Nine leaders in the field discuss the changing antiques and fine arts market.
Jane Nylander, preservationist
The past speaks to Jane Nylander. She has been translating its messages for decades as curator at Old Sturbridge Village, director of Strawbery Banke, and former president of Historic New England.
Are we currently losing ground in our commitment to preserve and conserve our material culture? I certainly hope not. We may be seeing the editing and refinement of major collections, but we also see considerable expansion in terms of what is considered worthy of preservation and conservation. Collections now reflect a broader range of complex cultures as well as multiple hierarchies and longer time lines. Things in poor condition that lack interpretive potential, historical significance, or strong provenance may be, indeed should be, discarded while objects having rich meaning are added. Discovery is always entertaining. Thoughtful evaluation is more challenging. Preservation requires discipline.
In the marketplace there is less and less interest in the very ordinary pieces that were popular for home furnishing throughout much of the twentieth century, but more recent objects have gained in popularity or been re-purposed. How can we not be entertained by Steampunk? Does it destroy or enhance the value of its components?
Do you think the increasing presence of the digital, which by its nature eliminates the physical and the tangible, plays a role in making the antique less valuable? In some cases perhaps so, but digitization greatly expands the number of people who can enjoy and learn about specific objects and kinds of objects. It may provide a quick contact for some, but for others, it may open the door to richer and deeper exploration of the physical reality. It may stimulate pursuit of the “real thing.”
You have always maintained that our cultural values are bound up in the materials of the past (our foodways, fabrics, shelter, and so forth). Is it not also possible that one part of the American cultural value system is equally invested in kicking over the traces of the past? Or are there always unpredictable oscillations in the relative prestige of past and present? Isn’t it possible that people may cherish the past without being bound by it? For me tradition and historical consciousness are essential parts of the present. Knowledge of material culture enriches the understanding of historical experience. Over my fifty-year career, I have seen levels of interest in various types of things come and go. As time goes by, new groups of people rediscover things that have gone out of favor. They study them from new perspectives and gain new and different understanding. They apply new methods of conservation and preservation. They share information using new technologies and display techniques.
Perhaps you could be seen as a kind of life coach who is uniquely able to reassure people and institutions that being interested in the past will not consign them to the dustbin of history, that the antique is, in fact, a winner having survived the test of time. Is that how you see yourself? I hope so. Can we agree that an interest in the past can greatly enrich one’s life by enhancing our ability to see and enjoy the beautiful, to strengthen significant values, and to identify with things and ideas that characterize common human experience in all ages? All too often I see people who do not recognize the elements of beauty or proportion, who see no value in durable goods or values, who thoughtlessly discard things that are useful and/or beautiful. It makes me very sad; they miss out on considerable pleasure and they often waste their money.
I noticed that you are on Facebook (though not by any means one of its oversharers). Do you think that Facebook, which is about the cultivation of communities, could revive and sustain a community whose priorities lie in the material culture? Let’s change “lie in” to “include”- then, yes. As you’ve noticed I haven’t made time for Facebook. I find it provides a fascinating insight into the lives of my grandchildren, but I am still busy studying aspects of New England history and trying to help people understand ways to interpret museum collections and exhibitions. I do worry that the short phrasing, abbreviations, etc. required by text messages will further erode people’s ability to communicate richly and deeply in writing. Perhaps the academic thesis, the exhibition label, and the catalogue essay will be replaced by something short and sweet, but I wonder if it will provide the depth of understanding provided in recent times by really good writing, which, as you know, takes practice.
Jane Nylander. Bachrach photograph; Castle in the Clouds, Moultonborough, NewHampshire. Originally known as Lucknow, the house built for Tom and Olive Plant in 1913-1914 is currently undergoing restoration for the Castle Preservation Society. Jane and Richard Nylander serve as advisors. Photograph by John W. Hession, New Millennium Studios.
Head of research Victoria and Albert Museum
If you want a fresh take on any subject, ask Glenn Adamson. Last year, the decorative arts scholar was named Head of Research at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where he began teaching in 2005. He brings to his post an appreciation for the early American arts, deepened during the five years that he served as curator of the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee. Prolific and versatile, the Yale-trained scholar is best known for his studies of modern craft.
