Autumn in New England is perhaps the most inspiring time of year. The thick forests of oak and maple trees began to turn from bright green to rusty oranges and reds and the air takes on a crisp bitter smell with hints of apples and pumpkins. Two hundred years ago, this was the time when traditional American craftswomen would begin quilting and knitting blankets for the long, snowy winters ahead and the men would gather wood pieces to carve during the lengthy nights. Craft was as much as a part of everyone's life in colonial American as it is now in the villages of rural India.
But now, with the invention of plastics and synthetic fibers and the onset of long work hours and the desires for instant gratification, craft has left the daily lives of Americans and moved into high-end galleries and museums. With this shift, craft often seems misplaced or simply relegated to the arena of fine art, where it can loose its significance, history and importance among Modern paintings and Neo-Classical sculptures. However, there are six American museums solely dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of crafts alone. This September I had the opportunity to interview Gretchen Keyworth, the Director and Curator of the Fuller Craft Museum, one of the newest craft museum and the only one in New England.
BACK TO THE FUTURE:
YESTERDAY AND TOMORROW OF THE FULLER MUSEUM
The Fuller Museum was built in 1969 by the Fuller Family, who founded the first newspaper in the town years before. Originally the museum hosted fine art shows with a recent focus on cutting edge Contemporary Art. However, after years of low attendance and some financial struggles the Board of Directors made a bold move to refocus the mission of the museum on craft in 2003. This past April, the Fuller Museum officially became the Fuller Craft Museum. The decision was based on a number of factors, such as the large collection of craft objects that the museum commissioned in the 1908s, but the warmth and audience friendly aspects of craft were driving factors. As American craft becomes more expressive and interesting, audiences of all kinds will expand and increase. In fact after the change, attendance at the museum nearly doubled and support, from both the donors and community, poured in. And the future only holds more success. During the reinvention of the institute, the museum board will be solidifying its collections policy and hopes to add a museum school and residency program, as well as more outdoor sculptures and art pieces to its 23 acres of forest land. During the making of the new collections policy, the museum hopes to receive input from craft makers, collectors, educators and philosophers to build a rounded and holistic approach to their collecting activities.
Keyworth also plans on adding to the spectacular museum building. The award-winning structure incorporates the surrounding forests and water features while bringing the outdoors inside with natural colors and cedar shingling. The large, two story, floor-to-ceiling windows also allow natural sunlight to furnish most of the light in the galleries. A series of courtyards, complete with installation exhibits or sculptures, give the building a porous atmosphere merging the art with the very environment by which it was inspired. Keyworth wants to make the building even more of a work of art by giving craftspeople an opportunity for embellishment with fixtures, stairways and furnishings.
Keyworth, a craftsperson by training, has the perfect background for this exciting and timely expansion and development. Coming to art after starting her family, she began with painting and then moved into object art, focusing on pottery. She even funded her Bachelor's of Fine Arts at Clark University in Massachusetts by selling her pottery pieces. In the 1980s she opened a series of galleries, but eventually turned these over so that she could focus on independent curating, consulting and cultural work. When the Board of Directors at the Fuller Museum needed a new Director, the choice to hire Keyworth was obvious. Her experience as a craftsperson, as well as her years of curating and cultural work made Keyworth the perfect candidate.
One of the programs that makes the Fuller Craft Museum a unique museum, even within the field of craft, is its Touch Program. Keyworth believes that, "there is a touch quality of craft which makes it different from fine art." She defines craft as something familiar, with a tactile connection that reaches out to people. And even though there are numerous signs throughout the museum noting, "Please do not touch the art. Let the art touch you," the museum is in the process of instituting the above mentioned Touch Program. The program will allow visitors to touch and examine a few pieces from each exhibit so that they can learn more about the creation process, the function and the life of each type of craft in the museum. Currently, there is even an exhibit where visitors can "play" with a series of intellectual and skill games that a craftsman created from wood and other materials.
Keyworth, an avid traveler and life-long learner, had the opportunity on two occasions to visit India. The first time she traveled with fellow artists and museum workers, learning about traditional Indian crafts in North India. I asked her about the difference between craft in developed nations like America and craft in traditional cultures. She said that the most significant division was in how the social structures reflect in the process of craft creation. She explained that in developed nations there is a strong sense of individual expressions where as in traditional societies the craftsmen are often consumed by the strength of customs and the history of the culture.
As for the future of the Fuller Craft Museum and American Contemporary Crafts in general, Keyworth only has positive thoughts. She sees craft and craft museums on a rising tide in America. Prominent large museum, such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, have already hosted craft based exhibits, bringing more weight to craft objects as serious pieces of art. Keyworth also commented on the status of American society and their impending need for an item like craft. She said, "The next one hundred years are really about speed, technology and acceleration. There is a necessity for craft, for something made by hand, made slowly, carefully, lovingly, intentionally."
The museum maybe visited on www.fullermuseum.org