museum of contemporary craft

ArtsWatch Weekly: chasing hot rods

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

It’s been quite a week here at ArtsWatch. Busy? We’ve been racing around town like hound dogs chasing hot rods, trying to keep up. Almost to our canine surprise, we caught quite a few. But some of those wheels just keep on spinning, a little bit out of reach. The whole world’s been coming to town, at least cinematically, for the Portland International Film Festival. Plays have been popping up all over the place, from Artists Rep’s Mothers and Sons to Contigo Pan y Cebolla, Milagro’s nifty Spanish-language trip to pre-revolution Havana. We’ve seen a little dance. We’ve heard a lot of music.

Contemporary Northwest Art Awards, left: Samantha Wall, "Face," 2014, sumi ink and dried pigment. © Samantha Wall. Photo: Dan Kvitka. Right: Akio Takamori, "Squatting Girl in Blue Dress," 2012, stoneware with underglazes, 36 x 20 x 15 inches, © Akio Takamori. Photo: Richard Nicol.

Contemporary Northwest Art Awards, left: Samantha Wall, “Face,” 2014, sumi ink and dried pigment. © Samantha Wall. Photo: Dan Kvitka. Right: Akio Takamori, “Squatting Girl in Blue Dress,” 2012,
stoneware with underglazes, 36 x 20 x 15 inches, © Akio Takamori. Photo: Richard Nicol.

And we’ve been johnny-on-the-spot for more big news on the museum front. Paul Sutinen took in the Portland Art Museum’s new exhibition for the 2016 Contemporary Northwest Art Awards, and has a lot to say about them. Fallout continues from the decision to shut down the Museum of Contemporary Craft, and ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson has been talking to a lot of the players and inside observers about what it all means: watch for his next chapter in a continuing series of reports. Meanwhile, PAM’s fascinating time trip of a photography show, Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy, continues in the special exhibitions galleries. We’ll take an in-depth look at that, too. Just as soon as we catch that car.

Sutinen’s essay on the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards praises the art and artists but wonders what the museum’s driving idea is – or if it has one. You’ll want to read to the whole thing. A quick sample: “The artists’ works are ambitious. The museum’s effort, not so much. Some version of these biennial shows have been occurring for a long time and they always have the same problem: What’s the point? … It might be good for the museum to educate itself, even if that happens only once every two years. But what does it do for the museum audience? Does this show provide a ‘deeper understanding?’ No, it provides a thin potpourri (to reiterate: the works in this exhibition are really worth seeing!), a casual glance, not a deep look.”

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The huge art news of the past week is that Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft is about to be shuttered. The rumblings are sounding across the country: the announcement has stirred up strong responses from the American craft and museum worlds, baring once again long-simmering disagreements over what “craft” and “art” mean, and how they do or don’t overlap.

As Barry Johnson reported when he broke the story on Oregon ArtsWatch, the museum space in Northwest Portland will be shut down and sold, and some of the museum’s programs will be folded into a new Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at the nearby Pacific Northwest College of Art, MoCC’s parent institution. PNCA had taken over the museum in 2009, providing a lifeline when the craft museum was sinking in debt. As Barry reported in his first story and a followup based on interviews with the art school’s interim president and exhibitions director, the museum continued to drain money despite hopes that it could become self-sustaining. And it was never fully integrated into the college’s programs.

Installation shot from "Alien She," which closed in January at MoCC: In foreground: Ladies Sasquatch (2006-2010). Photo courtesy of Allyson Mitchell and Katharine Mulherin Gallery, Toronto.

Installation shot from “Alien She,” which closed in January at MoCC: In foreground: Ladies Sasquatch (2006-2010). Photo courtesy of Allyson Mitchell and Katharine Mulherin Gallery, Toronto.

Responses have been swift, including these ones:

Sarah Archer, writing in Hyperallergic under the headline Why the Closing of the Museum of Contemporary Craft Is a Major Loss: “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. … Is [the museum] 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.”

Perry A. Price, writing for the American Craft Council under the headline What the Closing of the MoCC Tells Us: “This unfortunate closure encapsulates the challenging forces at play in the field of contemporary craft. … Rail as we might against the decision of the college, it must be acknowledged that the financial difficulties of the museum that led to oversight by the college and ultimate closure also face numerous small arts institutions and organizations nationwide. … More ominous is the seeming disregard by the college of the mission of the museum and the work it interprets.”

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PNCA answers some questions about closing the craft museum

In a follow-up interview Pacific Northwest College of Art's Casey Mills and Mack McFarland talk about the museum and its next iteration

The news that Pacific Northwest College of Art is going to close the doors of the Museum of Contemporary Craft landed on Wednesday. We posted the news as quickly as possible on ArtsWatch, but lots of questions remained.

