Ancient Inspirations: Contemporary Interpretations

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By Deborah NortonMore from this author

When I first heard about the craft show "Ancient Inspirations: Contemporary Interpretations," I was impressed. The press information packet that I was sent by Metalsmith, when asked to review this exhibition, struck me as highly professional, obviously put together by an experienced museum staff. The information imparted by this packet made the show sound first class. In a well-worded press release it was announced that "Roslyn Tunis, Curator of Art at Roberson Center (for the Arts and Sciences in Binghamton, NY) has organized the exhibition. Ms. Tunis has specialized in ancient, folk and primitive art, as well as contemporary crafts. The works of 75 leading New York State artists/craftsmen—over 150 objects in clay, metal, fiber, wood, glass and mixed media-will illustrate the way in which ancient art has inspired the contemporary craftsmen." This show, which opened August 2, 1982 at Roberson Center, would be traveling to several institutions through 1984, including The New York State Museum in Albany, Skidmore College, The Parsons School of Design, Alfred University and the Mississippi Museum of Art (Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum has recently been added to the list). Excerpts from the accompanying catalog were scholarly and the three black-and-white photos were of very high quality. The list of exhibitors included such metalsmithing luminaries as Robert Ebendorf, Kurt Matzdorf and Mary Ann Scher. Sounds Impressive, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. This show, as so often happens in the crafts world, is plagued by a lack of professionalism—from the manager of public relations at Roberson Center to the curator, the host gallery in Alfred (where I saw the show) and the New York State Council on the Arts, whose generous support made this show possible. In every aspect of this show each individual seems to have done his or her initial job quite well, then passed the work along to someone else and abandoned it. No one seems concerned with maintaining the integrity of the exhibition. No one seems to care what happens to this show. Although Roberson Center and the other institutions involved in this exhibition are not the largest and most influential museums in this country, they still have an obligation to maintain professional standards. Anything less is unacceptable. None of the problems I encountered require a large budget to correct. More caring, more attention to detail and more concern with maintaining professional standards is all that is needed.

Because the exact dates that the show would travel were not given in the press release, I wrote to Midge Hamlin, the manager of public relations at Roberson. Between August and December it took two letters and finally a phone call to Roberson to obtain this information. I was never informed that the entire show would not be traveling. It was as though Hamlin sent out her press releases and then forgot about the show.

Finally after months of anticipation, the day arrived for me to view the show in the Fosdick/Nelson Gallery at Alfred University. I am dismayed to report that this exhibition, as seen at Alfred, left me not only disappointed, but outraged. Of the original 29 pieces of metalwork listed in the catalog, only four were on display. Initially the director of the gallery, Dick Kavesh, an art history professor specializing in 19th-century art, explained to me that he had to eliminate the metalwork for security reasons. He didn't have enough plexiglass cases to protect the work. When I asked if I might see the undisplayed pieces, I was told that they were elaborately packed away and impossible to show. In our ensuing conversation about the exhibition, he confessed that he felt uncomfortable with the theme of the show and preferred to think of it as a general craft exhibition. He felt that dividing the work into four categories: metaphors, architectonics, vessels and ceremony, as Roslyn Tunis had done, was contrived. When I suggested to him that plexiglass covers were not that hard to come by and that maybe there was another reason for eliminating the metalwork, he readily admitted that he found the pieces "fussy." To him they were more concerned with "function than with art." Although security was his primary concern, he conceded that he could have found ways to display the work if he had felt it was an important asset to the show. As I see it, the issue is not whether his assessment of the show was correct, but whether a gallery director has the right to significantly alter a traveling exhibition. I find this to be both unprofessional and unacceptable.

If this were the only problem with the show, it would have been bad enough. However, there was more. Although a very elaborate catalog (priced at $11) had been published with this show, none was available at Alfred. Because the entire show was not displayed, certain labels proved erroneous, if not farcical, particularly in cases such as Grace Knowlton's Four Clay Spheres when only three were present. I later learned that large wall plaque photographs that were to accompany the show, which Roslyn Tunis hoped would help convey the theme, were missing.

