It was 1986 when Gallery Naga director Arthur Dion started showing furniture at the gallery on Boston’s tony Newbury Street. There were seven artists in “Elegant Wit: Contemporary New England Furniture”: Judy Kensley McKie, Tom Loeser, Alphonse Mattia, Jere Osgood, Mitch Ryerson, Tommy Simpson, and Ed Zucca. They were all up-and-coming, but “we didn’t know how all-star it was until the [Boston] Museum of Fine Arts did its ‘New American Furniture: The Second Generation of Studio Furnituremakers’ show in 1989,” says Dion, who is still a partner in Naga. That show featured about 25 makers, Dion recalls, “15 of whom we’d shown.” The imprimatur of the MFA validated his efforts.
Naga’s audience was and still is mainly collectors of paintings, Dion says. He took a risk with furniture, and with that first show, “we were astonished when it was such a sensation. Almost everything sold.” He felt that the field was bicoastal, and in 1988 he did an “East/West” show with West Coast makers including Wendy Maruyama and Garry Knox Bennett. “There was a lot of material exploration on the West Coast – metals and plastics in Garry’s case. In general, the aesthetic was jazzy. The East Coast aesthetic was fairly jazzy, but the West Coast was more so – California unfettered.”
In part he did the “East/West” show because he was competing with Meredyth Hyatt Moses, whose Clark Gallery in the Boston suburb of Lincoln was also showing studio furniture. “I wanted to get the jump on Meredyth,” Dion says. Eventually, though, he and Moses collaborated rather than competing, jointly producing shows at both galleries, further strengthening the presence of studio furniture in the Boston area. Furniture’s presence was also bolstered by the region’s schools, including the Program in Artisanry at Boston University, Rhode Island School of Design, and the North Bennet Street School. “The Northeast is the national center for furniture making,” Dion believes. It’s noteworthy that one of the country’s pre-eminent studio furniture makers, Rosanne Somerson, is now president of RISD.
Still, Naga hasn’t developed a house style. “As adventurous as I think we are, we’ve always been very strict about functionality,” Dion says. “If it’s a chair, it has to feel good.”
Eventually, however, Naga’s shows began to have themes. “We did ‘The Bath’ in 2001,” Dion says, “with vanities, storage units, and inventive toilet paper holders.” He goes on: “We did ‘Under Cover’ in 2005, an exploration of interesting uses of upholstery, which had a historically oriented catalogue. We went to museum storage to inform our contemporary presentation. In 2007 we did ‘Coffee, Hall, and End: Small Tables by Studio Furnituremakers.’ ” The gallery’s current director, Meg White, is curating a group show of outdoor furniture.
But most of Naga’s furniture shows have been solo turns; of the 24 furniture shows the gallery has mounted since 2001, 17 focused on a single maker – Judy Kensley McKie is a prime example. Her tables and benches take the form of animals. Playful, yes, but, says Dion, “her work is like something living that has paused. She summons a sense of animate spirit that is very affecting.”
“It’s worth noting,” says Dion, “that although Naga was one of many galleries involved with studio furniture – a list that has now shrunk – they, almost without exception, showed furniture as craft. Naga’s role was to present furniture in the context of fine art, with no explanation necessary. We don’t show any other crafts. One of the conclusions that Meg and I came to is that, in addition to wonderful materials and superb craftsmanship, studio furniture offers objects that have value as works of art.”
Christine Temin is an arts writer in Boston.