Published on Friday, June 3, 2016. This article appears in the June/July 2016 issue of American Craft Magazine.
Author Betsy Greer
MoCC Touching Warms The Art Show

The Museum of Contemporary Craft’s 2008 show “Touching Warms the Art” invited visitors to explore art jewelry with their hands as well as their eyes. Photo: Mark Stein

Leading a craft museum is challenging, the recent closure of the Museum of Contemporary Craft suggests. Key to survival: relationships.

Craft relies on connection: the connection between an artist and a material, between a curator and a story, between an object and its viewers, between a museum and an audience. Talk to craft leaders in the wake of the April closing of the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon, and you’ll hear that theme: If craft institutions are to thrive, they must embody those connections.

The idea shows up, in what seems ironic now, in a 2008 book about the MoCC. In the introduction to Unpacking the Collection: Selections from the Museum of Contemporary Craft, then-executive director David Cohen wrote: “The collection records the artifacts of a journey – telltale signs of creation whose connectedness and richness we devotedly seek to uncover and amplify.”

News of the museum’s closing was widely lamented in print, in blog posts, and on social media. In mourning the demise of the institution that began in 1937 as the Oregon Ceramic Studio, many of the bereaved pointed to a key moment: the 2009 merger with Pacific Northwest College of Art, which resulted in a hybrid entity with an unwieldy name: the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Partnership with Pacific Northwest College of Art.

Was the connection between the museum and the college genuine, observers wondered, or was it one of those graftings that was destined to fail in the long run? Yes, the MoCC was already on shaky financial ground when it merged with PNCA. And yes, there was a shadow over the merger – the Great Recession, which was hard on many arts organizations. But was the closure also the inevitable falling-out of entities with different agendas and histories? Did serving the college, as the museum was asked to do, complicate its mission to serve the public?

An awkward fit
On paper, the merger made a kind of sense. The organizations’ vision statements in 2008 were remarkably similar, says former MoCC executive director and chief curator Namita Gupta Wiggers, also an ACC trustee. Tom Manley, then PNCA president, was eager to create an institution that would combine art, design, and craft, she recalls. But the reality, as it unfolded over the next seven years, was something else. The organizations were never really integrated, staff from both places say. “We never had something where the cogs all fit together to create a real system,” Wiggers says. Ultimately, the surprise may not be that the museum closed, but that the merged entity lasted as long as it did. 

One goal of the merger was to enrich students’ education by connecting them with the museum’s collection. But though two merger task forces were formed, they “didn’t generate a significant amount of interplay” with students and faculty members, says interim PNCA president Casey Mills. The museum staff of four full-time employees – down from more than 20 in 2008 – had their hands full with researching, curating, and designing exhibitions; they were focused on “continuing the programming that they had become known for,” says former PNCA project manager Isaac Watson.

What they were known for were adventurous efforts such as the 2010 exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s ceramics (the first museum on the West Coast to feature a solo show of his work); the 2012 show “Generations: Betty Feves,” eight years in the making, honoring the legacy of one of Oregon’s preeminent arts leaders; and the 2008 interactive jewelry exhibition, “Touching Warms the Art,” which invited visitors to try on art jewelry and make their own.

With ambitious, innovative exhibitions consuming staff time and energy, “a lot of the student involvement was left to the college,” Watson recalls. And the college lacked an inherent drive to connect students with the museum, according to some. PNCA, which bills itself as “Oregon’s flagship college of art and design,” was “not a good fit for that museum,” says former assistant professor Chelsea Heffner. “Nothing else in the curriculum supported craft.”

Indeed, the deep connection to material and making that is central to craft has not been a salient part of the school’s culture. “It was not an uncommon thing for faculty to suggest to students, ‘OK, you want to make these costumes, but you don’t know how to make them. Find someone who does, and outsource that craft work,’ ” Heffner says.

MoCC staff nonetheless tried to integrate craft ideals in the PNCA curriculum, says Wiggers, who resigned in 2014. “Every year, we would propose different kinds of courses or ways to connect with faculty courses,” she says, but “it grew increasingly challenging, because those courses were never put forward.” According to a PNCA spokesperson, then-provost Greg Ware recalls many brainstorming sessions, but neither he nor the curriculum committee chair received any concrete proposals, including for an MFA in curatorial studies that the MoCC was going to develop.

Seeking to connect, Wiggers met one-on-one with faculty and even changed museum hours to accommodate their schedules. A few faculty members became “deeply integrated,” she says – citing an illustration prof who used the MoCC collection in assignments – but they were the exceptions. (The 2015 exhibition “Extra Credit: Students Mine the Collection” grew from a course team-taught by Victor Maldonado of PNCA and Nicole Nathan, then the museum’s registrar and curator of collections.)

Museum programming should have mattered to more students and faculty, Wiggers argues. “We were relevant to students, there is no doubt,” she says. “If you’re bringing in Ai Weiwei and Theaster Gates, you’re relevant.”

Other barriers 
Any merger is fraught, of course. “Whenever there is a circumstance where things get blended,” says San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design’s executive director JoAnn Edwards, “there’s a risk of one of those two entities disappearing.” Besides these built-in perils, for much of the merger’s existence, the museum was a 15-minute walk from PNCA, a physical distance that didn’t help bridge the philosophical gap between the two. That distance shrunk in 2015 when the college moved to new headquarters, but before then, “there was this chasm of a divide in between PNCA’s old building and where the museum was,” says Watson.

With the merger, PNCA absorbed museum development and communications staff, taking over the MoCC’s fundraising, marketing, and membership cultivation. The college set clear priorities, Watson recalls. “We were told time and time again, ‘You are to spend no more than 30 percent of your working hours on museum projects,’ ” he says. “The college projects would always trump the museum projects.” A PNCA spokesperson counters that all development and communications staff shared between the college and the museum were expected to support the museum “in any way required.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for the museum after the merger was a change in focus. “When you are independent,” says Wiggers, “your programming takes a certain form. You are addressing broad communities.” After the merger, “our focus shifted to serving students and faculty.” The new perspective “didn’t work,” she says flatly.

Now, the 14,300-square-foot space that was the MoCC will be sold, and the collection will be absorbed into a new PNCA Center for Contemporary Art & Culture. The plan for the collection, says PNCA curator and director of exhibitions Mack McFarland, “is to be a careful guardian of it, while at the same time showcasing it as much as, if not more than, it has been in the past.” Some of the pieces will go into storage, some will be displayed at the new center, and some will find a home in the Object Studies Lab – “a selection of the collection that will change out no less than once a year,” says McFarland. Says Casey Mills: “We’re planning on showing it, because we actually have the duty to show it. And we take that duty very seriously.”

‘Craft’ is erased – again
For craft lovers, there may be consolation in such statements. At the same time, not only has a venerated 79-year-old craft institution gone away, but so has the word “craft.” It’s a reminder of other such excisions – for example, the 2002 renaming of the American Craft Museum as the Museum of Arts and Design and, a year later, the transition of California College of Arts and Crafts to California College of the Arts.

What about other institutions with “craft” in their names or their missions – are they in danger? Ask leaders at craft museums about the keys to their survival, and you’ll hear words like “building,” “engaging,” “education,” and “community.” When financial challenges loom, they say, it’s important to strengthen connections rather than letting them go slack. It’s critical to reach out, look outward, even if the natural impulse is to hunker down.

The MoCC will be sorely missed, craft museum leaders say. But the closure reminds them of important fundamentals. First and foremost: the value of independence. Stephanie Moore knows something about affiliation with an educational institution. She has been executive director of the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design since 2010, when the nonprofit was part of the University of North Carolina. In 2013, a budget shortfall led the university to cut its ties with CCCD, which then lost its staff, facility, computers, and operational support. To continue, “we had to build our entire infrastructure,” says Moore. Yet there was an upside: With independence, “you are able to carry out the mission,” she says. “You may set the stage for success as you define it.”

Emphasizing audience
Beyond independence, leaders point to the all-important focus on audience – which the lean post-merger MoCC, with its charge to serve students and faculty, perhaps could not do as well as it needed to.

What works, says Suzanne Isken, director of the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, is hands-on involvement for visitors. “We really believe that the best way for people to appreciate craft is to get their hands dirty,” she says. “If you can come in and you can make something, then you start to look around you and say, ‘What are the real makers – you know, these professional makers, doing?’ ” Questions spark dialogue, community, and vital experiences for visitors.

What works is cultivating new audiences with pointed content. The opening weekend for “Mindful: Exploring Mental Health through Art,” the Society for Contemporary Craft’s recent show, saw an unprecedented crowd; attendance is up 25 percent overall compared to last year. And, executive director Janet McCall says, fundraising for that show was more successful than usual and involved entities that don’t typically support exhibitions.

What works, craft museums are finding, is embracing their roots, staying local. Such was the case for the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft’s 2013 exhibition “Sprawl,” which looked at the rise of urban sprawl around the world, but also incorporated a walking tour and speaker series to anchor the show in Houston. What was particularly exciting about “Sprawl,” says HCCC curator Kathryn Hall, was the involvement of local people from outside the craft community, such as architects and city officials. This sort of catholic approach can “give us a platform for us to have conversations within our communities,” Hall says.

At Racine Art Museum, the 2015 show “A Whole Other World: Sub-Culture Craft” played to several different audiences. The age range varied widely, which made for “a very interesting dialogue that went on in the galleries that drew people from all over,” says executive director Bruce W. Pepich, an ACC trustee. After the show closed, the museum did a steampunk-themed fundraiser, which Pepich says drew more people than any RAM event ever.

Sharing the power of craft is crucial, says SCC’s McCall, noting the work of ceramist Paulus Berensohn. “He talks about the incredible number of nerve centers that are in the tips of our fingers and how what our hands are touching is being processed and sending signals to the brain. And there’s just this very complex connection between hand and brain that, again, is an important part of why craft is so effective and so successful.” Craft is connection – between its constituents, yes, but also embedded deep within its very mediums. Molding clay, knitting stitches, hammering metal – whatever the material or the activity, it creates an internal feedback loop, reinforcing the connection between material and maker.

In craft, as the loss of the MoCC reminds us, our primary job is to connect. There are wistful echoes of this in the MoCC’s Unpacking the Collection. As David Cohen wrote of the objects in the museum’s collection: “Many people handled them, admired them, touched and were touched by them. Objects may seem silent, but their stories are endless.”

Betsy Greer writes about craft and activism in Durham, North Carolina. She can be found online at craftivism.com. Monica Moses contributed to this story.