Persistent Craft, Fragile Museums

Participants in Michael Strand's Bowls Around Town from Portland Fire and Rescue viewing images and recipes from their submission to Object Focus: The Bowl, 2013
Benjamin Lignel in conversation with Namita Wiggers (part one)

«Craft is something that people carry with them. It's an embodied way of passing on culture.»

Namita Wiggers

Namita Gupta Wiggers, a trailblazing curator from Portland, Oregon, is coming this fall to Oslo (18-27 September and 16-29 October) as a guest to Norwegian Crafts and Galleri Format Oslo. She comes to consult with both institutions about their forthcoming programs and strategies. She will also take part in Norwegian Crafts’ international seminar (Trondheim, 27 October), do a number of studio visits, and host professional development workshops.

“Trailblazing” is a buzzword, which suggests a winged demi-goddess leaving flaming footmarks in unexplored craft jungles. It is somewhat misleading here, as craft curation has over the last decade received an unprecedented amount of academic interest – so not an “unexplored jungle” – while craft exhibition-makers have yet to garner the sort of global attention that “star” art curators routinely receive (for better and for worse) – so no god-like status. However, few American craft curators have thought and written more than Wiggers about the challenges of craft curation, or left quite as exemplary a trail of exhibitions behind them.

When editor André Gali asked me to conduct an interview with Namita to introduce her to Norwegian Crafts’ readership, I decided that you deserved more than “an introduction” and proposed an in-depth look at Wiggers’ thoughtful and combative engagement with craft.  This interview, the first of three, looks at her singular academic and professional background, and focuses on lessons learned and questions asked about craft living in – and circulating out of – museums.

«Craft is persistent. Craft doesn't go away»

Namita Wiggers

Benjamin Lignel: Can you outline briefly your academic and professional background, and share some key moments of your experience working in museums?

Namita Wiggers: I began working in a children’s museum in college, and then transitioned to contemporary art institutions. I was interested in the way museum educators connect challenging concepts and themes in contemporary art to the public, and in combining the interactivity of children’s museums with contemporary art contexts. I began my career serving this way, working to make concepts   legible for different communities -- for school children as well as for the general public and for academic audiences. This was during the early '90s, what is referred to in the US as the “culture wars”, which pitted conservatism and modernism against multiculturalism and post-modernism. Shifts in art making created a need for new ways to talk about art, and I enrolled in graduate school at The University of Chicago. 

My proposed doctoral work focused on the idea of home and the aesthetics of everyday life through the immigrant experience. I delved into the idea of home as a site of personal identity and display, and began working not just in art history but also with the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai and post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha.

The project was perhaps more interdisciplinary than University of Chicago was able to actually support. I left school to work for a product design firm called eLab, where I was able to work with people who were actually applying the kind of theoretical discourse we were studying at University of Chicago towards product design and altering environments. I worked for them for about a year-and-a-half.

«You can't isolate museums out from the whole system of how knowledge is created and disseminated»

Namita Wiggers
Namita Wiggers, 2016

To clarify -- are you saying eLab was more object-oriented and connected to craft than the discourse at UofC?
Namita Wiggers: Craft wasn’t a part of my work yet. ELab was a place to apply theory to real world scenarios. For example, a client may have come to us with a research question: “we want to understand how people feel about the size of the icemaker in side-by-side refrigerators”, for example. We conducted research to probe that question, and helped the client understand the specificity of this problem in a larger context of how users employed and understood storage capacity in these types of fridges. Our charge  was to develop a research protocol - and this is where University of Chicago’s training came in – it would help us examine the question clients posed, but also help us redefine the question if necessary.

The purpose for the research at eLab was to put user experience first and foremost, and figuring out how to make things or make environments that would better suit the ways in which people behave with objects and spaces - and using theoretical concepts and ideas to frame the questions and results. The purpose of research at University of Chicago was to reinforce or expand the field of our history, by finding something that had not yet been analyzed or examined, or by positioning it within the history of art itself.

After eLab, I became a metalsmith, I began making jewelry and within about three or four months started selling my jewelry in galleries and stores in Chicago. For the next chunk of my life, I did occasional freelance writing alongside making, and worked for five years specifically on raising my kids. I was serious about jewelry probably for about 5 of 10 years.

