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The Art of Correspondence: "Craftsmen USA '66"

Correspondence from the archival files for "Craftsmen USA '66"

Correspondence from the archival files for "Craftsmen USA '66"

Letter from Gregor Norman-Wilcox, curator of decorative arts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to Paul J. Smith, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts

Letter from Gregor Norman-Wilcox, curator of decorative arts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to Paul J. Smith, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts

Catalogs from the various regional and national showings of "Craftsmen USA '66"

Catalogs from the various regional and national showings of "Craftsmen USA '66"

Correspondence from the archival files for "Craftsmen USA '66"

Photo gallery (5 images)
Letter from Paul J. Smith, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, to jurors of the "Craftsmen USA '66" competition

Letter from Paul J. Smith, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, to jurors of the "Craftsmen USA '66" competition

A stack of correspondence from the archival file for "Craftsmen USA '66"

A stack of correspondence from the archival file for "Craftsmen USA '66"

A frequent observation by researchers at the archives at the American Craft Council Library, is just how much correspondence is contained within each program or exhibition file. Original and carbon copies of letters, memos, planning documents, and contracts fill the majority of our nearly 1,000 linear feet of archival storage. Sometimes we forget how much effort it took in the pre-digital era to communicate with those outside our office walls. These files are an excellent reminder. For exhibitions in particular, archived correspondence provides a key to understanding what it takes to plan and execute displays of art that seem effortless to the viewer.

Fifty years ago this month the ACC launched six regional competitions/exhibitions, under the umbrella of “Craftsmen USA ‘66.” Juries from each region were tasked with selecting an allotted number of objects (90 for the Northeast, 30 for the South Central region, and so on) for a prestigious National Merit Award, as well as for an exhibit at a regional museum. Correspondence from this project reveals that this was, quite possibly, one of the most ambitious undertakings of the ACC to date. Not only did the competition necessitate the coordination of entries, juries, and press from six disparate areas of the United States, it also required the shipping and handling of accepted works to and from museums, including a showing of the 350 National Merit Award winners at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (MCC) in New York City.

So why did the ACC opt to host six regional competitions rather than one national competition (as they had done in 1953 and 1960)? According to memos written by Paul J. Smith, then director of the MCC, the increasing number of craftspeople and the rising costs of shipping work long distances precipitated a move to a regional system. An important goal for the competition was to identify new work by established craftspeople as well as emerging artists. Likewise, ACC administrators believed jurors would be most familiar with the work in their respective regions, and could therefore provide the best insight into new trends and directions across the American craft landscape. 

For all the efforts put forth by ACC staff, jurors and museum partners across America, was the competition successful? From a total of 6,054 objects submitted by 2,287 artists, 1,038 were accepted for local exhibition. From this number a total of 268 were selected for National Merit Awards. This number fell short of the total of 350 awards that were scheduled to be given. Reviews of the regional shows were mixed – for example, works from the Pacific Northwest exhibited at the Contemporary Crafts Gallery in Portland were not well received. Critic Robert Kasal wrote in the March 27, 1966, Sunday Oregonian “…the inventiveness of the Northwest craftsmen, today, has taken the form of work seen several years ago in other parts of the country.” Other regions did receive more favorable response and – given the amount of correspondence in our files from those interested in purchasing award winning works – the competition was certainly a success. That said, this was the first and last time the ACC hosted joint regional competitions of this magnitude.

Curios is a series celebrating rare and wondrous items discovered in the American Craft Council archives.

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