Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Nicholas Bell of Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Stacey Lee Webber, The Craftsman Series: Shovels, 2011, pennies, Courtesy of the artist

What is craft and what role does it play in the American experience? What does the future hold for America’s craft movement? Nicholas R. Bell, the Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator of American Craft & Decorative Art at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, seeks to answer these questions by expanding definitions and saluting a new era of young artists. Bell’s initial interest in material culture and the sociological nature of objects led him to his post at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery of Art as the chief collector of objects for the museum’s collection---a weighty responsibility as the dialogue about the American experience continues to fluctuate in the decade following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

To expand upon this conversation and celebrate the Renwick Gallery’s 40th anniversary, the museum organized a recent exhibition to examine the next generation of great American craft artists. The 40 under 40: Craft Futures exhibition highlights forty artists born since the Renwick Gallery opened in 1972 and the contemporary craft and decorative arts program was established by the Smithsonian. According to Bell’s opening essay in the exhibit catalog, the show makes apparent the “rapidly evolving notions of craft, ranging from traditional media such as ceramics and jewelry, to fields as varied as sculpture, industrial design, performance and installation art, fashion design, sustainable manufacturing, and mathematics. The breadth of work signifies craft’s evolution beyond the politics of past aesthetic movements toward a more holistic view of its prescriptive power.”

We spoke with Bell recently about the 40 under 40: Craft Futures exhibit, what it means to be curator of material objects, and how the American experience can be understood through a review of these objects.

Dave Cole, Kevlar Romper (3 Piece Suit), 2008, Kevlar (used Gulf War bullet-proof vest) cut, sewn, and hand knit. Courtesy of the artist and DODGEgallery, photo by Casey McNamara

NEA: What does being a curator mean to you and what you see as your job as a curator at the Renwick Gallery?

NICHOLAS BELL: On the one hand, as a curator at the Smithsonian we are tasked with looking at our programming with a particular perspective. The main one that counts for the American Art Museum at the Renwick Gallery is understanding the American experience. As a curator at the Smithsonian, your job is really to help the country understand itself and act as almost a mirror or as a tool to help [the country] come to terms with what it is about.

How does that translate into being a curator? We put on exhibitions to help the American public and any [visitor] to get a window into what the American experience is about. At the Renwick, this means to be involved in American craft and understanding what the value of American craft is, not just by arranging the exhibitions but also by collecting. As the curator of the Renwick's collection I look around the country at people who are working on American craft and decide whether or not their work helps us move that conversation forward. We have a lot of work that comes [to the Renwick] temporarily for exhibitions but to have [objects] come here permanently allows us to develop a long range plan for telling stories of American craft.

As you can imagine, that is a very exciting prospect for the people that are making things. We are currently curating a show about American baskets and it includes, for example, a basket by Newt Washburn who is an NEA National Heritage Fellow. He is really a symbol for tradition in American craft and we did not have a basket by him until this year. I am very excited to be able to have brought this work into the new collection and to use it as an example for what is important to preserve in this country---what it is important to preserve and to interpret for others.

NEA: How did you become interesting in working with crafts?

BELL: At first I was interested in a field called “material culture,” which is the study of objects and how we can understand relations and peoples through the study of those objects. It is often lumped into anthropology and archaeology, but it also works with contemporary work. I have a degree in the history of decorative arts and later fell into this position working with contemporary craft. I came directly out of a program where I was studying 18th- and 19th-century decorative arts and ended up talking about 20th- and 21st-century craft. I was looking at furniture, ceramics, glass, and textiles in pre-Antebellum culture going all the way from 1650 to about 1860. When I ended up at the Renwick I was taking that knowledge and saying, “here's the foundation of what people are doing now.”

Erik Demaine and Martin Demaine, Green Balance, 2011, Mi-Teintes watercolor paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artists in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Renwick Gallery

NEA: What sparked your love for material culture in the first place? What caused you to want to really study objects in that way?

BELL: The thing that is important to remember is that all things really tell you about is people. It doesn't always come across that way in other fields. I know [art] dealers and auctioneers that are interested in things as things, but what really makes material culture important is the sociological aspect and the way of understanding the experience of life, how people express themselves or what they reveal through the things they make, use, buy, or sell.

NEA: Can you tell us where the idea for the 40 under 40: Craft Futures exhibition came from?

BELL: The Renwick Gallery opened in 1972, as the Smithsonian's branch for craft and decorative arts. Our 40-year anniversary was approaching, and we were trying to decide how we would promote this milestone. So much has developed within craft over the last 10 or 12 years, and I was aware of some artists that were very engaging. They were younger artists doing much more edgy work and things that were different from what I’ve seen before. I thought, “I wonder what it would be to try to put all this together, I wonder if I can even find that many people?” I only knew a handful of younger artists and I didn't know if they were under 40. However, I thought perhaps we should talk about our future, where we may be headed as a museum, and where this conversation may be going [as an] introduction into what the next 40 years at the Renwick might look like.

NEA: Can talk about how you found all 40 artists that are exhibiting in the show?