In 2004, the opportunity to become curator at Museum of Contemporary Craft opened up. At that time, it was a small space in a very sleepy residential part of town, with just 12,000 visitors a year. When I went to the interview, I said, "I'm going to make you crazy because the program possibilities here are not going be enough: too few attendees, too hard to visit here, not enough growth potential." The director said, "What if I told you I'm looking for a new curator to develop a new kind of Museum for Contemporary Craft?"
So, I became the curator for that museum in 2004 with the charge of developing what became Museum of Contemporary Craft. My responsibility was to lead exhibitions and collection care, and once we moved into the new space, to oversee education and programming. I was the only curator from 2004 until 2012. Once I was named director and chief curator from 2012 to 2014, I hired a curator of collections and an assistant curator to better distribute the workload.

Installation view, Land Art: David Shaner, 2010, courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Craft Archive, Center for Art and Culture, Pacific Northwest College of Art.

«Craft has that power to connect the everyday and the singular»

Namita Wiggers

How many exhibitions have you curated - or helped curate when you became director - over these years?
Namita Wiggers: I curated more than 65 exhibitions, hundreds of programs, produced 8 publications and at least half a dozen commissioned essays that are online, spearheaded 3 or 4 independent online projects. During that time, I also lectured and wrote in the field at-large and co-founded Critical Craft Forum.

At the time, how many Museum in the U.S. had a similar remit to yours?
Namita Wiggers: I would say about half a dozen could be classified as craft-focused or craft-supporters.

So, we had peers and peer groups, but we weren't necessarily programming with the same approach as theirs. We decided to work against a homogenized culture in which the space and content of museums are treated as if interchangeable, where content is what gets visitors in the door, but the space is just a box. As a result, we didn't pick up many traveling shows from peers. Those tended to be monographic and focused on specific makers that didn't necessarily reflect what was of interest to our community, to Portland, and it became even less a connection when Pacific Northwest College of Art took over the Museum in 2009. This idea of names, names, names wasn't going to draw people or art students into our institution. What drew them in was work that challenged the idea of contemporary craft as something that operates in tandem with craft history, design and art. Portland is a city with a long tradition of studio ceramics, textile,and glass -- but it is very focused on contemporary art. So, it was my responsibility to try to find a way to bridge the community's interests with this mission to focus on contemporary craft.

You've been paying particular attention to the notion of access…

Namita Wiggers: I grew up in the United States with the Carnegie Library model which is open access, open stacks, open experience with knowledge that you -- anyone -- has the right to access.

…and the way that museums with and through craft could bring people in, could make people participate. This is one of the more exciting aspects of your curatorial career. Would you say that craft represents an opportunity for museums to do community building?

Namita Wiggers: Absolutely. Craft is persistent. Craft doesn't go away. You can connect people easily with materials and processes, with immediately visible results, to any number of methods and modes of making. In museums of all kinds, craft is a tool for outreach. However, I want to push back on the idea of outreach versus engagement by drawing on recent comments by Tom Finkelpearl, who works for the Mayor’s Office in NYC: He notes that in institutional work, outreach is about extending what you do out, while engagement is interactive and reciprocal. I couldn’t agree more. I believe engagement brings people in as much as it takes the museum out. And this opens a space for craft to engage with immigrant populations, for example, or women, or people who don't have a lot of money. Many can potentially have access as much as build new perspectives. Bear in mind the singular position of craft in our lives: craft is something that people carry with them. It's an embodied way of passing on culture. This is why, in my opinion, craft museums have an opportunity serve a broader public better than other visual arts museums.

Installation view, Collateral Matters: Selections by Kate Bingamen-Burt and Clifton Burt, 2010-11, courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Craft Archives, Center for Art and Culture, Pacific Northwest College of Art.