I interviewed interim president Casey Mills and PNCA exhibitions director Mack McFarland on Thursday to find out more about the absorption of the museum into a new Center for Contemporary Art & Culture, to be housed at PNCA, as well as the decision-making process and rationale behind this radical outcome.

Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE), installation view, 2010, Museum of Contemporary Craft. Photo by: Jake Stangel

Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE), installation view, 2010, Museum of Contemporary Craft. Photo by: Jake Stangel

The Museum of Contemporary Craft dates back to 1937, after all, and during its life it has been an important flagship for Portland’s large crafts community, especially those concerned with ceramics. More recently, it has helped make Portland part of the national and international conversation around craft and art, without losing sight of our local history. Its failure to make it on its own is a blow to the city in many ways, which I’ll be discussing in subsequent stories.

But first we need to understand what is happening and why PNCA took the path it did.

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The Museum of Contemporary Craft will close its doors

PNCA shutters the craft museum to re-direct resources to the college

Pacific Northwest College of Art announced today that it will be closing the Museum of Contemporary Craft space on Northwest Davis Street and absorbing its programs into a new Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at PNCA.

UPDATE: Part Two of our ongoing coverage of the closing of the Museum of Contemporary Craft has been posted. Based on an interview with PNCA’s Casey Mills and Mack McFarland, it explains the college’s decision-making process and the plans for the center that is absorbing the museum’s collection and programs.

“Relieving the obligations of the Davis Street space will enable PNCA to refocus those resources on programs and assets that truly engage our students, alumni, and faculty and enhance students’ preparation for lives of creative practice,” said Casey Mills, PNCA’s interim president.

The Museum of Contemporary Craft is closing its doors for good.

The Museum of Contemporary Craft is closing its doors for good.

PNCA took over the Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2009 after the museum experienced serious financial difficulties after moving into the current space at 724 Northwest Davis from its old home on Southwest Corbett St. At the time, the combination looked promising, a way to keep the museum, a central player in Oregon’s active craft community, going. PNCA saw the museum as a potential training ground where its students could work with curators and faculty on staging exhibitions. It also fit into then-president Tom Manley’s ideas about making PNCA and the museum a meeting ground for Portland’s extensive “maker” community—designers, artists and craftpeople of all sorts.

“Despite the focused efforts of the Museum of Contemporary Craft staff, commitment of PNCA administration, and work of a Board of Governors-led task force, the original vision of transforming the museum into a dynamic, student-centric educational resource was not fully realized. In the meantime, the financial cost to the college has remained high,” according to PNCA’s press release announcing the change.

The Betty Feves retrospective at MoCC restored a beloved Oregon artist to the city. Betty Feves, "Six Figures," date unknown. Raku on wooden base. Collection of Feves Family. Photo: Dan Kvitka

The Betty Feves retrospective at MoCC restored a beloved Oregon artist to the city. Betty Feves, “Six Figures,” date unknown. Raku on wooden base. Collection of Feves Family. Photo: Dan Kvitka

The new Center for Contemporary Art & Culture will be led by Mack McFarland, who is the director or PNCA’s exhibitions program. “I look forward to building out the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture’s programming and community, together with my colleagues at PNCA, including the students, faculty, staff, and alumni,” McFarland said. “The Center offers us an opportunity to enter into dialog with committed partners, interested parties, and new audiences to reflect on our perpetually changing world and our role in that change.”

PNCA intends to sell the museum space on Davis Street, and the museum’s craft shop, which sold a substantial amount of work by Oregon craft artists, will be closing, too. PNCA will keep the museum’s substantial collection of craft work, especially ceramics.

We’ll be talking about the ramifications of the closing of the museum in coming days. Stay tuned.

NOTES

I reviewed the history of Museum of Contemporary Craft when Namita Wiggers resigned as director and curator in 2014.

I have written about the merger between the museum and PNCA several times over the years, mostly when it was happening and I was writing for The Oregonian. I won’t list them all, but here’s a sampling.

Read more by Barry Johnson.

Please support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Namita Gupta Wiggers: The timing was right to leave the museum

As PNCA and the Museum of Contemporary Craft started a new chapter, the museum's leader took the opportunity to leave

Namita Gupta Wiggers brought Ai Weiwei's "Dropping the Urn" to Portland in 2010.

Namita Gupta Wiggers brought Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping the Urn” to Portland in 2010.

Late last week Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Craft announced that MoCC executive director and chief curator Namita Gupta Wiggers was leaving both posts. The timing seemed odd. Since she was hired in 2004, Wiggers had helped the museum successfully reinvent itself, move from its antiquated Southwest Corbett Ave. home to new quarters in the Pearl District, survive a near-death experience that led to its absorption into PNCA, and then helped it evolve into a partner with the college.

