Paul J. Smith
Paul J. Smith
Paul J. Smith (September 8, 1931 - April 26, 2020) was an esteemed museum director, curator, writer, administrator, and independant consultant, contributing to the craft field for over 50 years.
Born in 1931 and raised in upstate New York, Smith attended the Art Institute of Buffalo (New York) and the School of American Craftsmen in Rochester (New York), which is now the School of American Crafts at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Smith moved to New York City in 1957 to join the staff of the newly designated American Craftsmen’s Council (ACC), started by Aileen Osborn Webb as the Handcraft Cooperative League of America in 1939. Smith started as assistant to the Museum of Contemporary Crafts’ (MCC) director, David Campbell, where he organized all the traveling education exhibitions in a program that eventually came to be called “Your Portable Museum.” In 1963, following the death of Campbell, Smith was appointed museum director, a position he held for almost 25 years, until his retirement in 1987. Smith saw the museum through many changes, including a change in locale and a name change when MCC became the American Craft Museum in 1979. After Smith’s retirement, he was honored with the title of director emeritus.
During his tenure as museum director, Smith was renowned for his broad definition of craft, opening the museum – and the field – to exhibitions that broke from the tradition of the revered “white box” and spoke to the masses. Responsible for designing ground-breaking exhibitions that explored everything from craft as a form of play to the craft of baking – from craft as an experimental form of expression to craft of the everyday – Smith’s legacy as a museum director and curator is one of accessibility and innovation.
Smith retired to start an independent consulting business for the craft field that he maintained up until his death, in addition to his active involvement in the field as a jurist and lecturer. His life and accomplishments were documented in an oral interview for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution, as well as part of the “Process” episode produced by Craft in America. Recently, Smith participated on a panel for OBJECTS: USA at 50 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the seminal 1969 exhibition “OBJECTS: USA,” and at the ACC “Present Tense: 2019” conference. For his many contributions to craft, design, education, and curation, Smith received an Honorary Doctorate of the Fine Arts from Parsons School of Design, New School for Social Research. He was honored by the ACC as an Honorary Fellow in 1988 and with the Aileen Osborn Webb Award for Philanthropy in 2009.
Throughout his life and career, Smith shared his passion and expertise while serving on numerous boards and committees for arts organizations all over the country: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Penland School of Crafts, World Craft Foundation, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Boston University Program in Artisanry, Parsons School of Design, Pilchuck Glass School, and Friends of Fiber Art. He was also a trustee of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation and president of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation.
Paul J. Smith Selected Exhibition Highlights
The ACC Library holds the archives of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts/American Craft Museum from 1956-1990. The museum collection houses materials from all of the exhibitions mounted during Paul J. Smith’s 24-year tenure as museum director, including exhibition catalogues, press releases, correspondence, research materials, and installation images. Many of the materials have been digitized and can be found in the ACC Digital Collections. Here are some highlights:
- "Amusement Is…" | November 20, 1964 - January 17, 1965
(ACC Archives Reference: M-43)
One of the first exhibitions to deliberately veer away from the “preciousness” of a museum exhibition, “Amusement Is…” encouraged the audience to enjoy the experience and “have fun with that which amuses them.”
- "Made with Paper" | November 17, 1967 - January 7, 1968
(ACC Archives Reference: M-58)
Featured the installation/performance of “The Giant Soluble Man” which was later destroyed by a street cleaning truck.
- "Haus Rucker Co. Live" | May 15 - June 7, 1970
(ACC Archives Reference: M-70)
The European design team of Haus Rucker Co. literally took up residence in the museum for the three weeks of the exhibition, and the public was invited to visit with them in their “studio.”
- "Objects USA: The Johnson Collection of Contemporary Crafts" | June 9 - September 4, 1972
(ACC Archives Reference: M-80)
Considered a seminal exhibition in the field of craft, this show was a means for the museum to substantially add to its collection. Smith partnered with curator Lee Nordness to travel the country and select the objects for this survey exhibition of American craft. In exchange for Smith’s contribution, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts received about one third of the objects following the exhibition tour.
- "Portable World" | October 5, 1973 - January 1, 1974
(ACC Archives Reference: M-86)
“The first major exhibition dealing with a wide range of portable objects and environments.”
- "Great American Foot" | April 14 - July 9, 1978
(ACC Archives Reference: M-107)
Featured giant inflatable shoes by Ann Slavit suspended from the roof of the museum.
- "Christmas Ornaments for the Vice Presidential Tree Made by American Craftspeople" | November 7 - December 12, 1978
(ACC Archives Reference: M-M131)
A collection of handmade ornaments by American craftsmen is assembled through ACC under the direction of Paul J. Smith for display on the “Creativity Tree” at the residence of Vice President and Mrs. Walter Mondale. The ornaments became part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts.
- "Robots (Museum II)" | January 13 - May 12, 1984
(ACC Archives Reference: M-132)
The first major museum exhibit devoted to robots.
- "Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical" | October 1986 - March 22, 1987
(ACC Archives Reference: M-144)
Paul was particularly proud of this exhibition. It was the first major survey exhibition of craft since "OBJECTS: USA," Produced to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the museum and the reopening at the new location at 40 West 53rd street.
Pictured above: Paul J. Smith addressing an audience at the First World Congress of Craftsmen in New York City, 1964, as director of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts.