Serendipity and the ACC Library: A Researcher's Story

Serendipity and the ACC Library: A Researcher's Story

OBJECTS: USA catalog

Cover of the catalog for "OBJECTS: USA," written by Lee Nordness and first published in 1970 to document the international exhibition. 

When you think of the mid-20th century American craft movement, what comes to your mind? The growth of craft programs in the post-war era? The aid of the GI Bill in providing education to returning soldiers who were looking for a new kind of work to resolve the violence of the war? The influence of European immigrants on craft? For me, it is the 1969 exhibition, "OBJECTS: USA."

This expansive show was unknown to me before fall of 2008, but as I progressed through my master’s degree in history of decorative arts in the Smithsonian-Corcoran program (now Smithsonian-Mason), I was struck by how often was mentioned in classes about the mid-20th century, craft books, and other seemingly-random places in my research about decorative arts. It seemed to be a ground-breaking show, and many contemporary craft artists seemed to be influenced by it, had work shown in it, or recalled knowing people who had been impacted.

I wrote my major research paper my first semester on ceramicist Howard Kottler, whose porcelain and decalcomania plates were shown in "OBJECTS: USA." As I started to research ideas to write my thesis on, I kept coming back to this exhibition. Everyone seemed to reference it, but no one had written anything about it - specifically since the flurry of articles from the late 1960s and early ‘70s. I began gathering my information, excited to discover that Lee Nordness’ papers were housed at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, in Washington, DC, where I was living. But this would not cover all the ideas I had and wouldn’t provide all the information I needed to complete my thesis.

I was fortunate in my thesis research and writing to have my goals align with the interests of the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design in Asheville, North Carolina. They are a wonderful organization that funds a number of different craft-related projects each year, and as I had research to do beyond Washington, DC, they were gracious enough to provide me with funding to travel to New York City to visit the Museum of Art and Design (where many of the objects from "OBJECTS: USA" are housed) and the American Craft Council headquarters and library in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

When I began my research for my thesis on "OBJECTS: USA" and its influence on craft, craft-makers, and craft collectors in earnest, the American Craft Council had just packed up their headquarters in New York City and were in the process of moving to Minneapolis. I had my grant money, but no where to go. I checked the ACC website regularly, but no updates appeared over the course of the summer of 2010. Finally, early that fall, I was lucky enough to be at the same conference as Chris Amundsen, the ACC’s new executive director, who was incredibly gracious and helpful. He put me in touch with the new librarian, Jessica Shaykett, who responded enthusiastically to my email and helped me set up a trip to come to the library.

In early November of 2010, armed with funds from the Center of Craft Creativity and Design and my laptop, I flew out to Minneapolis to visit the ACC. I was greeted by an incredibly helpful Jessica, who had pulled a number of boxes for me to look at, all related to "OBJECTS: USA." After looking through Lee Nordness’ papers at the Archives of American Art, the additional archives at the ACC Library were incredibly informative. They were helpful in fleshing out gaps I had about how the show was planned, how Nordness and Paul Smith traveled the country, and how the show came together. I was most excited to find correspondence explaining how the show grew from its original plan of approximately 100 objects, to one featuring more than 200 craftsmen and more than 500 objects. Paul Smith used his craft connections to bring more craftsmen and Lee Nordness continued to gain the support of the S.C. Johnson company to fund the ever-growing exhibition.

I also found a number of of articles that discussed different facets of "OBJECTS: USA" and its influence on different sectors of society, which helped me to greater understand the impact of the show on society in its three years that it toured the country. From women’s magazines to “computer-age dropouts,” this craft exhibition had something for everyone. While my thesis was focused on the American portion of the tour, I was excited to read the European responses to the exhibition as it wrapped up its tour there in 1972. The ACC Library provided answers to questions I didn’t know I had. In just two days, I was presented with a wealth of information that excited, overwhelmed, and plugged gaps in my thesis - and I could not have found it elsewhere. I am incredibly glad I was able to visit the new library in Minneapolis, and I look forward to returning in the future.

 

Gloria Dunlap currently works as a contractor at the National Gallery of Art with a project that seeks to digitize the works on paper in the collection. She also volunteers at the Luce Foundation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where she enjoys giving talks on the artwork in the collection. You may find her somewhat infrequent blogging at glowingevenings.blogspot.com.

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