When the Denver Art Museum learned it had received $3 million from the Avenir Foundation in 2012 to endow a permanent department of textile art – and expand its textile galleries sixfold – museum staff knew just how to mark the occasion. Having executed a museum-wide clay extravaganza in 2011, they began planning Spun: Adventures in Textiles, another huge, all-campus series of exhibitions and events. We spoke to newly full-time curator of textile art Alice Zrebiec in May, one week before the debut, about what it takes to take over a museum. Spun runs through September 22.
Every department at Denver is contributing to Spun. How does that work?
For some, it’s a natural fit – for example, the Asian art show, “Irresistible: Multicolored Textiles from Asia,” is drawn from the museum’s textile collection. But I’ve always worked closely with curator of Asian art Ronald Otsuka, because for many years DAM had only a small gallery of textile art. So on the Asian art floor, you would see Chinese robes or Japanese kimonos, Indian textiles, and other things coming out and having their day in a different context, which I always think is great.
The not-so-obvious fits might be where we have paintings or photographs – but here the curators have taken a look at textiles that appear in those objects and have tried to make connections. Associate curator of painting and sculpture Angelica Daneo focuses on only one 17th-century painting, but it’s done by a recently discovered northern Italian artist who has the moniker “the Master of the Blue Jeans.” It’s thought that the people represented in the painting are wearing denim, which we – Americans – think we invented [much later], but that’s not the case, apparently.
Some people will naturally gravitate toward the new textile art gallery. But it’s nice to head others off at the pass: to have departments where people think they’re going to look at paintings or photographs and they’re reminded, “Hey, there are other things going on here.”
It is awfully easy to make a beeline for what you know.
And work out from there. But once in a while there are great surprises and wonderful revelations when you step into a gallery where you thought you had no interest in what was going on.
We also have so many opportunities for creativity; it’s not only what people might think of as a typical museum visit. A number of activities are designed to allow visitors, particularly our younger ones, to try their hand at a technique or project and then take it home with them.
Tell us about “Cover Story,” which opened May 19. It anchors Spun and is the first show you did for the new textile gallery.
I wanted to cover different types of textiles, techniques, cultures, countries: How do I bring this all together? Through the idea of how textiles really infiltrate all aspects of our life and identifying thematic sub-divisions. Through the concept of covering – whether it’s keeping us warm or protecting us, decorating our interiors, carrying our stuff, or helping us relate to higher powers.
Within each section – let’s start with, say, warmth and comfort – you begin with what people might expect to see. But then they move on to pieces where they probably think, “Wait a minute. What’s this have to do with anything?” The Finnish rya looks to many people like a rug, but these were used as bed covers. There is also a Japanese yogi on the wall, and at first people might be like, “Well, why is there a kimono on the wall?” But they had backings and padding and were bed covers.
So it’s moving you all the way from “Oh yeah, I understand Amish quilts, I understand American coverlets” to “But why is this on the wall in this section?” And then in one little area, we’ve gone around the world, through quilting, weaving, resist dyeing, knotting, embroidery …
With Marvelous Mud in 2011, which focused on clay, and now Spun, DAM seems to be doing a lot with so-called craft materials. What is the museum’s approach to craft?
Just yesterday I spoke with my colleague Darrin Alfred, in architecture, design, and graphics. His department would be the logical home in many ways for some objects you would think of as representing craft materials. (His show in Spun is “Pattern Play: The Contemporary Designs of Jacqueline Groag.”) And he was puzzled, because he doesn’t think in those terms, and I don’t, either.
This is the paradox of working in a department that may include objects made of materials traditionally associated with what people call craft. We’re an art museum; we collect and exhibit objects no matter what they’re made of – for their accomplishment, their beauty, their design, their execution, and their aesthetics.
Why do we call one one thing and one another? I think we sometimes trip ourselves up by trying to label things.
Julie K. Hanus is senior editor of American Craft.