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
art and craft
is one of the least significant constituencies in contemporary
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
world. Is that a coincidence? The commercial gallery
world is profit driven. University art departments
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?
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.
Fiber History in America, Fiber
Luster of Glass Joins Art's Mainstream, New York
Baskets For Plastics: A museum changes direction
and a movement holds its breath,
New York Times,
Wit and Pop in a Quarter-Century of American Design, New York
Museum's New Clothes,
Art Quilts Are "Blankies," We've Got a Ways
to Go, Fiberarts
of the Physical, ed. Paul J. Smith,
American Craft Museum, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, NY, NY, 1986,
The introduction to this exhibition catalogue,
"Craft Today, Historical Roots and Contemporary Perspectives,"
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
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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Fiber History in America, Paul
J. Smith, Fiber
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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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
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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Baskets For Plastics: A museum changes direction
and a movement holds its breath, William
L. Hamilton, New York
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
being a living museum of contemporary art, and wanting to go
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
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.
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
reported on the sidewalk kiosk announcing the museum's current
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.
of significant concerns by
craft art figures such as Sam
Maloof — key people
who played major roles in defining the contemporary craft
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
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."
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.
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
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."
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
Times concluded, "Like
everything in the museum world and New York — the
decisions boiled down to money."
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Wit and Pop in a Quarter-Century of American Design, Ken
08/08/03, p. E30 and Editors'
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
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
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.
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
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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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.
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
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?"
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
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."
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
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?"
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
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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Art Quilts Are 'Blankies,' We've Got a Ways to Go,
Sunita Patterson, Editor, Fiberarts
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
here's a question: Is it art? Curators and auctioneers
are quick to point out that this is legitimate stuff, with
own masterworks and history. Plus, they say, quilts
are great for attendance, pulling in a lot of people who
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."
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
University, about Ms. Gear's statement, he advised
that NYU's program deals primarily with management-related
than curatorial ones,
and that the question about curatorial research were not related
to his department's focus.)
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.
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
contemporary art receives in academic and curatorial research
seems to have significant parallels with commercial market
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.]