Masters: Nancy M. McNeil

Masters: Nancy M. McNeil

Nancy McNeil PMA Craft Spoken Here

McNeil's legacy has helped make the PMA into a craft powerhouse, exemplified by 2012's "Craft Spoken Here" exhibition. Photo: Courtesy of PMA

Aileen Osborn Webb Award for Philanthropy \ Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 

Nancy M. McNeil’s impact on the field of craft is easily charted. She’s the cofounder of the prestigious Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, now in its 36th year. She chaired the notable U.S. symposium on and exhibition of Vatican craft, 1978’s “Craft, Art, and Religion.” A craft curatorship at the PMA, established by her husband, the late Robert McNeil Jr., bears her name – a tribute to her devotion.

But there’s another way of gauging impact – one equally, if not more, telling: stories of lives touched and opportunities created. “The endowment pays for my entire curatorial life here at the museum,” says Elisabeth Agro, PMA’s Nancy M. McNeil associate curator of American modern and contemporary crafts and decorative arts.

Created in 2006, the permanent position was the first in the country exclusively dedicated to collecting contemporary craft. “It signaled other larger institutions to follow suit,” Agro says. Nancy McNeil’s name has always been associated with innovation. In the 1970s, McNeil, along with her sister and another friend, hatched an idea for a craft show – a fundraiser for the museum, to be organized by the Women’s Committee of the PMA. “She was the organizing force behind it, the guiding spirit,” recalls Darrel Sewell, who served as curator of American art at PMA from 1973 to 2002.

When it launched in 1977, the PMA Craft Show was the first-ever volunteer-run retail craft show to benefit a nonprofit.  “It became a beacon,” Agro says. “A lot of artists made their careers either on the show or from the show.” The PMA Craft Show became a model for other nonprofit institutions, too, and, of course, bolstered the museum. To date, millions of dollars have been raised to support general programs, with a special percentage earmarked for craft acquisitions.

“I can understand where Nancy’s passion comes from,” Agro says. “Craft is special because it’s about community. You break bread with these artists, you ask about their children, they ask about yours. It’s not just about the work – it’s about this other thing, the relationships. There’s a lot of interaction, and it’s in Nancy’s good name that I go out and do this great work.”

Read about more 2012 American Craft Council award winners. View Nancy's profile.