How could this have happened? In search of an answer, I called Tunis, the curator of the show. She began the conversation by apologizing profusely for the lack of metalwork in Alfred, but said it was for security reasons. When once again I suggested that there is no current world shortage of plexiglass cases, she agreed, adding that she could have lent some from Roberson Center. She was dismayed that the integrity of the show had been destroyed. Religious art comprised a significant section of the exhibition according to the catalog (Dick Kavesh was kind enough to lend me his copy), yet was totally missing in Alfred. Ironically, she said that Mr. Kavesh had been very enthusiastic about the show when he first inquired about exhibiting it in his gallery. She was unaware that there were no catalogs or wall plaques in Alfred, both of which she said she had sent, and thanked me for calling to let her know. She assured me that as the show continues to travel at least one piece from each artist will be included at all locations.

Why she didn't do anything to correct the situation, I don't know. Was it poor judgement, lack of control over her own show, lack of caring or lack of professionalism? It is obvious from the catalog, if not from the show, that she had Put a tremendous amount of work into this exhibition. She seemed to have only the best of intentions in putting it together, Yet I was left with the distinct impression that when she packed it up and sent it off, she abandoned it.

Curious to explore the artist's point of view, I next called on some of New York's most prominent metalsmiths for their opinions. Kurt Matzdorf was shocked to learn that his work was not being shown in Alfred. Although Tunis assured me that she had written a letter to each of the artists whose work was not displayed, Matzdorf had only skimmed the letter, assuming the show was in competent hands. Not surprisingly, he felt that Dick Kavesh had no right to pick and choose what to include in the exhibition. He was not asked to jury the show, merely to display it. Matzdorf said that he, Hana Geber, Chayat and Robert Ebendorf had all exhibited both nationally and internationally and he was irked that Alfred could be so arrogant as to reject their work.

Albert Paley, who Roslyn Tunis told me was not included because he had prior commitments, was not surprised when I informed him of the status of the show. He said he originally feared a lack of professionalism and scholarship might invade this show as it does so many craft exhibitions. He was skeptical of the theme "Ancient Inspirations/Contemporary Interpretations" because he sees all art as influenced by the Past. No artist can ignore historical precedence. When Tunis found one of his tables inappropriate for the exhibition on the grounds that it did not fit the theme, he decided not to become involved. Therefore, when she asked him if he could create something especially for the exhibition, he pleaded prior commitments.

Paley's statements led me to question the whole concept of this show. Does this exhibition really contain the work of New York's "leading" artists or were some exceptional pieces not included because they didn't conveniently fit into Tunis' four categories? On what basis did she decide what objects had ancient inspiration? And if ancient inspirations were her overriding concern, how can she justify including a piece such as Tom Markusen's music stand (one of the four metal Pieces displayed in Alfred) when he himself states in the catalog that his inspiration was Art Nouveau? Maybe these questions can be answered by someone who saw the show in its entirety.

According to Martha Strodel, crafts coordinator for the New York State Council on the Arts, it was partially due to the theme that Roslyn Tunis and Roberson Center were awarded the grant that made this show possible. Strodel was unaware that the original intent of the show had been greatly altered at Alfred. The Council had awarded the grant for the production of the show and the catalog. They have no way of ensuring that professional standards are maintained in their grant projects beyond the specific area they support. What form a show takes when it travels is not their concern.

Ultimately, whose responsibility is this fiasco? It seems that almost everyone who had a part in this exhibition is somehow to blame. These situations can only be avoided in the future if individuals are willing to take the responsibility and insist on professionalism. Because no one else is willing to do this, artists can protect themselves only by emerging from their trusting naivete and demanding that their work be treated with respect. They must somehow become more aware of what happens when their work is sent to an exhibition and Protest loudly when they or their work is treated poorly. No matter how unpopular this makes the artist and how much trouble it is, it must be done, because, unfortunately, no one else is doing it for them. I am not saying that this is how it should be, only the reality.

And finally, is it really all that important what happens to a craft show in the tiny town of Alfred, New York? Obviously, I think the answer is yes. Primarily, there are the Principles involved. Second, this show, as seen at Alfred, made metalsmithing out to be an extremely weak craft. If the director of a large museum, considering doing a craft show, saw the show in Alfred, he or she would never include metalsmithing and, from the lack of professionalism in this exhibition, would probably shy away from the whole crafts field. Although this show may have been paved with good intentions, it did a great disservice to the crafts, especially metalsmithing.

By Deborah Norton
Metalsmith Magazine – 1983 Summer
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Deborah Norton

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