Exhibiting Craft: Histories, contexts, practices

Claire Jones, Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham, c.jones.4@bham.ac.uk

Inês Jorge, Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham, ixp983@student.bham.ac.uk

Craft has mainly been defined in relation – and in opposition – to fine art, design and industry; practices of making; and national, disciplinary and material boundaries. The emerging field of exhibition histories offers a significant framework for understanding how craft has been shaped by different contexts and methods of display. The wide scope of spaces, agents, strategies and practices involved in craft exhibitions, suggests that these can be powerful tools for asserting and questioning the creative, political, economic, institutional and social role of craft, and for engaging with various publics. This session will explore craft from the perspective of exhibition and display histories. We invite proposals from practitioners, curators and academics, among others, that address the ways in which craft has been exhibited across a range of geographical areas and historical periods, and the ways in which those displays have shaped and (re)defined the meaning(s) of craft. Topics might include exhibits within and beyond institutional spaces such as domestic, outdoor and alternative venues; the roles of makers, curators, institutional staff and audiences; physical interactions with craft; craft-making as public display/performance; engagement with specific communities; questions of ethnicity, nationalism, sexuality and gender; and exhibitions that consider the interdisciplinary, local and/or global character of craft; all with a focus on how the exhibition of craft has fostered perceptions of craft.

Speakers and Abstracts

Marcia Tucker’s Domestic Politics: Art and craft in the 1990s

Elyse Speaks (University of Notre Dame)

In 1996, curator and New Museum (NY) director Marcia Tucker created “A Labor of Love,” an exhibition that offers both a model and theoretical account of making and display that debunks conventional art hierarchies and biases. The late 1990s saw a host of such exhibitions, including “Craft” and “Lovecraft” in the UK (1998 and 1999, respectively), which, in the words of art historian Janis Jefferies, marked the invasion of craft techniques into the realm of fine art. While today process-driven work affiliated with craft, outsider art, and folk art is increasingly considered a viable politicized or conceptual practice, in focusing on “A Labor of Love,” I examine Tucker’s unconventional use of ‘domestic’ politics to promote and activate objects often read as bound to their materiality. Tucker took craft’s conventionally domestic station as license to theorize ways in which quotidian strategies (both those undertaken by the artists, and those deployed by Tucker) could prompt controversy and debate. By featuring connections based on questions of labour, the exhibition highlighted process as an issue infused with political meaning and potential. The aesthetic hybrids on display were, moreover, complemented with domestic structures for viewing and interaction; the introduction of music, home furnishings (couches, dining tables, a bed), and a domestic format for the exhibition enacted persistent references to private spaces. In this way, “A Labour of Love” positioned its objects within the larger framework of lived experience, forging a complex dialogue with agency and care as practiced outside the museum. 

Displaying Technical Gestures in Craft-Related Exhibitions

Inés Moreno (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales)

Seeking to reflect on the regimes of visibility of technical gesture as defined by the framework of anthropology of technology, in an attempt to grasp what occurs between a body, a tool and a material in a context of specific social and cultural production, I will propose to analyse three recent exhibitions shown in French institutions in order to identify different curatorial discourses and museographic practices. The focus will be to explore the potential of the exhibition device for enhancing technical awareness and making visible the entanglements between material culture and gestural knowledge of which it is the product. The analysis of the ethnography-based curatorial project Meilleurs Ouvriers de France at Musée des Arts et Métier (2017), the group show The mind begins and ends in the fingertips (2019) at Palais de Tokyo and the two-fold exhibition The Beauty of gesture (2019/20) at the City of Ceramics in Sèvres will shed light into the possibilities and pitfalls of displaying know-how and tacit skills. These exhibitions, which took place indifferent institutional settings (a technical museum, a contemporary art site and a national museum associated with a porcelain factory) even if they share certain common questioning, they convey a set of divergent lines of discourse that will be linked to several museographic traditions. By applying some notional and methodological tools of the anthropology of technology such as that of the “operational sequence”, the aim will be to interrogate the role of exhibitions for unveiling the complex set of actions, both material and intellectual, involved in the making of things and for highlighting the know-how inscribed in the objects.

