While managing the renovation of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, Lloyd Herman had a vision. In an independent proposal he created the idea that would become the Renwick Gallery. Over the 15 years that he served as its founding Administrator and then Director, he directed 113 exhibitions.
In 1988, he moved to Bellingham, Washington where he has become a consultant, a prolific free-lance curator, lecturer, writer and frequent juror throughout the United States and in over ten foreign countries. Mr. Herman continues to be an influential arbiter of the Contemporary Craft Movement.
W B-M What experiences within the crafts field led to your appointment as the first director of the Renwick Gallery?
L H I really didn’t have any specific knowledge of crafts. Rather, I was generally interested in the decorative arts and design, and crafts were part of that. I worked for the Director General of the National Museum at the Smithsonian for five years in an administrative capacity supervising the renovation of the Arts and Industries Building which was to have become the Smithsonian Exposition Hall.
In developing a program of changing exhibitions there, I worked very closely with the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service. We would present exhibitions that were going out on tour, and give them their launching in the Arts and Industries Building. One of the first exhibitions was one that Paul Smith curated called Plastic as Plastic for what was then the Museum for Contemporary Crafts. That’s when I met first met Paul. He really was, I guess, my earliest craft mentor and continues to be a good friend. He was very helpful to me in the early days of the Renwick.
While my boss was away on a trip, I wrote a proposal for the Renwick Design center in which I spelled out a program for a changing exhibition space focused on the craft and design field, and the decorative arts. He came back from his trip and didn’t acknowledge he’d even seen the memo, and I was too timid to ask. A year later, he did give my proposal to the man who was responsible for developing a program for James Renwick’s building. The Assistant Director of the National Collection of Fine Arts, Robert Tyler Davis, I met with him, but I didn’t like any of his ideas.
I was busy working on an exhibition recreating the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition so I didn’t give the Renwick a second thought. And then, Mr. Davis had a heart attack and the new Director of the National Collection of Fine Arts, Joshua Taylor, found my two-year old proposal and liked it. He interviewed me and hired me to organize the Renwick in February of ’71. I had the rare opportunity in government to put together basically what I had planned on paper two years before, and see it open in January of 1972. We had just a year to get it all done. That included finishing the interior restoration of the building, furnishing two period rooms and then curating and installing six changing exhibitions that would show the first audience what the gallery was about. So, the first exhibitions really cut across the entire range of craft and design. The introductory exhibition was called Design Is and included everything from quilts to rocket nose cones, just to show how design influences every part of our lives.
W B-M In the earliest days of the Gallery, you must have had to explore the field of craft and determine some criteria for focusing the Gallery’s energies. How did you go about that task?
L H I guess I think of myself as someone with open eyes and open mind. I’m also interested in what people are making, why they make it and how they sell it. There weren’t enough galleries or publications at that rime that I could use to get up to speed in the crafts field.
Because the Renwick was new you would normally have thought it would be difficult to get in the loop. But, because it was part of the Smithsonian I had easy access. I had sort of, well, I won’t say I had or the Renwick had immediate respect, but we had immediate attention because it was part of a national museum. It signaled something important was happening.
At that point I’d come into the field without any credentials and simply listened and looked and learned. The early exhibitions did not get a lot of critical scrutiny. Generally the response was very positive and that helped give the Renwick a position in the craft field that very quickly became comparable to that of the American Craft Museum.
I was very interested in having more of our exhibitions travel and in sharing them with other museums that had similar interests. The American craft council had focused on crafts people making the unique object, and their whole promotion was that these were art objects. The emphasis was clearly on the more sculptural and expressive objects than functional ones. I felt that we needed to do a national exhibition to show that in addition to what the Objects USA, exhibition showed that there was still a great underlying movement within the craft field. My point of view was that the whole base of the crafts field was people making functional objects that were more than one of a kind. The result was the national competition resulting in the Craft Multiples exhibition that toured nationally.
Canada has a smaller population base than the U.S., so it has obviously a smaller base from which to draw its craftsmen. I don’t know if it’s true in metalsmithing, but I did feel that the craft councils are tight within their own provinces. They don’t communicate too much across the borders in a national way. That’s been one of the dilemmas of The Canadian Craft Museum. Can we truly make that a national organization if we can’t get any feedback and any participation-particularly from the eastern Provinces? They don’t seem accustomed to sending their work beyond their own provincial borders.
The orientation of crafts people in Quebec is much more European. In the West there’s much more affinity with the Pacific Rim, but it’s more west coast U.S. than it is Asia. Then you have these huge population centers like Ontario, and, as in the United States, you see a concentration of interesting work around university programs.
W B-M I’d like to discuss the nature and characteristics of jewelry and metalsmithing and its success or failure in the commercial and museum worlds.
L H I think that the marketing of crafts has changed significantly since we opened the Renwick. And particularly it has changed in the metalsmithing field more than anything else. There are two things I can identify that have been important changes to your field. The ACE fairs which have pushed more people into production jewelry. Hardly anybody does silver hollowware anymore, except on commission, but pewter has become important. There have not been marketing opportunities for jewelers and metalsmiths comparable to people working in glass, and to a lesser extent, in wood. Clay remains kind of static. Fiber is the most difficult. Fiber has even more trouble finding a niche in the market.
W B-M It’s strange because it seems to have very exciting work going on.
L H I agree, but there aren’t enough places to sell it.