Wasn’t the good part about to begin? The part where Wiggers’s eye for opportunities and wide connections could generate even more and even better exhibitions at the museum? Especially since PNCA was on the verge of moving out of its Goodman Building home and into a gleaming renovation in the 511 Broadway building, just down the North Park Blocks from the museum? So what was the deal?

“My leaving is my own timing,” Wiggers said yesterday. “This is a good moment to shift my focus.”  And what makes it a good moment is that the trajectories of the museum, PNCA and Wiggers’ own career make this a good window for an exit. If she wanted to do some different things after 10 years and create the least disruption at the museum and PNCA, this is the time, and Wiggers took advantage of it. Which isn’t so odd at all.

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Breaking: Namita Wiggers steps down at the Museum of Contemporary Craft

The director and chief curator will leave to pursue independent projects while keeping in touch with the museum she led since 2012

Namita Wiggers steps down from the Museum Of Contemporary Craft.

Namita Wiggers steps down from the Museum Of Contemporary Craft.

Namita Gupta Wiggers, the director and chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, is leaving her post, Tom Manley, president of the Pacific Northwest College of Art announced today. PNCA and the museum integrated their operations in 2009.

While Wiggers served at the museum as curator, it relocated to the North Park Blocks, aligned with PNCA, doubled its collection, and generated increasingly deft exhibitions in its new space, including Ai Weiwei’s first West Coast exhibition and important looks at foundational figures in Northwest crafts, such as Betty Feves, Laurie Herrick and Ken Shores. Wiggers became both director and chief curator in 2012.

“I was first hired in 2004 to create a vision for a new kind of museum to address craft,” Wiggers said in the press release. “The partnership with PNCA has supported this work and ensures that one of the nation’s oldest institutions dedicated to craft has a renewed life as part of an urban college campus, while continuing to honor craft’s legacy. As the College transitions to the park blocks in 2015, the Museum is now fully poised to support student life, curriculum, and a newly integrated role in this next phase of a 78 year-long history.”

Wiggers will continue to work with PNCA and the museum in new roles as she pursues outside curating, consulting, and teaching opportunities and develops Critical Craft Forum, an online forum for the craft community she co-founded in 2008.

“Namita has been key in driving the Museum of Contemporary Craft to engage in significant national conversations around craft while honoring the institution’s regional legacy,” Manley said.”Her impact on the institution and the field will be felt well into the future, and we look forward to this new phase of our relationship with her.”

We’ll provide details as they arise.

Four Alaska native artists speak in “This Is Not a Silent Movie”

Working with traditional culture in a post-modern world at the Museum of Contemporary Craft

We could start with those curious Gold Idiot Strings that dangle in the sunlight in a bright corner of the Museum of Contemporary Craft. That’s going to take some explaining. I also want to talk about the walrus stomach and ivory in Susie Silook’s What Does It Take to See My Heart, but that’s a sad story, too, that winsome sculpture and how it came about. And the commentary in Nicholas Galanin’s conceptual pieces is going to unroll throughout the rest of this look at This Is Not a Silent Movie, the exhibition of work by four Native American artists from Alaska.

Susie Silook does some last minute grooming of "Aghnaghpak" in "This Is Not a Silent Movie"/Patrick Collier

Susie Silook does some last minute grooming of “Aghnaghpak” in “This Is Not a Silent Movie”/Patrick Collier

No, let’s start with a short grainy video screened by Da-ka-xeen Mehner (Just Da-ka, he says, when people try to deal with that first name) during his brief artist’s talk in a symposium that supported the exhibition.

In the video, a very young boy is moving around in a meadow, and he is beating a little drum at the end of a long handle, and it becomes apparent that, no, he’s not moving, he’s dancing, and he’s also singing. Often he misses the drum with his stick, hitting the handle instead, but the rhythm by this time is strong enough to sustain both song and dance. The words of the song? Presumably, they are Tlingit, because Mehner has told us that his interest in Tlingit songs and language started when he began to take his son to the Tlingit Celebration every two years outside Juneau. The boy moves in a tight circle, hunches forward a little bit, drums intermittently, and sings.

He made the audience smile in delight. Smiles can be complex, though. Watching the video, I thought for a second that I understood the deep magnetic pull of traditional culture, how right it seems and thus how profoundly attractive. And then, its fragility, because we don’t have to have a shaman’s foresight to imagine how contemporary culture (not to mention climate change) will fall on Mehner’s son and his relationship to old Tlingit forms and practices, the struggle he will have to stay connected to that lovely moment, those old Tlingit words and rhythms and movements.

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