Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, OR

In response to the closing of the Museum of Contemporary Craft of Portland by Denise Mullen –  The recent closing of Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft has given rise to heated protests in both Portland and across the country from those who champion craft. But what does “craft” mean? And, why are there passionate advocates of craft? Defining craft has been my cause for six years as the President of Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC), and it has not been an easy task dispelling the misconceptions and extolling the intrinsic worth of craft. Let me share an example of a recent gathering of artists and scientists to illustrate the problem.

Denise Mullen, President of Oregon College of Art & Craft

Data were being gathered to use in making a case for STEAM versus STEM in pre K-12 education (a very worthy cause and a subject for another day) in which the data had three categories: art, craft, and design. Craft was intentionally being used in a slightly pejorative and dated way by defining it as the hand skills necessary to make domestic or functional objects, primarily in shop classes and as a means of vocational training. An art educator objected to the term “craft” being used at all, on the basis that K-12 art educators have dropped the term “craft” and subsumed it under the “art” umbrella.

This is not surprising given the institutional lead of museums and colleges dropping “craft” from their titles over the last two decades. A bit to my surprise, I bristled less at the first use than the second, though both to my thinking are off base. Why? Let’s look back to the origins of craft in prehistoric culture.

Craft has a long and storied history, beginning with the first humans’ intuitions to respond to their surroundings. Consider ancient cave paintings. Whatever the impulse was to draw on the cave walls of Lascaux and Altamira, the vehicle was a piece of burned wood — charcoal, that was readily available. The paintings reflect both an impulse to draw and the choice of accessible burned wood as the vehicle. Without the knowledge of the material, the paintings would never have been made. The people of Altamira may have tried other ways to convey those exquisite images, but at some point, someone pulled a piece of charred wood from the cave fire and used it to draw. This process of making is what any painter, photographer, ceramist, metal smith, sculptor, furniture designer, or print and bookmaker does everyday in the studio.

Coupled with the impulse to make, materials give you craft. You could also say they give you art — because craft and art are inextricably linked.

craftSo what is craft? It is the deep understanding of materials that allows for the successful articulation of ideas in art and design. Today esteemed galleries and biennials worldwide show works made in ceramics, fiber, and wood. We have only to look to Fred Wilson, Sheila Hicks, Jennifer Jackson Hutchins, and Arlene Shechet. Others cross media with great regularity. Increasingly, people are not referred to as ceramists, but as artists or makers. So why argue for craft as a category if makers are moving across media and blurring previously demarcated categories?

From the higher education standpoint, here’s why. In the 1970s and 1980s at the same time college professors were realizing that it was acceptable to work across media, conceptual art swept the college curricula and, for the most part, severely relegated the teaching of technique. Bringing a much-needed emphasis on content to the curriculum, the trend went too far in many cases. Since tangible work cannot be made well without a knowledge of materials, these courses were gradually reintroduced into art school curricula, but not in a substantive way. We consistently see evidence of this lingering ambivalence to materials when work in gallery and museum exhibitions starts with a good idea, a sound premise, only to fall short due to poor execution by artists who don’t have the materials knowledge to fully execute their concepts. The result for the viewer is a dissatisfying intellectual, emotional, and visceral experience.

The lesson is, without the ability to express intentions in a material, an artist or designer’s success is limited. This knowledge is not gained by taking one or two classes, but learned over time by developing an intimate understanding of a material’s essential characteristics, knowing the common wisdom about a material, and moving beyond assumptions about the limitations of that material to find new ways of using it. Taking this journey leads to new ways of thinking. Does this sound like the formula for innovation? It does, because it is. And, it is one of the points of design thinking: creating a process that is transferable to other endeavors and situations (and that also is topic for another day).

So, is there a need for a college that has craft in the title? And that privileges materials knowledge in the context of a sophisticated conceptually-based art practice? Yes. To educate the next generations of artists and designers in materials knowledge is to ensure the increasing quality and innovation in both materials use and idea generation.

Is there a need for a museum devoted to the history and the contemporary definition of craft as it continues to unfold? Yes. Craft is a field, it has a body of scholarship, as well as that long and storied history mentioned earlier. As a civilization, we need institutions that lay out such information for our communities. Without the opportunity to reflect on historical development and contemporary innovation, we lose our culture.

Where should such a museum reside? Portland? The Museum of Contemporary Craft did not receive the support necessary to make it a viable enterprise in our community, even though the Portland ethos embraces everything the museum represents. Unfortunately, love and respect do not pay the bills for operations, salaries, and collection maintenance.

Much beloved by artists and donors, the Museum of Contemporary Craft needed more for its survival. Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA)’s acquisition in 2009 gave the museum a few extra years, but it never really fit within the PNCA mission. The closing, though incredibly sad, is not surprising. Is a museum of craft important enough to give it another iteration? Yes. Thinking of craft and craft’s many adjacencies, among them art and design, enriches our intellectual pursuits but more importantly, it stirs within us, as viewers and users, deeply held emotions and cultural memories, and creates psychological and physical anchors.

Is craft really resonant with the public? We have only to look at the long lines and recent success of the Wonder exhibition at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., to realize that “craft” can capture the imagination of a much larger public and strike deeply resonant chords across a wide range of society. As the head of an art and craft institution in Portland, I implore the Portland community and beyond to come together and find the right form and place for a craft museum that truly engages, and is supported by, our community.

Clearly there is a hunger for craft — for the incredibly well-made in the service of ideas and concepts. What we need now is a practical way to sustain a craft institution for generations to come. Collectively we need to craft a solution.

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