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Why the Closing of the Museum of Contemporary Craft Is a Major Loss

'The Living Room, installation view, 2007, at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Mark Stein; all photos courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Craft unless indicated otherwise)
‘The Living Room, installation view, 2007, at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Mark Stein; all photos courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Craft unless indicated otherwise)

The next time you find yourself hate-reading a fawning profile of a photogenic young Brooklyn potter whose hot-pink-rimmed wares are transforming the “stuffy world of ceramics into a cool new craft” (or something to that effect), navigate yourself away from there, and instead visit the website of the Museum of Contemporary Craft (MoCC) in Portland, Oregon. Here you will find a digital record of nimble cultural production that will knock your socks off. If you’re not already familiar with this small but mighty 79-year-old institution, its website will introduce you to an array of exhibitions, events, and programs that have helped shaped high-level thinking about craft practice in the 20th and 21st centuries.

'Object Focus: The Bowl,' installation view, 2013, at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Matthew Miller)
‘Object Focus: The Bowl,’ installation view, 2013, at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Matthew Miller) (click to enlarge)

However, you’ll have to click rather than walk your way to MoCC, because on February 3 the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) announced that the Museum — which PNCA acquired in 2009 — will permanently close its doors in April. The “programming and collection of PNCA’s Museum of Contemporary Craft will be incorporated into the [new] Center for Contemporary Art & Culture,” according to the PNCA press release. MoCC’s closure serves as a timely reminder, if one was needed, of how vulnerable small visual arts organizations truly are. The PNCA, for its part, attempted to accentuate the positive by positioning the announcement as an exciting new chapter in the institution’s history, headlining its press release “PNCA Announces Plans for New Center for Contemporary Art & Culture.” Curiously, the release stops just short of acknowledging that MoCC is being closed:

As part of this move, the programming and collection of PNCA’s Museum of Contemporary Craft will be incorporated into the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture within PNCA’s main campus building at 511 NW Broadway. The Museum of Contemporary Craft’s condo interest in 724 NW Davis, the building in which the Museum is currently housed, is being placed on the market. The Museum Store will not be transferred to PNCA’s main campus building but will be closed.

Yet given the MoCC’s focus on craft — it’s raison d’être since 1937 — and the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture’s broad, loosely-defined program, it’s difficult to see how being “incorporated” doesn’t amount to a death knell for the MoCC. When PNCA acquired the Museum of Contemporary Craft and the institution moved to its current location in the Pearl District, the hope was that the partnership would give MoCC some financial security and offer the College the resources and opportunities of a working museum, on a scale small enough to give students hands-on experience. Reporting for Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), Aaron Scott interviewed PNCA’s Interim President, Casey Mills. Mills said that “[t]he collection from MoCC will come into PNCA to be combined with our existing programs at PNCA, so it would span not only craft, but craft, art, design, and show that these are actually all interrelated and that they actually feed off one another.” Mills added: “When PNCA purchased the museum, it was hoped that it would be something that could be used as a resource for its students and its faculty. … And what has happened is that, for whatever reason, it has not really been something that students and faculty have been engaged in, at least not sufficiently enough.”

"Extra Credit" class for PNCA students at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Mario Gallucci, MFA VS '14)
“Extra Credit” class for PNCA students at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Mario Gallucci, MFA VS ’14)

Though it’s light on specifics, Mills’s statement tells us all we need to know about this decision, illustrating perfectly the profound misunderstanding of contemporary craft that can lead to this sort of outcome. The idea that the new Center for Contemporary Art & Culture will show “not only craft, but craft, art, design, and show that these are actually all interrelated and that they actually feed off one another” strains credulity, because the ideal model for that kind of programming just happens to be the Museum that they’re about to close. For the uninitiated, the term “craft museum” might conjure up a perplexing mental image of a Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Store full of roped-off displays of glitter and yarn, with “do not touch” signs on every wall. This confusion is the very thing that makes contemporary craft at once incredibly rich and exciting, but also terribly vulnerable to the financial vagaries of a culture industry where nuance and ambiguity are a hard sell for sponsors and donors. Is it amateur or professional? Is it about finished objects or watching people make things? Is it sculpture or a useful object? The MoCC, like many contemporary craft organizations today, answered yes, yes, and yes.

'Object Focus: The Bowl,' installation view, 2013, at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Matthew Miller)
‘Object Focus: The Bowl,’ installation view, 2013, at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Matthew Miller) (click to enlarge)

The MoCC traces its roots to the Oregon Ceramic Studio, which was founded as a resource for struggling regional artists at the height of the Great Depression in 1937, and was built by Works Progress Administration labor with donated materials. It was renamed the Contemporary Crafts Gallery in 1965, became the Contemporary Crafts Museum & Gallery in 2002, and finally adopted the Museum of Contemporary Craft name in 2007. The MoCC is a small, jewel-like museum known for giving early exhibition opportunities to fledging artists (including legendary textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen) and staging highly original shows that interpreted its collection of studio craft objects with a fresh eye. This was particularly true after the arrival of Namita Gupta Wiggers in 2004. Wiggers was MoCC’s chief curator until 2012, when she became the museum’s director, and she was at the helm during the expansion and move into its current exhibition space.