W B-M And metals seems to share that problem. The galleries that I have come in contact with are a little wary of metals.
L H They don’t know what to do with anything other than jewelry. Jewelry is an identifiable commodity. There are certainly production jewelers, Alan Revere comes to mind, who are our there with a very competent, fashionable line. But he’s typical of many people who are at the ACE fairs. Their work is not challenging. It’s beautiful and it’s in fashionable womenswear stores and in department stores. But I don’t think it pushes the field forward. It simply is a quality example of what is there.
The ACE Fairs have given opportunities to jewelers, but they have also pushed others into jewelry who would have perhaps tried harder to make more of a niche for smaller sculptural objects. I know that it may have to do with the price of silver, the big factor in tea and coffee services and things of that sort.
Another change is that the metals and jewelry field has been in the forefront of professionalizing in terms of organizing SNAG. NCECA was certainly in existence before that but is primarily an academic organization. SNAG is too I believe. I remember those first newsletters very quickly transformed into a quality publication.
W B-M How do you view metalsmiths who are working sculpturally?
L H It’s not so much what I find exciting as what I find missing, I guess. I wouldn’t have even thought about it had Albert Paley not mentioned it when we were commissioning his gates for the Renwick and talking about the revived interest in architectural forged steel. He said that traditional tinsmithing was an area that similarly had remained unexplored. And he felt that sheet metal – I don’t think it necessarily had to be tin – would be an area that would or should receive some greater creative exploration. And I agree.
I was in Paris a couple of years ago and was looking in very smart design shops where there were candelabras and tabletop objects that were totally contemporary in design but they were made by conventional cutting and soldering sheet metal. We don’t have that. Nobody’s doing that here, that I’m aware of.
In the time I’ve been working in the craft field I’ve been quite impressed to see all of these different processes. Not only the materials that are used, but the introduction of color possibilities with anodized aluminum and the refractory metals, the use of photographs and all sorts of industrial materials. The field is totally open.
I remember when Bob Cardinale organized the Brass, Copper, Bronze competitions down in Tucson. That was an important thing to do. But I haven’t really seen a lot of work in those metals. Maybe it’s just so integrated with other materials. I’m very aware of pewter because some people work only in pewter.
It is interesting that cast bronze seems to be becoming more popular, primarily with people doing vessels rather than forging ahead in dealing with sculptural concepts. And I think this is where there’s a real gap between sculptors working in metals and metalsmiths making sculptures. For the most part I think that the reason there’s not a real market opportunity for what someone refers to as table jewelry or tabletop sculptures is that it doesn’t really fit into any niche. It doesn’t seem to be in the art galleries. There doesn’t seem to be a place for that.
It’s partly a problem with size. There aren’t many art galleries that show sculpture, even of a large size. So, on one hand, we see people who were educated in clay like Michael Lucero and Peter Voulkos moving from clay into bronze.
I think one of the dilemmas for metalsmiths who are not making jewelry or not making functional objects is, where do they fit into our pre-conceived ideas of the art market? I think that the tabletop sculptures may not succeed as sculpture because there may be something lacking in the education system for people working in metal… whether or not people in metalsmithing programs are taught to think in three-dimensions.
W B-M Learning technique is extremely time-consuming. Also, a lot of programs are very weak in art history requirements.
L H That’s really an important part of any studio art program. I think it’s important for art students to know what’s gone before and to study the past to some degree. If they are interested in following more sculptural work then they probably need to study sculpture specifically.
W B-M Are there things that you could envision which might benefit the craft field and help the public understand and appreciate various crafts?
L H I think that it’s going to be increasingly important to have video libraries. Initially the videos might be little more than video tours of retrospective exhibitions. Such a library could include monographs on an artist with footage of the artist in the studio, showing a bit about the processes and the environment in which works were made, and showing works in progress.
We also need more conventional publications to reach a broader audience. I think The Guild has really been a first rate publication. For me, those have been important reference books. I’m guessing that architects and designers keep them around.
The Corning Museum does the annual New Glass Review to show directions in glass art. That is a really valuable document; it’s like an exhibition catalog without an exhibition. In fact, that is something that could be done in every field. That is one thing lacking in jewelry and metalsmithing more than the other craft disciplines. (Editor’s Note: Metalsmith’s first Exhibition in Print will be published in the Fall of 1994.) The only contemporary jewelry book I can think of is Peter Dormer’s: The New Jewelry: Trends and Traditions.
The metals field has been less successful getting into public view than other craft media over the last 20 years. It may be a result of there being relatively few exhibitions and publications that acquaint the public with what’s being made, what’s out there. Of course it’s a vicious circle because the publishers or film makers, whatever, don’t see other books or videos to know that there’s something lively going on. So, for the most part it rests on exhibition catalogs.
I’ve been trying to develop a master list of museums in the U.S. and Canada that have some interest in craft, from the perspective of collecting a single material, or a kind of object, or from a decorative arts context. I hope to establish a data base so we can develop a better network, and share it.
Lloyd Herman’s current traveling exhibitions are Tales and Traditions: Storytelling in Twentieth-Century, American Craft co-curated with Matthew Kangas; Brilliant Stories: American Narrative Jewelry, and Clearly Art: Pilchuck’s Glass Legacy. He is also a consultant for Oregon State University’s Thundering Seas Institute which is developing a new craft museum, and an expanded academic program in crafts including jewelry and metalworking. Mr. Herman is an honorary Fellow of the American Craft Council.