How did you discover your calling? It was completely fortuitous, actually. I spent a year at Harvard as an undergraduate and took a course on Chinese ceramics because it fit my schedule. The first time the professor put a T’ang Dynasty pot in my hand, it was a moment of revelation. I knew then and there that I wanted to work with objects.
Are you a traditionalist? Not only am I not traditional, I am suspicious of the whole concept. When people say they are being traditional usually they are being highly creative and also dishonest about what they are doing. They are actually engaging in all kinds of change and novelty that they are not acknowledging.
Was the antiquarian movement of the early twentieth century a progressive movement? Absolutely. Just look at the people who were doing it. Israel Sack and Louis B. Mayer were very similar people, but in different cultural areas. There is an immigration story and obviously there is the idea of creating a market. There is the idea of creating new value for objects that have been disregarded, and there is obviously a lot of mythmaking and storytelling that goes along with that. So it is highly innovative but dressed up as reverence for the past. I don’t consider that to be a criticism. It shows the genius of what they were doing.
Has the word “antique” outlived its usefulness? “Antique” is not a word we use at the V&A, or one I see much in academic writing. I prefer the term “design history.” It nails something that is intrinsic to my interests, which is the sense of intention that lies behind all designed objects. The phrase “material culture” is less attractive to me. It describes a vast field of stuff but doesn’t give you any precise idea of agency to hang on to.
Is scholarship becoming more wordly? Design history and history are very closely allied. They are both becoming more global in orientation. Obviously, that requires a lot of international participation. I co-edited a book called Global Design History about this last year, and remain quite interested in the subject.
Where are design studies headed now? The global turn is a big part of it. When I say global, in practice I mainly mean the exchange of objects and ideas between Europe, America, and Asia, where Japanese scholars have been a major influence. Design history hasn’t made much in the way of inroads in Africa, and is only beginning to consider Latin America. But this will change quickly: the internet is encouraging globalism simply because it is so much easier to do research now.
Besides craft studies, what’s hot now? Fashion studies is another huge area, probably because there is such a big readership for it. And there are lots of things going on about design in connection with other kinds of disciplines, especially fine art. There is interest in the idea that a designed object, like a Ron Arad chair, can also pass as an art object. Obviously that has market implications.
Does the V&A have the best decorative arts collection in the world? Probably, but its history and current interpretative practices also put it in a class of its own. Remember, this is the first museum that was aimed at the general public and the working class. It was the first museum with a café, with public lavatories, with electric lights so that people could come at night after work. We have a really rigorous and creative intellectual project here now. In some ways the interpretative ambition of the place is just as important as the collection.
Glenn Adamson. Photograph by Sipke Visser; Bracket designed by William Harry Rogers (1825-1873), carved by William Gibbs Rogers (1792-1872), London, c. 1853. Carved boxwood. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Stephen L. Fletcher, Executive vice president, Skinner Inc., Boston
“I couldn’t get a job here today,” Stephen L. Fletcher says mischievously, marveling at the growth of Skinner Inc., the Boston auction house that he joined fresh out of high school in 1965 when he was a teenage antiques prodigy and his mentor, the late Robert W. Skinner, was an engineer turned dealer and auctioneer. With nearly seventy employees and sales across a range of twenty specialties, Skinner is today one of the country’s foremost auction houses, thanks in part to Fletcher’s ready wit at the podium, rapport with customers, and a sustained love of Americana over nearly five decades.
Skinner and The Magazine Antiques both have roots in Boston. Is the city still a mecca for Americana? Boston is much more cosmopolitan than it used to be and collectors are much more eclectic. Skinner has changed along with the city. Area institutions such as the MFA, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Peabody Essex are thriving. To our delight, some of the people who have been endlessly generous to those organizations are also major players in collecting American furniture and decorative arts.
Was there a golden age for collecting American antiques? Now is the golden age. With the markets still recovering, it’s a great time to buy.
How has the business changed over the years? How hasn’t it changed? Prices are lower for some things, but anyone who collects solely for investment has no soul. Antiques have to be viewed as an investment possibility but that criteria should be at the bottom of the list.
Why aren’t young people more interested in antiques? I’ll get in trouble with teachers, but I don’t think that there is enough emphasis on American history in the schools. And few of us today come from families who lived in the same place and accumulated over the decades.
Why did Skinner move downtown from suburban Bolton? It was our jewelry specialist Gloria Lieberman who first said that we needed to be downtown. One by one, the departments followed. Americana was the last holdout. Our president and C.E.O. Karen Keane finally said, “You have to do this. Buyers don’t avoid Christie’s and Sotheby’s because they are in Manhattan.”
What’s hot now? Believe it or not, the fastest growing department at Skinner is Fine Wine. Jewelry was our biggest department in 2011. It grossed $11 million. Asian art is dynamic and American painted furniture and folk art are very healthy. In November we sold the 1786 portrait of a Connecticut girl, Abigail Rose, for $1,271,000, a record for an American folk portrait. We are also seeing some good prices for American furniture.
Is the folk art market overheated? Many years ago the great folk art dealer Mary Allis came to an auction in Bolton and bought a beautiful early nineteenth-century cobbler’s sign for an astounding ten thousand dollars. People gasped, there was a smattering of applause, but when I looked down from the podium she was slumped in her seat. When she came to, she glared at me and said, “It’s those goddam prices!”
How is digital technology changing Skinner? These days you can analyze everything. More and more people are taking advantage of online bidding. I’m old fashioned. There are subtle pleasures that come from looking at the real thing. I can’t imagine buying a shelf clock or a chest of drawers without opening it to smell inside.
Are you optimistic about the future? Last year was our best ever. Sales were up seven percent over 2010 and up four percent over our second best year, 2007. We have hired fifteen people in the past several months. If that isn’t an expression of optimism, what is?
After fifty years in the business, what moves you? The other day a couple brought in two untouched portraits, from a group of four by the same artist. One was a young boy with his dog at his feet and a riding crop in his hand. We turned over the other portrait. It was signed by Joseph Goodhue Chandler and dated 1847. I thought I was going to faint. That’s what keeps you going.
Stephen L. Fletcher. Photograph courtesy of Skinner Inc.; Abigail Rose [b. 1772], artist unknown, 1786. Oil on canvas. Skinner photograph.
Charlene Cerny, Executive Director,
Santa Fe International Folk Art Market
As director of Santa Fe’s Museum of InternationalFolk Art between 1984 and 1999, Charlene Cerny oversaw a 135,000-object collection that ranged from Spanish colonial silver to contemporary African textiles. In 2004 she helped launch the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, which seeks to preserve world craft traditions, one artist at a time. Recognized by UNESCO and the Clinton Global Initiative, the Market returns to Santa Fe July 13 to 15.
You have worked with historic and contemporary art. Which do you prefer? I appreciate the continuum of tradition. One of the greatest pleasures for me now is meeting our Market artists, 180 in all from 56 countries. You become acutely aware that you are transforming a life when you make a purchase. In a place like Niger, the per capita income is less than a dollar a day, so the Market feeds a lot of people.
Between 1979 and 1982 you collaborated with the twentieth-century designer and folk art collector Alexander Girard on the permanent installation of his collection in the Museum of International Folk Art’s Girard Wing. What did you learn? Sandro didn’t care about age or value or provenance. He cared only about the power of the object in front of him. When it came to installing his collection, he wanted no labels-a very modernist point of view. He installed the collection in an organic way. In a sense, he was telling a story. A clay baptism scene from Oaxaca, Mexico, lit by a single tiny bulb, for example, expresses the common humanity of family and how ritual can enrich our lives no matter what our circumstances.
You also oversaw the acquisition of the Neutrogena collection and the construction of a new wing to house it. What was it like working with the collector Lloyd Cotsen? Lloyd developed an amazing collection that is documented in the book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary. The strength of the assemblage is really textiles. He worked closely with the late dealer Mary Hunt Kahlenberg. Like Sandro, Lloyd cared less about interpretation than the inherent beauty of the work.
