Research Distortions in the Fiber Field


The field of contemporary fiber art and craft is understood to be the largest constituency in the field of contemporary craft art.  But in the decades since the field's rise in the mid 20th Century, academic research has created an inaccurate impression that the field of contemporary fiber art and craft is one of the least significant constituencies in contemporary craft art.

While this distortion in academic research has been officially acknowledged, there has been little discussion about the structure of research practice creating and perpetuating this distortion.

The distortion appears almost identically in the commercial gallery world.  Is that a coincidence?  The commercial gallery world is profit driven.  University art departments and museums publicly dedicate their research to standards significantly different from profit driven ones.  How is it then that over past decades they both reflect similar persistent research distortions?

The following articles in this tab report some of the types of concerns the contemporary fiber field acknowledges as occurring.

Poetry of the Physical, American Craft Museum, 1986.
Reflections:  20th-Century Fiber History in America, Fiber Art News, 04/2002.
  The Luster of Glass Joins Art's Mainstream, New York Times, 04/28/2003.

Trading Baskets For Plastics:  A museum changes direction and a movement holds its breath, New York Times, 06/19/2003.

Elegance, Wit and Pop in a Quarter-Century of American Design, New York Times, 08/08/2003 and Editors' Note, 09/15/2003.

The Museum's New Clothes, Editorial, Textil Forum, 09/2003.

If Art Quilts Are "Blankies," We've Got a Ways to Go, Fiberarts Magazine, 01-02/2003.

Poetry of the Physical, ed. Paul J. Smith, American Craft Museum, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, NY, NY, 1986, p 14.

The introduction to this exhibition catalogue, "Craft Today, Historical Roots and Contemporary Perspectives," was by written by Edward Lucie-Smith.  There he stated:

"Furthermore the recent history of craft as it is reflected in print is subject to some unexpected distortions.  For example, although ceramics is not the largest field of activity — that honor almost certainly belongs to fiber — in the recent history of American craft ceramics is more fully recorded than work in any other medium."

Why does that distortion exist in academic and curatorial research?  Is it discrimination?  Is it the financial influence of the marketplace?

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Reflections:  20th-Century Fiber History in America, Paul J. Smith, Fiber Art News, 04/2002, pp. 1-4.

After more than three decades of work at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts/American Craft Museum, Paul J. Smith became the museum's Director Emeritus in 1987.  This article in the newsletter of Friends of Fiber Arts International was derived from a presentation given by Mr. Smith focusing on some of the fiber art exhibited at the museum during that period.

Mr. Smith explained, "Because complete documentation of the formative years of fiber activity does not exist and lecture time was limited to 30 minutes, it was not possible to present an in-depth history.  The illustrated presentation highlighted selected events and artists but could not include all the important activities.  A more definitive documentation awaits future attention."

This was not the only time in his career that Mr. Smith placed on record the important caveat that curatorial research on contemporary fiber art and craft has been distorted.


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The Luster of Glass Joins Art's Mainstream:  Works Once Dismissed as Crafts Enjoy a New Level of Respect, Stephen Kinzer, New York Times, 04/28/03, pp. E1&5.

In this article, Mr. Kinzer reported on the Museum of Glass that opened in the summer of 2002 in Tacoma, Washington.  He referred to the impact of the museum on the local economy and how the people there "took it as a symbol of this city's rebirth."

But business rebirth aside, what about the curatorial research?

Then the article explained how the museum formally the Museum of Glass:  International Center for Contemporary Art was originally envisioned as a place where Dale Chihuly, born in Tacoma, could show his own glass work.

Mr. Chihuly, was then cited by Director Josi Callan as a major force behind glass making — "the jump from being perceived as craft to being perceived as art", "push[ing] the boundaries of glassworking and, in his sculpture, blurr[ing] the line between decorative and fine art."

And the article quoted Ms. Callan as advising that the fine art world was paying more attention to this type of work over the past ten years.

The Times wrote that "The opening of this museum also reflects a growing recognition that glassmaking and other pursuits traditionally dismissed as crafts have reached a level of artistic quality.  An exhibition now at the Museum of Glass reflects the rising ambitions of many glassmakers, ceramic artists woodworkers, metalsmiths, fabric creators and others who work in fields once considered by critics and curators as mere artisanry."

The Times's article then continued, "The line separating art from craft has always been subjectively drawn.  Sometimes the difference was said to be in intent, art created solely for its own sake while crafted objects were meant to be useful.  At other times the medium has been considered the key difference.  Oil painting for example, was automatically considered an artist's medium, and works in fabric, wood or clay consigned to lesser talents."

Mr. Kinzer continued, "In recent years, however, glassmakers seem to have succeeded in changing the public's perception of what they do.  Those working in other mediums view the glassmakers' success with a mixture of admiration and envy."

The article then includes a comment from James A. Wallace, director of the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, which exhibits works ranging from jewelry to monumental sculpture.  "The glass people are definitely ahead of us," he said.  "They did it right.  They never sold cheap, and they very consciously nurtured the image of being artists rather than craftspeople."

Mr. Wallace said that the rising quality of metalwork, woodwork and ceramics had led many art lovers and critics to shift their perceptions.  "Since the beginning of art history, crafts have been considered minor arts, the bastard child left out on the street corner," he said.  "Just in the last few years I've seen that stereotype really start to change.  We're moving into the artistic mainstream."

And then the Times's article stated, "Some curators consider the word craft a negative term and seek to avoid it.  Last year the American Craft Museum in New York changed its name to the Museum of Arts and Design."

David Revere McFadden, its chief curator, was quoted, "We did a lot of consultation and work with focus groups, and when we asked them what craft means, they came up with reactions like handiwork, busy work, rural, nonprofessional, folk art, humble, brown and scratchy, macrame plant hangers.  There's been such an eroding of the traditional borders between various fields that we decided it was a mistake to keep using that word."

The Mint Museum of Craft and Design in Charlotte, North Carolina was reported as taking a different view.  "There is a misperception of what the word craft really means," said Mark Richard Leach, formerly the museum's director.  "Many people link it to handicrafts and think of hooked rugs or paint-by-number projects.  We've failed to brand the word properly.  Our goal is to train and sensitize the unfamiliar eye to distinguish the fine line that delineates where intent, skill, experience and outcome conspire to transcend hobby," Mr. Leach said.

Mr. Leach also said, "This is where craft assumes a different order of meaning and begins to exemplify a fundamental human impulse to manipulate materials into objects of utility, beauty or contemplation.  I hope that a newly educated and admiring public will demand use of the word craft as a measure of respect for that impulse."

This article is an interesting example of the relationship between marketing strategies of various art fields and curatorial/academic research of those same art fields.

It is also in interesting example of distraction.  The author focuses on "the line separating art from craft has always been subjectively drawn.  But the art vs craft debate is insignificant in contrast to a far far more important question:  What is the dividing line separating reliable accurate academic/curatorial research from commercial promotion?  The stale craft vs art debate always seems to distract attention from the relationship between research on what is really being created and what the art market is promoting at any given time.

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Trading Baskets For Plastics:  A museum changes direction and a movement holds its breath, William L. Hamilton, New York Times, 06/19/2003, pp. F1&4.

The Museum of Contemporary Crafts was established in the 1950s as part of the American Craft Council.  Then in about 1980, it renamed itself as the American Craft Museum.

Then it parted ways with the American Craft Council and in October of 2002 it renamed itself the "Museum of Arts & Design" expanding its focus almost limitlessly

"It's about being a living museum of contemporary art, and wanting to go forward, and the excitement of what's happening today, which is no longer described by the former limiting term," museum director Holly Hotchner is quoted in trendy marketing platitudes.

The article reported that many people have expressed concern that the museum is now abandoning its key position in the field after 46 years of focusing on the contemporary craft movement in the US.

Mr. Hamilton wrote, "But many in the field of craft, from artists to collectors, are concerned that the conclusion of this friendly call to design will be 'Goodbye to Craft.'"  He continued, "On the visitors' map, the only museum in New York dedicated to American craft has vanished, and with it, a highly visible defense of its singular idea a fusion of art and design that has developed, hand in glove, with human activity."

The Times reported on the sidewalk kiosk announcing the museum's current exhibition.  "SAY Hello to Great Design" referring to "USDesign:  1975-2000."  Also on the kiosk is a picture of a telephone designed by architect Michael Graves for the Target chain of retail stores which just happens to be one of the two financial sponsors of the exhibition there.

The article quoted expressions of significant concerns by craft art figures such as Sam Maloof key people who played major roles in defining the contemporary craft movement. 

For example, it quoted Jack Lenor Larsen, the textile designer and a pre-eminent collector of crafts, who has been on the museum's board of governors for 40 years.  Of the administrative decision to present a major design show that excludes crafts, he said:  "I told them they would be the eighth-most-important design museum in New York."

As an example of what Mr. Larsen meant, there was a concurrent exhibition across Central Park at the Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian's National Design Museum.  There was the National Design Triennial, a series of exhibitions exploring contemporary design in the United States, focuses on the technological innovations, artistic evolution and cultural impact of design, and "reviews new ideas and future horizons across the fields of current practice, from architecture and interiors to product design, fashion, graphic design and new media," according to the Cooper-Hewitt's November 18, 2002 press release.  "It is the only exhibition of its kind in the nation," the Cooper-Hewitt's press release continued."

