By Regina Connell.
When we put out the call for nominations for great curators in this space, only one person received multiple nominations: Namita Wiggers of Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft.
First off, we’ve always had a thing for Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft. Its programming always feels vibrant, fresh, and even provocative. Finally, I remember thinking as I looked at the museum more closely, it’s an institution that really “gets” contemporary, and the currency of craft. So we were pre-sold on doing a piece on Namita.
But then, as if we needed any more incentive, we received this lovely email from Jeffrey Thomas, Director of the museum.
I recently was recruited as the new director here, and one reason I took the reins of this 75-year old institution is the opportunity to work alongside our brilliant curator Namita Gupta Wiggers.
She is force of nature, and as passionate about the power of craft + design to change the world as I am. Namita is also extremely popular and well-regarded for her clear and insightful scholarship, and sits on the Board of the American Craft Council. (There are plenty of articles about Namita on Google to color in the broad strokes of her influence. [We particularly love this one.])
To that end, together Namita and our tireless staff are reshaping our museum user experience to inspire our audiences as participants, not just as spectators.
In the past several years, Namita has curated or engaged some truly remarkable and ground-breaking shows, among the following:
- Ai Wei-Wei: Dropping The Urn
- Era Messages: Selections by Garth Johnson
- Touching Warms the Art
- Laurie Herrick: Weaving Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow
Please consider Namita Wiggers as a prime candidate for your series on “The Craft of Curation”.
Now how on earth do you beat that? (And have you ever had a boss describe you in such glowing terms? No, I didn’t think so.)
And during the course of the interview with Namita, I realized how utterly perfect she is as a banner carrier, a shaper for the contemporary craft world, a crafter of stories about craft (and so much more). It takes a bold, smart, impassioned, and relentlessly soul.
Did you wake up one day as a child and say, “I need to be a curator at a museum of contemporary craft?” I can’t imagine…Well, I do have deep interests and roots in making. My grandmother went to a finishing school, and learned a lot of those old-fashioned skills: wonderful embroidery, flower arranging, etc. So when we were together, we sewed, we knitted, we did things with hands. So you could say it’s a big part of me. But it was in college (Rice, in Houston) that I got intrigued by museum education.
Why museum education? I grew up in Cincinnati and I just had a very strong, early memory of sitting in the Rotunda at Cincinnati Art Museum and just watching how people interacted with the exhibits and the space. When I went to graduate school (in Art History at the University of Chicago) I really started to examine the idea of home and identity and the use of personal space to communicate identity. And craft is such a major part of that.
(Then things became even more interesting. After graduate school, she worked at a number of museums, worked with at e-lab–an innovation consulting firm–where she did ethnographic research and product design, and started a line of jewelry, which was a production for 10 years. We love this eclectic, very engaged background–and as you read on, you’ll see how it informs her views.)
And how did you get to the Museum of Contemporary Craft? This job opened up and I jumped at it. It was a great opportunity to do the conceptual work and writing and thinking to bring it all together.
Tell me what you think curation is. It’s not one thing any more! In popular culture, it’s about editing, or informed decision making and yes it’s so overused, and in some sense, so limited in scope.
What I am realizing is how different it is for me in a mid-sized institution in Portland. It’s entirely different than a decorative arts curator at a major museum. That curator’s job is about building a collection, creating a legacy, telling a canonical story about the history of decorative art.
My job is completely different. My engagement is with artists and the arts community, and I’m engaging them and paying attention to them and finding out what is being made, and seeing out what the zeitgeist is and figuring out the item that best tells the story. I operate more like a cultural critic. I have colleague at a another institution whose role is a great deal about filling a large space…he has to think about meeting very specific audience goals.
And what about the craft of curation? The craft of curation is about listening and managing communications and solving problems. It’s really about collaboration. I work closely with the development department (we’re always applying to grants 2-3 years out), and we partner with the Pacific Northwest College of the Arts. We also work with the communications team to develop delivery…we deliver content. There’s a lot of back and forth.
I also collaborate with artists on site specific installations.That’s the most intensive form of collaboration and communication.
I tend to think about museums as participatory environments. And that’s another layer of collaboration. We’re taking that specialized knowledge and that sensibility and create a connective thread, an opportunity to bring something that happens in a private environment and bring into a public space.
How do you approach materials and process and the meeting of the two? I think a lot about how objects function in space. I pay attention to choreography and movement. I’m always thinking about ways to present differently. And ask anyone…I’m a pain about graphic design!
What’s the toughest thing about what you do? Oh, it’s got to be the paperwork and the relentless deadlines. You’re constantly juggling. You don’t feel like you’re getting to go as deeply as you like. Sometimes it’s not necessary but there are times you wish you could do more. You have to learn to let it go. And the best? The people I get to interact with. It could be a 3 year old child coming into the space or an internationally known artist.
What’s skills are most important in curating (Obviously there’s the “eye” but what else?) Listening and flexibility. There are brilliant people who would not be good curators. There are good curators who know how to do this kind of work better than any kind of work. It’s orchestrating and coordination and guiding and shaping and working through others. You must be able to work both micro and macro if you want to be able to be a different kind of curator. Some institutions are great at presenting things on a general level. There are others that pay different attention to other questions being asked by people at a given moment.
What’s the toughest thing about being a curator of contemporary craft? Craft is an inherently hands-on medium. So interaction is key. You want to touch but it kills me that I can’t, and can’t let other people. In some sense it’s also true of design, so it’s hard to come up with design and craft. (Art is easier: people are used to just looking at it.) So we can’t use the vehicles were created in visual arts for craft.
Do you ever just know a show is going to be great as it comes together? How do you know? I think there is an intuitive thing that happens when you design your schedule. It depends on what you measure success by. I’m a curator. I want curators to find it interesting, of course. But I also want audiences to be engaged.
I knew Craft in America was going to be huge and they were. I knew when I met with artists on Transference (which eventually showed at the Museum of Craft of Design in San Francisco) that was going to be good: they were prepared in such a great way, and really had thought it through. It made it possible for us to take a risk. It blew me away how people loved that show. It touched a chord with them. But the one I knew was a show called Touching Warms the Art, which was an interactive jewelry exhibit. The amazing thing was how people got to participate without having to sacrifice the artist’s object.
What’s changing about museums and curation? A lot of things are about the bottom line now. But for me, it’s not just about business, but the power of the object as artists see them. More and more, we’ll have artists setting up their own spaces, more pop ups, more events, things not necessarily about long term permanence. I think the major big collecting museums they really are going to have a lot of pressure put on them to activate the collections. It’s going to become more of challenge for them to help people understand why they need to have that kind of range out there.
Museum of Contemporary Craft