40 under 40: Q & A with Curator Nicholas Bell
July 31, 2012
We recently opened 40 under 40: Craft Futures at the museum's Renwick Gallery. Having all of the artists here for several days was quite the experience! But now that things are returning to normal we asked exhibition curator Nicholas Bell to give us his personal perspective on putting together 40 under 40 and how it has changed the way the museum is looking at craft in the 21st Century.
Eye Level: How was 40 under 40: Craft Futures conceived?
Nicholas Bell: Way back in 2010 we began to brainstorm how to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Renwick Gallery as the museum's branch for decorative arts and contemporary craft. The idea of 40 [artists] under 40 was raised and, though not original, stuck because it allows us to talk about the changes currently underway in American craft. Of course there are lots of new things happening with artists in all age brackets, but using this lens gives us the platform to have a broader conversation about the state of craft in contemporary culture.
EL: This exhibition features the work of 40 artists under the age of 40. How did you manage to choose them? What was your process?
NB: We started by deciding not to put out a call for portfolios. I didn't want us to leave any stone unturned or miss out on makers doing important work who may recoil at the term "craft." So I searched the continent and conferred with curators, gallerists, professors, other artists--people who see a lot of up and comers. We spent several months bouncing from one to the next and tracking down even the most elusive on the list.
EL: Does presenting this exhibition and getting to know these artists give you hope for the direction of craft? What most excites you about the work being done by today's young crop of artists?
NB: This cohort shares a philosophy for living differently in the modern world. Each of these makers has made a conscious decision to approach their work from a standpoint that enriches us and provides a positive net effect on the environment and those who interact with it. Regardless of their aesthetic choices or the words they use to describe what they do, this mission bonds them and strikes at the heart of craft.
EL: As you chose artists, did the direction of the exhibition change at all? In other words, did the artwork inform your ideas?
NB: Honestly, our only criterion at the start was the age cut off. That's what made it fun. But the age factor did pose some challenges as well. My heart was broken a few times when we found an artist who had been born in 1971. As we searched, though, the ideas emerged organically. Dramatic shifts in culture have shaped these artists adult lives; we find that so many of the artists are dealing with the same ideas of DIY, the economy, and sustainability. And then there was the fact that all of the works we selected for the exhibition had been created since September 11, 2001. That brought about a whole new consideration for how all of these artists--who ranged in age from 17 to 29 at the time of the attacks--are making objects in a different climate than that of their predecessors. That's the bottom line, really: Craft is getting stronger; its values are being shared by an ever-expanding population.
EL: What are the similarities and/or differences of the work being done by these artists and that of the artists already represented in the museum's collection?
NB: Our collection is a wonderland of work by masters over the last century. But as we were mulling over this exhibition we realized that the collection held very few objects by the children of the Baby Boomers. We are using this exhibition as an opportunity to not only showcase work by this generation, but also to expand the collection. And honestly, the biggest difference I see is how these younger artists approach their making. Motivations are changed. Materials are different. The artists embrace a range of technologies in their process. But above all I want to stress that these artists are every bit as skilled as those who came before them.
If you'd like to explore Nicholas' ideas and the exhibition in more depth, pick up a copy of the catalogue online or in the museum store. In addition, plan to attend our symposium, Nation Building: Craft and Contemporary American Culture November 7 and 8. To see pictures of the exhibition installation and opening, check out our Flickr photostream. Finally, think about helping the museum acquire works by each of the artists from the exhibition.
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