Exhibiting Greek Embroidery in Britain during World War Two

Lenia Kouneni (School of Art History, University of St Andrews)

This paper will discuss the display of Greek embroidery in a series of temporary wartime exhibitions entitled Greek Art 3000 B.C.-A.D. 1938 organised in Britain during World War II. It will analyse the scope of the organisers, the display of the artworks and their reception by the public. It will argue that the inclusion of Greek embroidery contributed significantly to the main aim of these exhibitions: the demonstration of continuity of Greek art. In these displays, embroideries helped to create a narrative that emphasised links between past and present in a turbulent period. Their display and interpretation also emphasised the role of women as keepers of tradition. This paper will argue that the inclusion of embroidery and its juxtaposition to ‘high’ classical Greek art in this series of exhibitions was instrumental in highlighting the continuity of design and artistic tradition and demonstrating the resilience of Greek identity and heritage. By doing so, it also challenged the male-dominated fields of ancient Greek painting and sculpture and positioned female craftsmanship to the centre of the discourse on cultural continuity. The assertions made were particularly important in the context of World War II and the German occupation of Greece. As the exhibitions were co-sponsored by the Greek government-in-exile and the British Council, they were used as propaganda and as a morale booster for the wartime British public.

Crafting Italy: Intersections of art, craft and design in the exhibition Italy at Work: Her Renaissance in Design Today

Kate Devine (Royal Holloway, University of London)

The early to mid-twentieth century saw a revival of craft production and appreciation in Italy. Mussolini had supported the craft industries during his administration, and in the uncertain post-war environment it formed an integral part of the country’s growing industrial design sector as well as functioning as an important part of the regenerating nation’s national image. Several craft and design exhibitions were promoted at home and abroad that showcased the country’s traditional crafts as well and their modern design innovations. Perhaps the most famous of these exhibitions was the 1951 show Italy at work: Her Renaissance in Design Today, which toured to twelve sites in the United States. While the significance of this exhibition has been explored in relation to Italy’s post-war design prowess, little research has been done which focuses on the place of this exhibition in the world of fine art. Alongside traditional straw hats and brand-new Olivetti typewriters were ceramic works by Lucio Fontana, and sculpture by Enrico Prampolini, Fausto Melotti and Agenore Fabbri. This mix of traditional artefacts, new design and high art was evidence of the interconnected and even symbiotic relationship between disciplines today habitually treated separately. This paper seeks to rectify this hitherto underexplored aspect of an important exhibition, unravelling the important ties between art, craft and design and what they reveal about the aesthetic identity of this rapidly changing nation.

Beyond Craft: Exhibiting textile practices in the art museum

Ann Coxon (Tate Modern, University College London)

A number of recent exhibitions have looked back to textile-based art practice, ‘fiber art’ or soft art from the 1960s and 70s in an attempt to rediscover and redefine bodies of work using fibre, thread or rope, many of which have not been included in canonical accounts of twentieth century art history. Examples include the exhibition Fiber Sculpture: 1960 – present at the ICA Boston, 2014; Art & Textiles, at the Kunstmuseum Wolsburg, 2014; and Textiles: Open Letter at the Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach in 2013. In addition, publications such as String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art, 2009 by Elissa Auther or Fray: Art and Textile Politics, 2018 by Julia Bryan Wilson have considered the territory of textile art and craft practices in the US. At Tate Modern, textile works from the 1960s by Lenore Tawney, Sheila Hicks and Olga de Amaral have been acquired in the past decade and were brought together in the display titled Beyond Craft, 2017-18, and within the major retrospective exhibition Anni Albers, 2018-19. Despite this, and despite historical attempts to establish the importance of ‘fiber art’ in the US, or the significance of the radically expanded forms of tapestry at the international Lausanne Tapestry Biennial in the 1960s, these bodies of work remain under-researched and under-represented within academic and museum contexts. My paper will consider some of these recent exhibitions, raising questions about art-craft hierarchies, medium specificity, canonical expansion and the future for textile-based practice within the art museum.