Museum of Arts & Design Director Hotchner and Chief curator David Revere McFadden are then quoted in the Times article responding that one-of-a-kind craft is no longer a current interest and activity, and that the surviving interest in design now resides in industrial production of multiples or even mass production.

"They don't call themselves craftsmen," Ms. Hotchner said.  "I believe the craft movement the studio craft movement of the 1960's really doesn't exist anymore."

The article also interviews Gregory Kuharic, Sotheby's vice president for 20th-century decorative arts, who acknowledged a current image problem with the word "craft" but argued that it was a very active movement.  Regarding the renaming of the American Craft Museum and by extension the changing of focus, he said "They've clouded their mission here.  I know they're trying to widen their constituency, but they're alienating the core."

The article also quoted Jane Adlin, an Assistant Curator in the Department of Modern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, agreeing that the movement is "very alive" and "it's gotten bigger and more international."

The report included a curious complaint voiced by Ms. Hotchner.  She described how in doing their market research, focus groups had a negative response to the word craft.  "I can't tell you the number of foundations, corporations, that absolutely don't understand craft," Ms. Hotchner said.  "They think it's potholders literally and they laugh when you go in."

But she and her museum have never addressed what responsibility they might bear themselves for this poor public image.  After all, this museum considered itself and its work to be the final word on contemporary American craft art while publicly celebrating Martha Stewart as a major craft figure.

In the Times' article, Ms. Hotchner referred to the quilt exhibition from Gee's Bend, Alabama that was so very popular at the Whitney Museum of American Art, receiving 200,000 visitors and reviews treating it seriously as art.  Ms. Hotchner ventured that "The Gee's Bend show would have been perceived differently if it had been at the Craft Museum, not the Whitney."

But the American Craft Museum was on record stating that it did not research fiberart art the largest subject area of contemporary American craft — and that it didn't know where curatorial research on contemporary fiber art was occurring.

The Times wrote that Kenneth R. Trapp, curator in charge of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, indicated that "discomfort with the word craft could be a New York problem."

And the Times concluded, "Like everything in the museum world and New York the decisions boiled down to money."

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Elegance, Wit and Pop in a Quarter-Century of American Design, Ken Johnson, New York Times, 08/08/03, p. E30 and Editors' Note, 09/15/03, p. A2.

In his review, Ken Johnson wrote:

"Why is the architect Michael Graves so preferentially featured right at the start of USDesign 1975-2000, an exhibition at the Museum of Arts & Design (formerly the American Craft Museum)?  Is it because he is one of the most important designers of the 20th century's last quarter?  Or could it have anything to do with the fact that Target Stores, which sells housewares designed by Mr. Graves, is one of the exhibition's two main sponsors?"

He continued that the "convergence of Mr. Graves and Target is not so felicitous, because it undermines the intellectual credibility of the whole show.  Even without any such apparent conflict of interest, the exhibition has the feeling of a trade fair."

(The editors' note indicated that this show was organized by R. Craig Miller, a curator at the Denver Art Museum before Target officially agreed to share the underwriting of the exhibition at the Museum of Arts & Design.  It did not clarify whether the exhibition was organized free of all pressures of knowing it would need sponsorship from some entity.

What differs academic research from paid advertising and commercial promotion?

The main problem cited by Mr. Johnson was that the exhibition "so dimly illuminates the field in general.  It fails to grapple with how design has come to pervade our world in all sorts of ways both visible and invisible, tangible and abstract.  From designing genes to designing weapons of tightly focused destruction, design today entails a lot more than making consumer goods visually attractive."

Mr. Johnson wrote that the exhibition's catalog provided an idea of what a "more stimulating show on late 20th-century design" could be.

"In his electrifyingly suggestive essay, Thomas Hine, who dismisses Mr. Graves, as a Martha Stewart type tastemaker, ranges freely across a surprising series of topics, including badly designed ballot cards that caused a constitutional crisis in the last presidential election; the power of the Stealth fighter-bomber as a visual image; the microprocessor, a miniature information-sorting engine that has changed how games are played in just about every social and cultural arena you can think of."

Ken Johnson's concerns about the intellectual integrity of this exhibition, indeed of this type of museum policy, are one of the most important questions in art research today.

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The Museum's New Clothes, Editorial by Beatrijs Sterk, Textil Forum, 09/03, p. 1.

In this cri de coeur, Beatrijs Sterk, editor of Textil Forum (Hamburg, Germany), expressed strong criticisms about the Museum of Arts & Design.