You’ve often talked about the fact that not everyone gets access to museums, that not every voice is heard. Museums tend to amplify discrimination, both with regards to their staff, and the artists they show. You were the first American-born South Asian to direct a collecting art museum in the United States…

Namita Wiggers: This is my understanding, yes, and there are too few South Asians working in museum education: Vishakha Desai who served as Director of the Asia Society and now Abraham Thomas at the Renwick. I am working to change this, as are others. In the US, we're very visible in other cultural sectors like medicine and hotels. There is this perception that we're present in all kinds of careers and work opportunities. But less than 1% of the people working in contemporary art in New York City are South Asian based on a recent study. People of many backgrounds need to be present in all manner of ways or the conversation remains unequal.

How do you think things are moving these days and do you find that craft institutions have an role to play in disaggregating culture?
Namita Wiggers: You can't isolate museums out from the whole system of how knowledge is created and disseminated. What we've studied, and in turn teach in art history to undergraduates and graduate students is very a Euro-centric history that needs to be revised to actually reflect the fact that the world has been an interconnected place for a very long time. For example, craft history is often taught through William Morris’ pushback against industrialization as the beginning of modern craft. Artist Lavanya Mani shared in a paper recently that she took a classic Morris textile to artisans specializing in kalamkari, the technique used to produce chintz, for example. The artisans immediately recognized the pattern, and showed her examples, revealing it to be based on a centuries-old Indian classic.

The issue of who writes history is complex and linked to economies and capitalism and class. We can't just fault the museums for not being open and diverse. We have to understand the way that the system relegates certain kinds of knowledge to recovery and resuscitation and to the margin, rather than to being part of a central story. And that's what people working in museums are taught. In smaller cities, for example, cultural organizations are more visibly guided - to this day- by “business leaders” and their wives, people who are in powerful positions to teach “proper” cultural practices. Even the tiniest of cities is pressured to have a ballet company, for example, because it serves as a signpost of connection to a certain level of sophistication, class, standards…all linked to European structures. These are the binds that are operating in museums and in knowledge building today; where are community-led organizations and other visual and cultural practices in this mix?

Marguerite Wildenhain, Pond Farm Bowl, 2013, Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Craft Archive, Center for Art and Culture, Pacific Northwest College of Art
Installation view of Circulate, project by Ayumi Horie for Object Focus: The Bowl, 2013, Museum of Contemporary Craft. Visitors could handle bowls in the Museum, and choose to borrow a bowl by one of the artists of their choice with a request that they document how they use the bowl through mages and narrative. Table by MK Guth. Video Bowl (on wall) features series of videos exploring the bowl from documentaries of making to conceptual projects. Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Craft Archive, Center for Art and Culture, Pacific Northwest College of Art

You're describing something like a triad of powers - economical, institutional, and let's say academic in a wider sense of the world - who together shape cultural history. Can you point to one exhibition that you curated that you think has successfully used craft to challenge the categories, the language, the hierarchies that we're speaking about? I am really interested in drawing out the specificity of your engagement with craft – and how you have thought about feedback systems and virtuous circles of exchange and sharing, opening up the way museum deal in, and deal with, knowledge and objects.

Namita Wiggers: I don't know if I've been successful in all those categories simultaneously, but there are two exhibitions that I've done that have tried to do this with, maybe three. One would be Object Focus: The Bowl. The project was partly about disrupting this idea that the museum is a container and that's the only place where you get to see certain types of objects. Access was really critical and particularly the idea of letting people engage with bowls. As one part of the project, you could borrow the bowls from the museum through Circulate, which Ayumi Horie curated for us. You had to leave your credit card and have a commitment to pay the price of the bowl if the bowl broke.

We recognized that the credit card constituted a class barrier, however, and decided to use existing systems of distribution and circulation to overcome that barrier as much as we could: Michael Strand had Bowls around town circulating through the public library. Anybody with a public library card could borrow one of three bowls circulating much like books, and experience a comparable kind of engagement. And you also could go to selected restaurants and use bowls made by local potters, a pizza place and two restaurants. A pizza place. I mean, how every day can you get, right?
You could experience the bowls at those eating places and talk about those experiences with us if you wanted to - or not. And then the fourth thing was that you could tell us about your own bowls as a way to connect to the idea that this mug [holds up mug] that I'm drinking out of is connected to the kind of pieces you might see in a museum that's focused on craft. It's not going to be the same thing, but it allowed for people to understand that their everyday objects are connected to what's in that museum and that was another way of breaking it down, too. This is where craft has that power to connect the everyday and the singular and bring it all together and cut across. That exhibition I really did try to cut across class and economics in that regard, to leave room to discuss a bowl, my bowl, or the bowl.