Installation shot of 'Alien She,' (2015) including L.J. Roberts's "We Couldn’t Get In. We Couldn’t Get Out." (2006–07) at center and "Gay Bashers Come And Get It" (2011) in the background (photo courtesy of L.J. Roberts)
Installation shot of ‘Alien She,’ (2015) including L.J. Roberts’s “We Couldn’t Get In. We Couldn’t Get Out.” (2006–07) at center and “Gay Bashers Come And Get It” (2011) in the background (photo courtesy of L.J. Roberts)

Wiggers’s exhibitions busted through the pots-on-pedestals format by exploring craft as a noun, a verb, and a form of social practice. There were formal shows, like Object Focus: The Bowl, which explored the aesthetic and cultural facets of a universal form; there were historical shows like The Academy Is Full of Craft, which traced studio craft as a driving force in higher education after World War II; and shows that explored the domestic and social nature of the crafted object like The Living Room, which included a vignette in the form of a Mid-Century Modern period room full of postwar furniture and ceramics from the Museum’s collection. It recently hosted Alien She, a blockbuster traveling exhibition curated by Astria Suparak and Ceci Moss that chronicled the art and aesthetics of the Riot Grrrl movement, and it was the only West Coast venue for Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn, which was organized by Arcadia University’s Richard Torchia and Gregg Moore. One of the last shows organized by outgoing MoCC staff will be The Design and Craft of Prosthetics, timed to coincide with the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Curated by Nicole Nathan, MoCC’s deputy director and curator of collections, this exhibition will explore “the relationship between craft, design, material, and the human body.” This is the first MoCC exhibition in several decades to earn support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

One of the most influential shows ever organized by MoCC was the 2010 exhibition Gestures of Resistance, curated by Judith Leemann and Shannon Stratton, which featured works by Sara Black and John Preus, Anthea Black, Carole Lung, AKA Frau Fiber, Mung Lar Lam, Cat Mazza of Nike Blanket Petition fame, Iraq War Veteran and ceramic artist Ehren Tool, and the artistic polymath and potter Theaster Gates. Rather than assembling a group of objects per se, the exhibition’s content was performative, highlighting production and consumption. Each participating artist worked in the Museum’s galleries, interacting with visitors, answering questions, and performing the labor of their particular project in real time.

"Extra Credit" class for PNCA students at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Mario Gallucci, MFA VS '14)
“Extra Credit” class for PNCA students at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Mario Gallucci, MFA VS ’14) (click to enlarge)

And while Mills noted in his OPB interview that the MoCC has “not really been something that students and faculty have been engaged” with, the Museum’s exhibition record includes the project Extra Credit: Students Mine the Collection, in which PNCA undergraduates addressed certain key questions — including “How do we understand the body? How do we define beauty? How do we activate the collection? Why do we keep broken things in the collection?” — and then curated a show based on what they had learned. It’s difficult to imagine a project like this happening at an encyclopedic art museum.

Joaquin Golez, a design and illustration major at PNCA who currently has a work-study position at the MoCC, said that his experience there has been revelatory. “In all honesty, the museum completely transformed my perception of craft,” Golez told Hyperallergic. “We craft ideas and objects, structures and policies to meet people’s needs and speak to them on a personal level. Whether that’s [something] as personal as the blanket on their bed or the packaging of their cereal box, we’re serving people with art, and we do it as a part of a design lineage with an aesthetic and ethical code. I think makers and buyers alike forget that the objects we surround ourselves with tell our stories. When we make or buy neglectfully, we’re honestly neglecting ourselves.”

'Collateral Matters: Selections by Kate Bingaman-Burt and Clifton Burt,' installation view, 2010, at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Jake Stangel)
‘Collateral Matters: Selections by Kate Bingaman-Burt and Clifton Burt,’ installation view, 2010, at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Jake Stangel) (click to enlarge)

Neither a standard-issue contemporary art museum nor a decorative arts museum offering one material survey after another, the MoCC trained its focus on the conditions of making — materials, process, skill, and the racial, ethnic, and gender politics of producing and consuming — and spun its programming out from that premise in all directions. Its loss will certainly be deeply felt not just in the city of Portland, but in the art world at large. “Portland is seen as a nexus of craft and artisanally produced goods for a reason,” Garth Johnson, curator of the Ceramics Research Center at the Arizona State University Art Museum, told Hyperallergic. “The Museum of Contemporary Craft chronicled the vitality of many different generations of makers who built Portland into what it is today, and will leave a hole in the fabric of its creative community that will be impossible to mend.”

Betty Feves, "Six Figures" (date unknown), Raku on wooden base, Collection of Feves Family, Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Dan Kvitka)
Betty Feves, “Six Figures” (date unknown), Raku on wooden base, Collection of Feves Family, Museum of Contemporary Craft (photo by Dan Kvitka) (click to enlarge)

Lisa Dent, director, the director of resources and award programs at Creative Capital, told Hyperallergic that “MoCC is a national treasure. Rather than align itself with a homogenous art historical pipeline, as many other visual art centers do, the museum has provided a space for both formal and cultural education and investigation. The reach of their programming and publications was wide and will be deeply missed.”

Perhaps this broad and ambitious vision was ultimately the Museum’s undoing. Perry Price, the American Craft Council’s director of education, deftly suggested as much in a blog post about the MoCC’s closure:

The craft world’s discomfort with the contemporary art world’s new interest in fiber or ceramics isn’t that the usual gatekeepers or oracles of craft have been circumvented, it is that every “rediscovery” of an “overlooked” career or material dismisses previous critical interpretation, scholarship, and support, the hard work already done, in favor of the dominant historical and critical paradigm in art. And it affects all categories of art, from design to dance. It is the patronizing voice of authority, saying “don’t worry, we’ll take it from here.”

In the case of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, one wonders who — if anyone — will take it from here.

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