition, include tours, lectures and discussions, classes and workshops, school and family programs, guild council programs, public programs, and podcasts. Like the Fuller Craft Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Craft succeeds in recruiting visitors to become active participants. Their emphasis is “is on physical interaction with objects, exploration of ideas, ways of making and the shifting place of craft in contemporary society.” The Museum also highlights “the intersections between craft, art and design within the broader art community.”

And then there are the makers/craftspeople/artists themselves, who have done entirely well exhibiting on their own. Venues include the Internet, alternative spaces, craft fairs, and publications ranging from small, self-published zines to magazines such as FiberArts. How do makers feel they fit in with the gallery and museum world? There are some very successful artists that have embraced the traditional art world and have had important and powerful exhibitions in leading galleries and museums. However, the majority of makers are individuals who show and sell their work on their own—in craft fairs, on websites such as Etsy.com, on their own websites, and sometimes in alternative spaces, boutiques, or like-minded galleries. The most important part to them is that they are creating something real and valuable with their own hands, and hopefully making enough money at it so that they can continue doing what they love and what they are good at. It is extremely easy for the viewing (and buying) public to find craft today, which is the beauty of how the craft world has evolved over the last ten years or so. Makers have had the power to create a truly independent economy free from corporate ties, and have developed a community that benefits not only Makers, but the people who purchase their high-quality, unique craft as well.

Andrew Wagner, editor of American Craft magazine, in his essay in Handmade Nation, looks at how craft has evolved in the past 40+ years. “Craft in the 1960s and ‘70s swung too far in one direction, as the hippy counterculture embraced it for its political, back-to-the-earth qualities while, for the most part, tossed actual quality aside. In reaction to this, makers of all sorts looked to distance themselves from this fervent politicizing and embrace more attributes of the art world, namely its aesthetic values. As the ‘80s turned to the ‘90s, galleries and museums began to dominate the high-end craft world, and discussions with street-level craft movements had all but ceased. Fortunately, with the dawn of the new millennium, we’ve reached a moment of possibility, as chance at reconciliation perhaps. Maybe due to all the new (and old) information suddenly at our fingertips, the two worlds that were once connected at the hip have a chance to again draw from one another and elevate craft to its proper place in this world-as a uniquely qualified leader and a grounded member of a society that often seems on the verge of chaos.”

The bottom line is, no matter how you define or interpret it, craft has become an integral part of the art community and our society. Debates as to how to define craft are not as important as the actual work itself. Whether craft is exhibited in a context that includes art and design, or if it stands on its own, craft is always going to be understood and interpreted subjectively, as is any other art form. The most important aspect that defines craft is the sense of community it creates. Whether you are making, exhibiting, or buying craft, you feel that you are part of something important. It is a very powerful and positive energy. As Andrew Wagner stated, “Craft is challenging but craft is also engaging. Craft is king and craft is queen. Craft is all encompassing and craft can be a circus. Without a doubt, it is all of this that makes craft difficult to understand and has caused fissures in the field…but this uneasiness is precisely the thing that makes craft so good-it is what you make of it.”

Galleries and museums should be most concerned with keeping craft authentic. It is important to curate exhibitions thoughtfully with the artist’s considerations in mind. Contemporary craft is best shown when considering the larger craft community (i.e. handmade nation, new wave of craft, Craftivism, etc.) If we are to be concerned with definitions, we only need to listen to how makers describe and define craft.

Works Cited

Cameron, Kristi and Makovsky, Paul. When Did Craft Become a Dirty Word? Metropolis, October 2003

Fuller Craft Museum’s website < http://www.fullercraft.org/home.html&gt;

Hagan, Debbie. Identity crisis? Naming craft museums proves difficult; some embrace the word
“crafts,” while others have dropped it from their names.
Art Business News, January 2005

Levine, Faythe and Heimerl, Cortney. Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design

Museum of Arts and Design website: < http://madmuseum.org&gt;

Museum of Contemporary Craft’s website: <http://www.museumofcontemporarycraft.org/index.php&gt;

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cultural Convergence: Recent Acquisitions of Contemporary Craft

Vartanian, Hrag. Garbage Collection. The Brooklyn Rail, November 2007                    <http://www.brooklynrail.org/2007/11/artseen/garbage-collection&gt;


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