The ignominious closing of Museum of Contemporary Craft

I have tried to write this many times. Every attempt to stave off the rage and sadness I feel about the ransacking and dissolution of the Museum of Contemporary Craft by Pacific Northwest College of Art leaks back into the writing. So I will leave the floodgates ajar. On Wednesday February 3, 2016 a letter came from interim president Casey Mills that the building on Davis Street where MoCC is currently housed will be sold for condos and the collection absorbed into the amorphously named “Center for Contemporary Art and Culture”. Craft apparently is a dirty word. The letter contained the usual sad shoulder shrug of “nothing more could be done but we will respect the history”. There’s a lot of thuggery behind that letter. I’ve never seen a similar statement from CEOs in hostile takeovers that didn’t result in exactly disrespect for the history of an institution.

 

I am sad and angry because I had my first big show at the then Contemporary Crafts Gallery and wrote many essays for exhibitions at the museum. It was not always the place for the cool kids, but it was a place with deep rich roots and a venerable history. For years under the dynamic hand of Namita Wiggers and then Sarah Margolis-Pineo, MoCC had some of the only shows in town that seemed to have a reach beyond the city limits. In fact the influence extends over the years into international territory. And the shows were smart. For all the academic patois and MFA art speak around “radicality” and “criticality” it is in craft where the voices of women, indigenous cultures and working people are first heard. And they are heard respectfully often on their own terms. The current interest in ceramics (see the NY Times Style section) practices an unforgivable amnesia. Decades of scholarship and education are glossed over by callow “makers”. MoCC always struggled in its history but it managed to be a site for hundreds of craftspeople and preserved their history.

The current board of PNCA has been on a campaign like many other art institutions to build monuments with no regard to the life inside them. The move to the new 511 building and the acquisition and dissolution of MoCC are part of a campaign to use the school (one of the oldest art schools on the west coast) as a prop for real estate values. The board is full of people whose professions are union busting, bankruptcy and development. I taught at PNCA for 14 years. In the last several years the board and former president Tom Manley have systematically eroded the labor rights of faculty and increasingly marginalize students. At this point it is not clear that PNCA’s priorities are that of a site for art education. In fact the new building where MoCC’s collection will supposedly be housed prioritizes rented corporate parties over student work. It is difficult to believe that such a body that so devalues the labor of its own faculty could be trusted with a collection that is itself a celebration of human labor.

Further there is the erasing of the word “craft”. Many who imagine themselves progessives and stalwarts of the contemporary think of craft as some limited, regional and bygone category. Craft is much more expansive in its confidence to claim a certain territory. It is through ceramics that I began to consider brick making in Tunisia, Quebec bread ovens, tile making and dinner plates in the same spectrum as Robert Smithson, Francisco Goya and Ingres. In fact the very spinelessness of “Center for Contemporary Art and Culture” displays a complete disdain for art in general. PNCA is now an institution that is in fact embarrassed by and shies away from directly talking about “art”. That is because it is run by people who see the only value of art as a backdrop for cocktail parties and fundraisers. Craft claims something human. I believe it is less conservative than most contemporary art being produced today because despite contemporary art’s claims to the contrary it relies so heavily on the mechanizations of new capital.

I know that cities are dynamic and change. Things grow. Things die. The cycle of life, the daily excursions and celebrations of a human body exist in the objects in the permanent collection at MoCC. They can be deeply unfashionable. The responsibility of an institution housing a museum is to protect the objects and history from the vagaries of a vain and fickle fashion. PNCA has failed spectacularly in its role as a steward. There are objects in that collection that don’t immediately seem important. I am reminded of a Glen Lukens bowl. Small, crackled, uncool. Lukens was an important west coast teacher and the bowl has a quiet power. It has a lot to tell us if we only close our mouths and listen.