Ten Great Moments in MCC History
Ten Great Moments in MCC History
Imagine visiting an art museum and being asked to curate an exhibition, or to jump, sit, and play with the art, or to take off your shoes and wear paper slippers. Although museums with a “please touch the art” policy are often reserved for children, during his 24-year tenure as director of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (MCC) – which later became the American Craft Museum (ACM) – in New York City, Paul J. Smith sought to change this by curating exhibitions that actively engaged visitors and attracted audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Smith says, "for me personally, there was nothing more exciting than to see a child with parents or grandparents creating something together and having fun or to see a visitor experience something totally new."
One of the many joys of managing the archives is living vicariously through the exhibition documentation assembled by Smith. His imaginative, enlightening, and interactive exhibitions are legendary in today’s white-cube world. By reflecting on and conversing about his experiences, together Smith and I have fashioned a short list of some of the most memorable exhibitions from his time at the museum.
While this list is far from comprehensive, we hope it lends insight into the many extraordinary exhibits held at the MCC and ACM in the mid-20th century. The museum has gone through many iterations but still exists today as the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). Recent shows at MAD such as “Out of Hand Materializing the Postdigital,” “Ralph Pucci: Art of the Mannequin,” and “Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today” retain the innovative and inquisitive spirit of the MCC while expanding the definition of contemporary artistic practice and appreciation.
"Designed for Production: The Craftsman’s Approach"
March 6 – May 3, 1964
Smith explains, “there were many craft artists doing limited-production work in the ‘60s, and a few who were designing for large-scale production with specialized manufacturing firms, so it seemed appropriate to present an exhibition illustrating some of the artists who were successful in this area.” Thus “Designed for Production: The Craftsman’s Approach” was conceived. Featuring 41 designer-craftspeople, including such legends as textile artist Jack Lenor Larsen, glass artist Joel Philip Myers, metalsmith Jack Prip, and ceramist Edith Heath, the exhibition highlighted for Smith “the more personal, humanistic sensibility to the project, especially when compared to the “hard-edge” modern design that was very much in vogue in the ‘40s and ‘50s.” This exhibition also touched on a subject important to the greater ACC; Rose Slivka, then editor of Craft Horizons, incorporated the Designed for Production catalog into a special issue of the magazine.
"The Art of Personal Adornment"
September 25 – November 7, 1965
Innovation in contemporary jewelry design can be traced back to the sixties, and one very important show at the MCC that brought attention to the work being done by studio jewelers at the time. Smith explains that “The Art of Personal Adornment” was designed to juxtapose historical examples with contemporary work to portray the exciting ways the body has been adorned throughout history. “The intent of the exhibition was not only to present the imaginative adornments created throughout history, but also to stimulate jewelers to think about possibilities beyond the conventional formats” says Smith.
Featuring objects created for specific areas of the body including the chest, waist, arm, hand foot, neck and head, as well as a special section for tattoos, pioneering jewelers Arlene Fisch, Bob Ebendorf, Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti were just a few of the contemporary makers who contributed to the three hundred and fifty-three piece show. One highlight for Smith was going to the warehouse of Ethel Traphagen, founder of the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York and a significant collector of ethnic jewelry and objects. “She had an incredible eye and amassed a vast collection that was kept in trunks in a New York storage facility,” Smith recalls, “I remember sorting through large containers of material to make selections for the exhibition. It was like finding some lost treasure chest of jewels.”
"Cookies and Breads: The Baker’s Art"
November 20, 1965 – January 9, 1966
A key mission for Smith, upon becoming director of the MCC, was to engage new audiences and attract attention to a craft activity that had never been given a showplace in a museum. One such activity was baking. Working with famed New York-based cookbook author and food writer Nika Standen Hazelton, MCC staff focused their attention during the 1965 holiday season on the art of baking. Collecting cookies from Switzerland, breads from Greece, and cookie jars from Toshiko Takaezu, Frans Wildenhain, and Stephen DeStaebler (to name a few), the exhibit featured a simple subject but drew record-breaking attendance.
One of the great challenges was the preservation of the cookies and breads in the exhibition. Noticing some of the baked goods starting to mold, the MCC hired a food specialist, who used formaldehyde and lacquer to preserve the perishable objects. “When the exhibit first opened, I was concerned that people would touch the breads or even try to break off pieces to eat,” explains Smith. “Much to my surprise and relief, no one ever touched the exposed breads. I think the beauty of the breads and baked goods sent a message of respect, like in a bakery that has decorated cakes: No one will touch for fear of damaging the creation.”
"Made with Paper"
November 17, 1967 – January 7, 1968
Exhibitions curated by Smith during the '60s and '70s reflect both cultural and artistic shifts happening at the time. As Smith explains, “during the mid-1960s, many fresh ideas were emerging in the fashion and home furnishings fields.” In addition to avant-garde ceramics and non-functional fiber sculpture, paper emerged as a popular medium for portable furniture, clothing, and object design. With funding and support from the Container Corporation of America, the MCC was able to assemble the exhibit “Made with Paper,” one of the largest and most complex exhibits ever presented by the museum.
Not only did the exhibit feature paper objects from the world over, participatory elements were key to the show’s success. Highlights for visitors to the show included paper slippers to cover shoes (provided at the entrance), modular floor units made of folded paper board on which one could walk (illustrating the strength of paper), and a public performance by renowned conceptual artist James Lee Byars in which dissolvable paper was spread out across 53rd Street and then washed away by the New York City Sanitation Department. “We took great risks with Byars’ event,” Smith explains, “in allowing an artist to realize what might have been termed an impossible idea.”