The editorial expressed great dismay about how this "New York Museum's nonchalant treatment of artists upsets us so; its shamelessness amazes us just as our own consumer advertising world amazes and shocks us."  Referring to the museum's new building fund, the editorial wrote, "We could not believe our eyes.  Is the building shown here the new shell of the American Craft Museum in New York, which recently acquired the stylish name Museum of Arts & Design?  Did not this museum, only a year ago, beg quilt artists all over the world to contribute their pieces for free, or at least to find their own sponsors who would donate quilts to the obviously still very modest museum collection?"

The editorial described "ambitious politicians, association functionaries and career bureaucrats, sometimes aided and abetted by compliant directors, tak[ing] hold of prestigious cultural institutions, heavily inflating their outer guise while at the same time cutting the staff, maintenance and acquisitions budgets.  The notion seems to be that such paraphernalia can be taken care of by private initiatives.  Eventually they even try to obtain their 'contents' for free from the poorest of the poor - artists and craftspeople - if the latter appellation is even permissible these days."

The editorial explained further that, "A 'fundraising campaign' for the first US$ 50 million is currently underway.  We read lengthy acknowledgments to the sponsors who funded, among other things, the computer equipment for the offices, the educational programme, the exhibitions (lists of names exist for each show), running of the administration, acquisitions . . . even the modestly produced in-house paper, cheaply printed on cheap paper, bears the name of a sponsor."

The editorial also raised questions about the ramifications if the "wrong companies were to buy into the reputation of important museums (cigarette, alcohol and other drugs manufacturers or their laundered money), or if sponsors' wishes whether voiced or not had to be accommodated by an assiduous display of favours?"

And the editorial wondered if "All activities would then follow the motto:  events with mass appeal only please, large-scale affairs, much publicity . . . ."

"In New York" the editorial wrote, "the idea was to choose an attractive new building in a busy (and expensive) location that would attract more visitors, and to hire a well-known (and expensive) architect to design a unique and spectacular shell.  High investment equals a high return this was one of the rules we learned when playing Monopoly as children; putting your money on the most expensive property in the most expensive street meant you either went bust or you were the last one in the game.  Capitalism in the hands of children!"

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If Art Quilts Are 'Blankies,' We've Got a Ways to Go, Sunita Patterson, Editor, Fiberarts Magazine, 01-02/2003, p. 7.

In this editorial, Ms. Patterson reported that the Wall Street Journal had published an article by staff reporter Brooks Barnes that criticized the exhibiting of quilts and fiber arts in museums of fine art.  Mr. Barnes had written comments such as "Indeed, the kind of bedcovers that look like something from Aunt Edna's boudoir have made it to a surprising number of big-city museums."

Mr. Barnes continued , "But here's a question:  Is it art?  Curators and auctioneers are quick to point out that this is legitimate stuff, with its own masterworks and history.  Plus, they say, quilts are great for attendance, pulling in a lot of people who wouldn't otherwise set foot in a museum.  But many everyday museum-goers say they're surprised to see the usual fare replaced by beaux-arts blankies:  This stuff's not art, they say it's crafts."

In response, Ms. Patterson continued, "Quilting is just one piece of a broader patchwork of fields that are gaining recognition in the art world.  Glass, ceramics, clothing, even 'fiber arts' (grass baskets) are showing up in big museums at a time when, coincidentally or not, budgets are at their tightest in a decade."

The editorial continued, reporting that Jonathon Glus, a municipal official in charge of public-art projects for Pasadena, Calif., calls institutions that feature quilts '"essentially lazy" and that Josephine Gear, a museum-studies professor at New York University states that "Just because something is popular doesn't mean it belongs in a museum."

(When I asked Bruce Altshuler, Director, Program in Museum Studies at New York University, about Ms. Gear's statement, he advised that NYU's program deals primarily with management-related issues rather than curatorial ones, and that the question about curatorial research were not related to his department's focus.)

Editor Patterson also wrote that more information about this was posted on the Quilts, Inc., web site by Karey Bresenhan, president of Quilts, Inc.  Ms. Bresenhan is also director of the International Quilt Market and International Quilt Festival and cofounder of the International Quilt Association and the Alliance for American Quilts.

Ms. Patterson continued, "To us at FIBERARTS, it was a shock to realize that in this day and age there are still folks who feel that if it's fiber, it ain't art.  We've been hearing so much positive news lately about fiber art making the mainstream.  The decades-old art vs. craft debate was seeming like old news to us.  We thought the whole world had come around to accepting original works with conceptual content no matter what the medium as art.  Changing long-held attitudes, it seems, is going to take a bit more time."

[The attention contemporary art receives in academic and curatorial research seems to have significant parallels with commercial market prices.

But what if there is price manipulation in the commercial market?  The next Tab includes articles on the federal price fixing investigation of Sotheby's and Christie's, the world famous art auction houses and their civil case settlement with 130,000 buyers and sellers for over half a billion dollars.]