Meanwhile, under the directorship of Paul J. Smith, who led the museum from 1963 to 1987, the institution—renamed the American Craft Museum in 1979—continued to hack away at traditional aesthetic hierarchies—between high and popular culture presenting wildly innovative shows devoted to the likes of sound installations, the art of baking, and the like.
“Whirligigs and spinning wheels” are what Holly Hotchner says most people in the mid 1990’s, when she took over as director, mistakenly assumed the museum showcased. And that was if they had heard of it at all. By then, it had outgrown its second home on West 53rd Street, but membership and attendance were stagnating.
In the search for a new name, Hotchner says, “We realized that what was meant by craft at the time of the museum’s founding—with architects, designers, artists, and craftspeople discussing how art and industry could come together—actually gave a very sound direction to our future. We’ve chosen arts, plural, meaning the arts and crafts movement, decorative arts, applied arts—the coming together of many arts and design.”
Hotchner hopes museumgoers will begin their visit on the sixth floor, with the new open-studio program, where a rotating roster of artists-in-residence will offer the public a window onto the creative process. There, on the morning of the opening in September, in one of three luminous, linked ateliers, the conceptual potter and performance artist Zack Davis was throwing tiny pots on a wheel, then cramming the still-wet forms into an attaché case. “I tried to stick with something that was true to midtown,” he said, explaining that this “dirt in a briefcase” was his impromptu response to that day’s turmoil in the financial markets.
One flight below him, Hew Locke, born in Edinburgh, raised in Guyana, and now residing in London, stood next to a fantastic trio of model ships he’d fastened together from dime-store baubles—plastic swords and shields, metal chains, Christmas decorations, artificial flowers, toy guns. Titled Golden Horde in honor of Genghis Khan’s marauding troops, the work deals with “fears of immigrants,” he explained. “But the work is also about immigrants’ dreams of streets paved with gold, and then too about my love for Baroque saltcellars and Mexican Madonnas, and my interest in a broken kind of beauty.”
Locke’s work is featured in the inaugural exhibition, “Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary,” which runs through mid-February. It spreads out over two floors, and showcases 51 artists and designers who transform discarded or commonplace objects—from disposable chopsticks and telephone books to toothpaste tubes—into materials for creation. “For the most part, the museum’s focus has been on ceramics, glass, metal, fiber, wood—all of the standard craft mediums,” says curator David Revere McFadden, who organized the show with his co-curator, Lowery Stokes Sims. “One of the reasons to do “Second Lives,” he continues, “was to rethink the entire idea of what material means.”
Luminous chandeliers, wittily put together from cascading prescription eyeglasses (Stuart Haygarth) or hypodermic needles ominously mingling among Swarovski crystals (Laurel Roth and Andy Diaz Hope), hang from the ceiling. Michael Rakowitz’s re-creations of plundered and lost antiquities from the National Museum of Iraq, in Baghdad, made from Arabic newspapers and Middle Eastern food packaging, are uncannily moving. Tara Donovan’s ethereal sculpture of a coral reef reveals itself, upon closer inspection, to be composed of clear plastic shirt buttons, endowed by the artist with an undersea beauty.
“Increasing numbers of artists in the fine-arts world are very process-and materials-oriented,” says Sims, who came to MAD after long tenures at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “They don’t necessarily think of themselves as craftspeople,” she explains. “They exist in the space between what we traditionally call art and craft, while craft artists are becoming increasingly theoretical and conceptual.” Take Johnny Swing’s Quarter Lounge, for example. The craft-intensive labor of soldering together some 5,250 coins that went into its creation renders the quarters worthless as money, but endows them with the values of art instead.