Santa Fe has been called a city of markets. Why? We are famous for our nonprofit cultural markets, including Indian Market and Spanish Market. In our case, we achieve our mission, part of which is to foster economic and cultural sustainability for folk artists and folk art worldwide, through commerce.
Do you consider yourself a preservationist? I absolutely do. Traditional visual culture is highly threatened. For instance, India is one of the most folk art intensive places in the world yet even there handicrafts are considered a “sunset” industry. That is one reason why so many people have embraced the Market. They are inspired to join us in helping to save irreplaceable traditions.
Where are some of the more unusual places your work has taken you? A few years ago I found myself, jetlagged and having just arrived in Delhi, visiting with Sonia Gandhi in her office. I really loved Cuba. One of the most amazing places I’ve visited is Oman. Everyone should see it while it is still off-the-beaten track.
Do you still work closely with the Museum of InternationalFolk Art? The museum’s director, Marsha Bol, is an advisor and several members of the museum’s staff serve on our Artist Selection Committee. In 2010 the museum created a Gallery of Conscience to examine issues that threaten the survival of traditional art.
Fifty years from now, will there be a museum wing filled with treasures collected from the Market? And a catalogue to go with it? There will be many collections. As for a book, we are planning to release one in May 2013, in time for our tenth anniversary.
What special events do you have planned for 2012? One highlight is an evening with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, the best-selling author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, on July 11. But the sine qua non of the weekend is always the Friday evening Market Opening Party on July 13. It’s a global cocktail party with lighted tents, great food and drink-and some serious shopping. Collectors love it!
Charlene Cerny. Photograph by C. Judith Cooper Haden; Untitled by Cuban painter Carlos Alberto Cáceres Valladares, who will be a first-time exhibitor at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in July. Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, 2011
Frank Levy, Bernard and S. Dean Levy, Inc., New York
Two decades before the American Wing opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1924, Isaac Levy and his brother-in-law John Ginsburg were selling antiques on Grand Street near the Bowery in lower Manhattan. The company they founded survives more than a century later as Bernard and S. Dean Levy, Inc., leading purveyors of late seventeenth- through early nineteenth-century American furniture and related accessories. Great-grandson Frank Levy shares his thoughts on shepherding the family firm into its second century.
Were you destined to join Levy Galleries? I wasn’t interested in antiques as a kid but I did love American history and was always excited about our presidents and the White House. Until I was twenty, what I mainly knew about furniture was that it was heavy.
You, your father, and your grandfather grew up in households where furniture often disappeared at a moment’s notice. Were you allowed to play in every room? My brother and I were fortunate. No place in our house was off limits, which made antiques seem natural and approachable. I probably shouldn’t say so, but the legs of a bonnet-top highboy made perfect goalposts for the football we played in our parents’ bedroom.
When did you know that you wanted be a dealer? An undergraduate course in American art with Lauren Soth at Carleton College in Minnesota opened up a whole new world for me. As a graduate student at Winterthur, what I loved most were objects. I remain most interested in cabinetmakers, craftsmen, and issues of connoisseurship. I want to know what has been done to a piece. It’s a big puzzle.
Describe a typical day. No two are the same. The best days are in the field -making private calls, previewing auctions, and checking in with other dealers. It’s very exciting to find something wonderful that you know a great deal about and buy it. Harry du Pont had the best job in the world. He bought three things a day, everyday.
How has the business changed? You often hear about the golden years but I sometimes think that those times are now. There is still a tremendous amount of material out there and the internet makes it easier to find. On the other hand, we are the only dealers left in Manhattan with an extensive inventory of formal American furniture and an open shop. Collectors used to come into town and go from shop to shop. Now New York is only crowded in January.
Why does Levy Galleries keep a low profile at auction? It’s our personality. We like to keep things private, for both the buyer and the seller.
Styles change, but you remain committed to formal American furniture of the late seventeenth through early nineteenth century. Why? That’s simple. It’s what we like. It would be much easier to sell things that we don’t care about. In January we sold a really exciting Newport card table with four open-talon feet to a good client who is putting together a fine collection. It hurt to let it go but it helps that there is always something around the next corner.