BELL: It was quite a process; I think we spent about six months searching. We talked to colleagues across the country and, in fact, internationally. I talked to other curators, professors, galleries, collectors, artists, and I would always ask them the same questions: Whose work really wows you? Who are the best students you have had in the last ten years? What’s out there, on the ground? At the same time, we were doing extensive Internet research. I think we are at a point where if you really want to find what's out there you can find a lot of it online. I don't think that would have been possible even ten years ago, but now everybody who is working as an artist has their own website. We found a lot of these people through months of surfing [the Internet] and stumbled upon quite a bit of work I don't think we would have found any other way. I think we looked at about 2000 people over those six months.

Then the trick was to narrow it down. It was not as hard as it may sound from the numbers because we found some things just didn’t fit and some things were, frankly, better than others. One of the curator’s tasks is selecting but there is also excluding---that was the real trick of the job. I was looking at this vast research and figuring out how to have a meaningful conversation about where craft is in America. How do we make that conversation valid and relevant to people through the work of only a fraction of these artists? How does selecting their work really show the strength of the field and also its variety? People ask me how to describe that [process] all the time and it’s hard to do. Part of it is just using your gut. How does this person do this better than this other person? It’s a question of figuring out what you want to say and understanding how the selected works say it.

Christy Oates, Crane Chair, 2009, laser-cut and engraved plywood, maple veneer, bungee cord, acrylic paint, wood dyes, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Miriam and Leon Ellsworth in honor of the 40th Anniversary of the Renwick Gallery

NEA: When you were putting together the show did you notice any kind of common thread?

BELL: The basic unifying theme is these [artists] are all people. I've had a lot of people ask why objects are included in the show and say what we are exhibiting isn't really craft. This includes the exhibiting artists themselves. The artists do not often use the terminology we use. They don't necessarily use “craft” as a descriptor because, frankly, a lot of people think it is derogatory. What pulls them together is they share a common philosophy for how to treat materials, how to make something. These are all people regardless of whether or not they can say they are contemporary artists or performance artists or fashion [designers], mathematicians, industrial designers, and so on. They are all approaching the making of things with a very sensitive hand. They are very interested in the process by which things come into being. They believe if we spend more time actually engaging with the process and do this on a more personal level, there will be a value that comes out of it. That is not necessarily the default setting of our culture. The default setting is towards ease---ease of use, ease of obtaining things and obtaining things cheaply. The fact of it is that if you go throughout your world and you look at the things around you, they are gathered with an incredible expense and resource to make your life easier as cheaply as possible. These artists do not necessarily consider things within that same light. They feel value lays elsewhere and so regardless of how they define their own works, they are working within a roughly similar framework.

If you came to the Renwick 20 years ago and asked a curator what American craft was, you would have gotten a very specific answer. They would tell you it is people that are making things by hand---a studio craft movement. That may have been accurate at the time, but I think such a narrow definition does a disservice now. Frankly, the media and the way that materials are used, the way that processes are engaged, the way history is engaged is extraordinarily different. Everything is a free-for-all where you can use whatever you want. You have to look for a more basic attribution. These artists approach the world in a different way. They share a philosophy for living differently in the modern world.

NEA: What do you see as similarities and differences between the folk and traditional arts and the new generation of artists spotlighted in this show?

BELL: It is a very interesting difference. Folk and traditional arts are very much engaged in conversation about where specific types of things come from and how to perpetuate those things in a way that adds value to our culture. However, what was very different about this show is the relationship with history. This is a generation that came of age during the post-modern era and by the time any of them were old enough to be doing this type of work, the relationship between our own culture and history changed dramatically. Now, instead of tapping directly into a sort of specific history that is of your ethnic background or your region or whatever defines the past of your ancestors these artists are picking up things everywhere and blending them into this very different model of history. The easiest way I found to think of it is as hyperlinking. Think about how non-linear it is to surf the Internet. You click a button and suddenly you've gone to a completely different world. I think we are now used to this motion, and it becomes intuitive that information is non-linear and you can jump around as you want…. What the artists are doing is making things in a way that reflects that new intuition where you can take one historical design or technique and blend it with another. It is completely reasonable to them because this is the way the world has always looked.

NEA: Anything you’d like to add?

BELL: Paul Greenhalgh, the previous director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, once wrote in the 90s that craft is a supremely messy word. One reason I look for a broader definition [of craft] was because there are so many different conceptions of what craft is, what it means, what it does and does not include. Many of those are unfortunately negative. I thought it would be easier to change the way people thought about craft if they thought less about the specific way of making something but instead thought of it as a set of ideas. Now, coupled with that concept is a very long history about the relation around the word “art” and “artwork.” Frankly, in this museum we use the words pretty interchangeably. I have many visitors come say “this is not craft” or “this is art” or “this is not art.” I personally don't find a lot of value in conversations that seek to divide them. I often use the word “makers,” but I also just as often use the word “artists.” I may call something an “object” because that often is the most value mutual term but I often call things in our show a “piece of art.” I am currently working on a show about traditional baskets and yet, I don't think there is anything wrong with referring to them as artworks. I think our usage of particular terminology is more accurate when we recognize that lines cross over each other everywhere.

40 under 40: Craft Futures runs at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum through February 3, 2013. Visit the website for more details. And don't forget to join us on October 4 as we celebrate master artists in the folk and traditional arts with a live webcast of our 2012 NEA National Heritage Fellows Concert Celebration.

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