Checking out Michael Strand's Bowls Around Town from Multnomah County Library, Portland Oregon for Object Focus: The Bowl, 2013, Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Craft Archive, Center for Art and Culture, Pacific Northwest College of Art
Self-documentation of participation in Michael Strand's Bowls Around Town from Portland Fire and Rescue, included in Object Focus: The Bowl, 2013, Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Craft Archive, Center for Art and Culture, Pacific Northwest College of Art

«This is the vital function of the smaller museums -- to push against “culture” to break it out of singular, state, and elitist histories in the “capital M museums.” »

Namita Wiggers

Thinking about other forms of engagement with the public, you curated Touching warms the Art, which put tactile interaction at center of the (museum) experience. Namely, approximately 70 jewelers agreed to send you specially made work that had to cost less than a certain minimal amount, could be touched by visitors, and would later be gifted to the museum. The exhibition challenged a number of the self-imposed constraints of museums, and for contemporary jewellers, this was a watershed moment.

Namita Wiggers: The exhibition highlighted the fact that there are many contemporary artists working through jewellery who are using non-precious materials and are interested in making their work more publicly available than might be possible in exclusive gallery situations. I think the project expanded  traditional values for understanding the aura of the art object. You would see work by artists who are in galleries, in this exhibition, and get to try things on without the pressure of purchase.So it ended up resting at the level of experience for the visitor. There was a lot of play and a lot of testing and trying and laughter and glee and surprise and discovery. Conversations amongst strangers – all visitors. This is very different than what you get in a setting where you have a sense that if I touch it, I have to buy it.

Visitor snapshots at iMac Photobooth from Flickr, Touching Warms the Art, 2008, Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Craft Archive, Center for Art and Culture, Pacific Northwest College of Art

The Museum of Contemporary Craft, a seventy-nine year old institution and  the oldest of its kind in the country was closed down in 2016 by its owner, the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Its collection of over 1400 objects is now in boxes and subsumed into an institution that is not equipped to manage it.  How prepared are museums to preserve their institutional history?

Namita Wiggers: There is an understanding that amassing objects into a collection, locating them in a museum, gives them value or proves value, but there's not the same cultural understanding that you have to commit to long-term care. Collection care is a very specific kind of work: collections require dedicated space, dedicated staff, funds for storage and research and writing as well as for conservation, for proper documentation, for building a database, for bringing researchers in so they can access the collection, making it available in other ways.

Big museums have endowments. They have funds. They have staff dedicated to caring for archives and objects. But the smaller institutions don't have this. There are a lot of small museums that are struggling right now. Many are closing. It’s in the small museums that the history of craft is located. It’s the small museums that have and continue to preserve and document the work of people of color. It's the small museums that are broadening the concept of what American identity actually is. That is why it's imperative that we preserve and protect what's happening in the small museums. The current structural and economic situation puts those craft collections at risk.

People make massive amounts of ceramics, jewelry, glass and textile. Not everything is going to survive. Not everything can survive and nor do I think everything should survive. It's impossible. But  small museums play a vital role in protecting and preserving some of the history for future generations.

There is something about the vernacular, the domestic, the quotidian, the everyday, all the terms used to reference cultural production connected to spaces like kitchens and living rooms rather than the highest echelons of the art market or the most privileged of homes. This is the vital function of the smaller museums --  to push against “culture” to break it out of singular, state, and elitist histories in the “capital M museums.”

Thank you very much, Namita. I would like to end our conversation here: we will talk again next month – this time about your work with Critical Craft Forum.

Namita Wiggers is Director of the Master of Arts in Craft Studies at Warren Wilson College and the Director of Critical Craft Forum. Benjamin Lignel is a freelance writer, curator and artist. Wiggers and Lignel are currently working together on a research project  on gender and ornamentation.

Installation view of Laurie Herrick: Weaving Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, 2011, courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Craft Archive, Center for Art and Culture, Pacific Northwest College of Art