What is the future of the market for American decorative arts? I really do think it’s good. The last three years have been slow for everybody. Prices and values are down, which means that there is great opportunity to buy. People who don’t take advantage of the opportunity will look back and kick themselves. If you aren’t talking about masterpieces, now is a very good time to do an entire house or a room.
What message would you like to send to younger people who may be in a position to collect fine antiques? Find something that you really enjoy. It becomes a pleasant addiction. The best collectors are passionate. Learn as much as you can and seek advice. You’ll be surprised at how eager everyone in the field is to help you.
Any sign that your two young daughters will follow you in the antiques business? None. They are what I was at fifteen.
Photographs: Frank Levy. Photograph by Ed Freeman; Card table attributed to John Goddard (1724-1785), Newport, Rhode Island, c. 1765. Mahogany, chestnut and maple. Freeman photograph.
Timothy H. Martin, S. J. Shrubsole,New York
Timothy H. Martin has been president of S.J. Shrubsole in Manhattan since 2003. Leading purveyors of exceptional antique English and American silver and jewelry, the business founded in London a century ago is today the oldest continuing emporium on Fifty-Seventh Street. Martin succeeded his stepfather, Eric N. Shrubsole, who celebrated his one hundredth birthday in April.
You’ve been known to arrive at Sotheby’s windblown but impeccbbly dressed in suit, tie, and helmet. Do you often bike to sales? Whenever I can. It’s a response to my distaste for subways and my complete loathing of taxis.
S.J. Shrubsole apprenticed as a silversmith in London before becoming an antiques dealer in 1912. Eric launched the American branch of the family business with a cross-country trip in 1936. Did you serve an apprenticeship? I had my own Midwest tour in 1996. I got to see many of the amazing things that we’ve handled since the 1940s. It was like a core sampling of the antique silver business in America. Early in my career, I accompanied the English dealer John Bourdon-Smith on his firm’s annual trip to Australia. At night, his son and I had to sleep in the showroom, with cricket bats at our side to guard the silver.
What aspects of Shrubsole’s business have changed over time? We have long focused on pre-1820 British and American silver but our emphasis on rarity has increased. There was a market for fine, commercial pieces forty years ago that no longer exists.
When did Shrubsole expand into American silver and jewelry? What percentage of your business today is devoted to each? We introduced antique American silver in the mid-1950s and antique jewelry in the mid-1970s. As for percentage, it really depends on what we get and what people want.
Is antique silver undervalued? All antiques seem undervalued to me when I see what people are paying for contemporary art.
You are one of the last antique silver dealers in Manhattan with an open shop. Do the economics make sense today? Having an open shop creates a more relaxed atmosphere. We want people to drop in and enjoy our merchandise without feeling pressure to buy. We feel that offices or by-appointment shops put awkward pressure on customers.
Is it possible to buy a gift at Shrubsole for $500? We sell eighteenth-century serving spoons for less than you might find them in a flea market. We also have sugar tongs, salt cellars, and pepper castors. There are many affordable things that are old, genuine, and aesthetically satisfying.
You exhibit at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, The Netherlands. Why? Our market is global. Also, being in Maastricht gives us tremendous exposure and instant credibility among people who may not have heard of us. Eric has two great pieces of advice. One, the best you can buy is the cheapest in the end. Two, don’t press. Let the customer buy.
What rules do you live by? Be nice. You can’t go wrong. When it comes to selling, stick to your guns. Dealers are mocked for saying, “I can’t replace it,” but for me that is always true.
If you had an unlimited budget, what would you stash away for yourself? I would buy really splendid examples of sixteenth-century English silver in exceptional condition. I’m also very partial to early American silver, especially New York Dutch pieces.
If Shrubsole could buy back one item, what would it be? It would probably be the pair of Elizabethan silver-gilt livery pots from the Rothschild collection that are now at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I sold them to Rita Gans about twelve years ago. They were among the most beautiful things that I have ever seen of any type or description.
What did you sell in the last year that you loved? We had a beautifully chased cream pot by Jacob Hurd of Boston. It was just a gorgeous little thing.
What else has wowed you recently? Timothy Schroder’s awesome three-volume catalogue British and Continental Gold and Silver in the Ashmolean Museum. He documents one of the greatest collections of English silver anywhere. I’m also thrilled to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s reinstallation of its American silver collection. It’s completely transformed.
Timothy H. Martin; Silver creamer by Jacob Hurd (1703-1758), Boston, c. 1750.
Wendy Kaplan, Museum curator, Los Angeles
Among the most admired museum curators in this country, Wendy Kaplan is noted for the scholarly precision of her work and the adventurousness of her mind. Her résumé indicates both, stretching as it does from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to the Wolfsonian-Florida International University and now to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she is Department Head and Curator of Decorative Arts and Design.
You have been in LosAngeles for more than a decade now. Does the city present any special challenges to a curator whose work has its roots in the past? And if it does how do you meet them? Los Angeles is a relatively new city and one oriented toward the future. It is only now coming to an appreciation of its own past, let alone anyone else’s. So yes, I think it is challenging to present work here that doesn’t have a special resonance to the community, although it has been done, and successfully. Fortunately, my own passion is for decorative arts and design from the late nineteenth century to the present, so I’m a natural fit. It’s an exciting time to be in LosAngeles and at LACMA-our attendance has doubled in the past six years, due to inspired programming and the addition of two new buildings. This coincides with LosAngeles’s increasing recognition of its own position as a center of the international art world, and how its history has contributed to this relatively new status.
LACMA has recently added the word design to your department so it is now Decorative Arts and Design. Can you explain the thinking behind this decision? We added the word design to make it clear that our commitment to collecting and exhibiting the applied arts goes to the present day. While many people think of design as applying only to mass or serially produced objects, we regard anything made with intent beyond pure utility, whether a Limoges enamel box or an Eames fiberglass chair, as design. We make no hierarchical distinction between handmade and multiple production. We only consider quality.
Do you see any sign of a lessening of the deep hierarchical division between art and craft (or design) that took hold in the middle of the last century? Sadly, the schism between art and craft seems to be widening. With the ascension of conceptual art, curators and academics in fine arts are even more dismissive of the value of making, of the mastery of materials and the delight in their manipulation. Having spent twenty-five years studying the arts and crafts movement, whose core belief was the equality of fine and decorative arts, I find this attitude both frustrating and unnecessary. Until the 1960s, the ideal of infusing art into everyday life with the creation of well-made goods was still going strong. (I just read a great quote from Isamu Noguchi, who wrote in 1949, “It is a pity when art is to be found only in museums and in the private possessions of a few individuals. After all, culture is the integration of art and life.”) In the late 1950s artists like Peter Voulkos declared their work fine art rather than craft, as if making anything functional eroded the primacy of individual expression. This belief would spread widely in the counterculture of the late 1960s. While ushering in a period of joyous experimentation, the separation of art from function did a great disservice to those committed to good design as an enhancement of everyday life.
Your exhibition California Design, 1930-1965: “Living in a Modern Way will travel to both Japan and Australia. This is somewhat unusual, is it not? Do you see a growing interest in an international perspective in design exhibitions and in the scholarship on the decorative arts? Can you imagine a scenario in which American material of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might acquire an international presence? I absolutely see an increasing interest in international design exhibitions, particularly in countries with new, rapidly growing middle classes such as India and China. Regarding our own exhibition, we are especially grateful to the Getty, since their sponsorship of the Pacific Standard Time program created an international groundswell of interest in Southern California art, architecture, and design. An international perspective in design exhibitions has been growing for some time now. The V & A’s series of surveys of twentieth-century design, starting with their Art Nouveau exhibition in 2000, and concluding with Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990 last year was determinedly international in scope. And my own exhibition of 2004, The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America: Design for the Modern World, compared thirteen different countries. In a global world, it has become essential to understand how movements in one country affect events in another and to take on board both what unites us as well as what separates us.
Wendy Kaplan. © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA; Installation view of California Design, 1930-1965: “Living in a Modern Way” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, October 1, 2011 to June 3, 2012.
Jon Prown and Ethan Lasser, Chipstone Foundation
As executive director and curator, respectively, of the Chipstone Foundation in Fox Point, Wisconsin, Jon Prown and Ethan Lasser have pursued the foundation’s mission to find new ways to look at old things with abundant energy and imagination.