Craft as Contemporary: The Museo del Barro in Asunción

Sofia Gotti (University of Cambridge)

Since the 1980s, it has been a priority for Paraguayan scholars to question and remap the canonical division of craft and art. Thinker and critic Ticio Escobar, alongside prominent historical figures in Paraguay such as Olga Blinder, Carlos Colombino and Osvaldo Salerno, have worked tirelessly to institutionalise indigenous art on par with what Escobar terms erudite art or the critical-illustrated tradition. The impressive Museo del Barro in Asuncion holds an extensive collection of art dating from the pre-colonial period to the present day, and mounts cyclical contemporary art exhibitions. From its inception, the museum strives to challenge and reconfigure the dynamics that determine the categorization and valuation of art. The collection straddles art and craft, and it engages with non-mainstream systems through which popular art and indigenous art circulated, breaking with hegemonic cultural hierarchies. Such efforts are rooted in Paraguay’s longstanding engagement in public policy around the question of indigeneity. In this paper, I will examine how the display and exhibition practice at the museum has treated the display of objects in ways that erode the difference between art and craft. Looking at a permanent display room, I will examine the curatorial strategies that make the viewer reflexive of the different notions of non-linear time that indigenous populations share. By examining a recent temporary exhibition featuring indigenous contemporary art, I will examine how the museum is resisting the homogenization of indigenous culture, fostered by nationalist narratives rooted in the false nationalist myth of a shared Guaraní race in Paraguay.

‘Shifting Ground’: The Glasgow Society of Lady Artists and Altering Glasgow’s Exhibition Culture

Karen Mailley-Watt (The University of Glasgow and The Glasgow School of Art)

From its establishment in 1882, The Glasgow Society of Lady Artists (GSLA) attempted to combat the gender-bias and imbalance in Glasgow’s exhibition culture at the turn of the nineteenth century into the early twentieth century through a variety of means. A custom-built gallery designed by the architects Fred Rowntree and George Walton in 1896 allowed the society to place the action of exhibiting at the forefront of the space. This designated exhibition space facilitated and helped to level the exhibition ‘playing field’ for GSLA to exhibit an array of works including a range of applied arts and craft beside the designated ‘fine arts’. This specifically designated space removed the physical, spatial and metaphorical divides often dictated by the medium hierarchy and reinforced by the patriarchal status quo of other exhibiting organisations such as The Royal Institute for the Fine Arts. The GSLA club house – a women only space, controlled by the members – attempted to redefine and elevate the status of crafts and other works denoted as ‘women’s work’. This paper will demonstrate how GSLA via the club house supported and responded to artist’s and designer’s needs, with exhibitions often mirroring the pedagogy of the adjacent Glasgow School of Arts and later supporting external projects including the Needlework Development Scheme in the 1930s. The paper will also highlight the visibility tactics used to help elevate craft producers and works via the Lauder Prize. By 1921 GSLA used The Lauder Prize as a vehicle of exposure and visibility for an array of producers.

Exhibitions of British Craft between the Wars

Imogen Hart (University of California, Berkeley)

For craft societies in interwar Britain, exhibitions served the purposes of exposure, promotion, critique and community-building. In the various experimental forms they took, exhibitions were not only the spaces in which makers reached markets, but also sites in which urgent debates about the function and morality of craft, the communities it served, and its value in the modern world could be played out. Examining and comparing the practices of the Red Rose Guild (Manchester) and the Little Gallery (London), this paper explores how these groups used exhibitions in different ways to shape their identities as craft organizations and to engage with local, regional, national and international audiences. Craftspeople and curators, many of them women, developed exhibiting strategies that made visible the conditions of production, embraced the functional characteristics of objects, and evoked the bodies and rituals of domestic space. By foregrounding considerations of labour and use, craft exhibitions encouraged particular kinds of engagement with the objects they displayed. Drawing on feminist and everyday life theory, the paper considers the radical potential of such practices. Presenting new research gathered from archival materials and published reviews, the paper reconstructs exhibitions mounted by these groups in the 1920s and 1930s, analysing key displays and the rhetoric that framed them in order to illuminate the ways in which craft objects were put into conversation with one another and mobilized to support various artistic, social and political agendas.




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