April 6 – June 9, 1968
“One of the characteristics of the '60s was the search for individuality,” explains Smith. “What people put on their body, or took off, was characteristic of the cultural changes motivated by young people and their desire to revolt against the past.” Designers and artists responded to the rebellion by creating garments from a diverse range of materials including paper, plastic, and electronics.
Including experimental fashions such as an infamous topless bathing suit by Rudy Guernrich, a prototype space suit from NASA, and a dress constructed of vinyl tubing by Diana Dew, “Body Covering” garnered international press for displaying the modern clothing of well-known fashion designers alongside works by space engineers, scientists, and artists. “In retrospect, the focus of the exhibition motivated the content: There were no limitations, and the selection was based on what would make a statement and provoke further thinking,” says Smith.
January 20 – March 8, 1970
As the practice of mind exploration and meditation gained popularity in the sixties, the MCC presented “Contemplation Environments” an exhibition featuring artists’ concepts for contemplative spaces. As Smith explains, “This exhibition was developed from ideas submitted by artists. After reviewing many interesting proposals, we made a selection and engaged Gamal El-Zoghby, an architect in New York who specialized in creating unique sculptural interiors. He organized each artist’s concept into a unified environment so that the museum visitor could follow a path from one environment to the next, stopping to experience each space before moving on.”
Fiber artist Ted Hallman, furniture maker Wendell Castle and the artists’ collaborative ALEPH were some of the makers invited to create their own contemplative spaces. The show was a smashing success, although Smith recalls, “The excess attendance did not allow the visitor to truly experience many of the special contemplative spaces. It did, however, bring attention to the need for such contemplation spaces and presented new ways of creating privacy in an urban environment.”
"Haus-Rucker Co. – Live!"
May 15 – June 7, 1970
As exhibitions and events curated by Smith at the MCC began to generate international press coverage, artists from abroad became interested in showing at the museum. A three-artist group from Austria – Laurid Ortner, Gunter Kelp, and Kalus Pinter – collectively known as the Haus-Rucker Co., proposed a show where they would create and inhabit environments within the museum in which the public would be invited to visit and play. Smith, eager for fresh concepts that combined environmental sculpture and active participation, agreed to host the Haus-Rucker Co. in the MCC.
During the exhibition, the main floor of the museum contained a large air mattress with inflated balls that the public could bounce around on, while the upstairs part of the gallery was devoted to avant-garde environments people could sit in or interact with. During the exhibition, the American Association of Museums held its national meeting in New York and invited museums to host open houses one evening. The MCC organized with the Haus-Rucker group to install the air mattress and inflatable balls on 53rd Street. Attendees of the museum conference climbed onto the mattress and bounced around. “It was the ultimate means of breaking down the image of museum people as being stuffy,” says Smith. “We alerted our insurance company to these extravaganzas and they allowed us to proceed, but did so with much trepidation. Today, I don’t think I would have the nerve to undertake such risks, but at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do.”
January 7 – 16, 1972
According to Smith, many of the museum’s special thematic exhibitions came from ideas submitted by visitors, a fact that inspired the MCC to open the galleries to solicit ideas from the public. “Ideas Wanted” was a week-long open house where anyone could come in and fill out a form to record any idea, which was then posted on large panels on the surrounding gallery walls. While many of the ideas were quite imaginative and perhaps a little preposterous, the activity encouraged interactive creativity for visitors young and old. The purpose, says Smith, was to “convey the message to the public that the MCC was really open to suggestions and that each individual may have ideas that could be of some significance.” To this day, the hundreds of submitted ideas are archived at the ACC.
"Objects for Preparing Food"
September 22, 1972 – January 1, 1973
Early into his 30-year career with the ACC, Smith began to focus on organizing exhibitions that brought attention to objects for specific use and that emphasized design. “Not all craft artists are geared toward design thinking,” Smith says, “but for those that are, the field would benefit from their innovations for functional handmade objects.” A memorable exhibition that was born out of this interest in design was “Objects for Preparing Food,” a collaborative project between Smith and longtime Renwick Gallery curator Lloyd Herman.
Juxtaposing historical works from the Smithsonian’s collection with contemporary works by artists including Karen Karnes and Albert Paley, the exhibition was divided into sections: heating, chilling, cutting, mixing, separating, retrieving and turning, forming, measuring, brewing, and a section on miscellaneous equipment and food preparation environments. Julia Child served as a consultant on the project, and her letters and recipe contributions can be found in the ACC archives. “The intent was to suggest the many objects that could be made for food preparation, another basic area of daily living,” says Smith.
"The Great American Foot"
April 15 – June 30, 1978
One of the most provocative exhibitions organized by staff at the MCC, according to Smith, dealt with the basic subject of the foot – its function, fashion symbolism, and interpretation. A remarkable amount of research, as documented in the ACC archives, went into staging an exhibition on the American foot. Curators for the show borrowed a pair of dancing slippers from the legendary Agnes de Mille, as well as a boot that belonged to Paul Stanley, rhythm guitarist and lead singer of the rock band Kiss.
Contributing artists to the show included pop-art legends Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein, however, the most memorable part of the exhibit was a large inflatable sculpture by Ann Slavit: a 40-foot pair of legs with bright red shoes that hung over the top of the MCC building. “The series of exhibitions related to the human body were among the most interesting we developed,” Smith says. “How we cover our bodies is one of our most personal statements – and creates our immediate environment – so it was a subject that had endless possibilities.”