How do you see the role of the curator in the twenty-first century? In this digital age, museum professionals face challenges in terms of capturing the visitors’ attention but new technologies also mean that there are many exciting opportunities.
Many decorative arts displays in American museums are organized by chronology and/or by region and resemble one another in look and in concept. Such homogeneity sustains a curatorial vision that was established more than a century ago. Nothing is wrong with continuity, but arranging decorative arts objects in this linear fashion is not our only option as curators.
The emergence of material culture theory in the 1970s and 1980s revealed the broader interpretive possibility for all cultural artifacts, including decorative arts objects. Scholars in many disciplines-from art history, to ethnic studies-have offered a range of inspiring interpretations of our material past and present. Decorative arts curators need to keep making substantive scholarly contributions as well.
What, in your view, is the way forward? For one thing, museum directors and their boards of trustees must allow their curators to be creative, which includes encouraging them to do installations and interpretations that may tread new ground.
Such an approach doesn’t mean that radical change is the only answer. Rather, it places higher value on challenging ourselves to think in novel ways and to test our ideas.
Also, unlike academia, our field does not really engage in open and active criticism. While this keeps things civil, it hinders our scholarly progress. Criticism and debate are essential.
How would you describe Chipstone’s curatorial approach? Since we first partnered with the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2001, we’ve been committed to advancing scholarly topics, pursuing interdisciplinary collaborations, and fostering a spirit of wonder. Three recent installations illustrate these principles.
Hidden Dimensions In 2008 we opened the Hidden Dimensions galleries, which feature historic furniture and ceramics. Visitors encounter unexpected questions about the artifacts and the people who made and used them. We develop the relationship by considering five universal categories: Power, Myth, Sex, Kinship, and Death. For example, a group of neoclassical card tables with griffin and dolphin bases that evoke classical mythology are grouped under a header that reads, “Myth: Furnishings keep alive ancient monsters and myths.” Having considered the way that objects from the past keep alive ancient ideas, visitors can go on to consider the extent to which the objects in their own lives perform the same function: What memories, what sort of outmoded beliefs do your objects preserve?
Dave the Potter, an interdisciplinary approach We have come to see that it is more exciting and beneficial if we work with someone who comes to our collection with fresh eyes, as in Chipstone’s collaboration with contemporary Chicago sculptor, cultural historian, and performance artist Theaster Gates Jr. Gates is a potter but he has no background in the history of ceramics and little experience with the Chipstone collection. In 2008 we invited him to partner with us on a project about Dave the Potter, the enslaved artisan and poet who lived on a plantation in antebellum SouthCarolina. Gates responded to one of Dave’s greatest pots, a forty-gallon storage jar from 1858, in an installation called To Speculate Darkly. His background as a performance artist and an African-American craftsman gave him insight into certain aspects of Dave’s biography that we hadn’t appreciated, such as the lyrical, musical quality of his poetry.
This collaboration turned what was originally planned as an object-centric exhibition about Dave and southern pottery into a show that involved poetry, music, contemporary craft, performance art, and public forums. Artists, literary scholars, historians of all sorts, students, even scientists have helped take our exhibits in directions that have brought new life to the Stanley and Polly Stone collection.
Loca Miraculi, fostering a sense of wonder Perhaps our best-known long-term display in Milwaukee is Loca Miraculi: Rooms of Wonder, the product of our collaboration with the Wisconsin artist/curator/natural historian Martha Glowacki. In 2008 we invited her to create a cabinet of curiosities with objects from our collection. Rather than literally replicating a historical cabinet, the concept here was to bring it up to date through the introduction of audio, video, lighting, and current design techniques. The result is an installation that arouses a sense of wonder in visitors that we like to think may have something in common with the reactions people had to the original Renaissance cabinets.
Some in our field decry the changing interests of the public in the digital age but we curators also need to change to some degree. We need to keep thinking about the meaning of curating in the twenty-first century.
Jon Prown (left) and Ethan Lasser (right); Vessel by Theaster Gates Jr. for the installation To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates Jr. and Dave the Potter at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 2010.