A Response to 'Tsunami Africa,' Glenn Adamson’s Commentary on 'The Global Africa Project' in the March issue of 'Art in America'

The curators and I at the Museum of Arts and Design were surprised and disappointed to read Glenn Adamson’s spurious attack on the Museum and its mission in his March commentary on our recent, and elsewhere acclaimed, exhibition The Global Africa Project. We were first off astonished that nowhere in his article did Mr. Adamson mention that he has close ties to the Museum. He does. When he organized the Gord Peteran: Furniture Meets its Maker exhibition for the Milwaukee Art Museum, we worked closely with him to bring the exhibition to New York, which we ultimately did in 2009. More recently, he has written an essay for the catalogue of our upcoming exhibition Crafting Modernism: Mid-Century American Art and Design, opening this October, and another essay for the catalogue for Light—Space—Structure, an exhibition of mid-century modern jewelry by Margaret de Patta, opening in 2012. While we don’t believe that these connections should disqualify Mr. Adamson from reviewing our exhibitions, as he is an expert in the craft and decorative arts worlds, we feel strongly that his decision to omit any mention of such an association undermines his journalistic authority.

Ironically, matters of omission and authority are at the crux of Mr. Adamson’s attack on our institution. Early in his article, he provides a “bit of recent [museum] history” to ostensibly explain why The Global Africa Project doesn’t “amount to much.” The salient fact, according to him, is apparently our 2002 name change from the American Craft Museum to the Museum of Arts and Design. For him, our decision to omit the word “craft” from our name has undermined our very authority as a museum and robbed us of our focus. He claims we erased “the word ‘craft’ … to eliminate all the baggage the term brought along with it.”

The truth of the matter is through our name change we hoped to change the public perception of the term “craft,” so that we could use it in its true and legitimate sense. We had to face the fact that many people associate “craft” with non-professional hobbywork or even folk art. So we dropped a word that owned us, so that we could take ownership of it and use it as it should be used—as a verb, not a noun.

Which is exactly what we have done with “Crafting Modernism,” a major exhibition which will examine how the crafted object shaped mid-century art and design. Could a choice of title speak more eloquently in our defense? And if we were shunning the crafted object, would we have chosen to celebrate Margaret de Patta, who studied in Chicago with Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, one of the founders of the Bauhaus, whose mission was in part to eliminate the elitist barrier between craftsman and artist?

Because the Museum is small and nimble, we have been able to quickly respond in our curatorial approach to the changing nature of craft in our culture, and have expressed this developing outlook over by altering our name—twice, as it happens. When in 1956, Aileen Osborn Webb founded this institution, she called it the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. Our switch to the American Craft Museum, in 1979, emphasized our focus on craft developments in the United States. If all this name changing makes us seem confused about our identity, I might point out that London’s V&A, where Mr. Adamson serves as head of graduate studies, has also changed its name twice. It was originally called the Museum of Manufactures, and later the South Kensington Museum. Should we conclude that in the nearly 150 years since its founding, that institution’s extraordinary expansion into the largest and most comprehensive museum of decorative arts and design in the world is due to a confused identity, a lost focus on manufactured goods, and overweening ambition? Certainly, as our own museum matures, it too has a right to grow both in the size and scope of its exhibitions—our galleries are double the square footage of our former home, and our collection today is global in scope—and its aspirations. Museumgoers apparently appreciate our new vision too—since we opened in our doors at 2 Columbus Circle two and a half years ago, more than a million people have visited.

Just as the V&A today describes itself as a museum of art and design, we now call our institution the Museum of Arts and Design, because we have updated our mission to explore the blur zone of art, craft, and design that defines so much of contemporary creation. Ours is an age in which the artisanal and digital converge. Hence our embrace of yes, a perhaps more “vague” name for our institution, but one that opens it to multiple possibilities. One of which, we believe, was the presentation of The Global Africa Project. If Mr. Adamson objects to our name, let him, as so many do, simply call us MAD.

Holly Hotchner
Nanette L. Laitman Director
Museum of Arts and Design

Holly Hotchner
April 4, 2011 at 8:14am