Late in the evening of February 3, news of the impending closure of the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon, began to spread over social media. An email to museum constituents announcing the closure sent from the Pacific Northwest College of Art, the private college of art and design that has operated the museum since 2009, was quickly followed by an article by Oregon Artswatch. MoCC has had an indomitable presence in the field of contemporary craft, thanks to its long history and in no small part to the innovative programs and exhibitions developed by its professional staff. The sharing of the news on Facebook was met with reactions of dismay, regret, and frustration.
According to the email signed by PNCA Interim President Casey Mills, the college will sell its interest in the Davis Street building that currently houses the museum and close the museum store permanently. The collections and exhibitions of MoCC are to be moved to the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design and integrated with the college’s exhibitions department as part of a new PNCA Center for Contemporary Art & Culture. The reasons given for the closure were brief and blunt – the increasing financial costs of the museum and the unrealized vision of “transforming the Museum into a dynamic, student-centric educational resource.” Mills offered assurances that the collections, as part of the new Center for Contemporary Art & Culture, “will extend beyond craft to encompass many aspects of contemporary culture.”
PNCA’s statement may present a clear glimpse of the priorities of the college. But there is more: This unfortunate closure encapsulates the challenging forces at play in the field of contemporary craft.
MoCC began in 1937 as the Oregon Ceramic Studio, making it one of the oldest continually operating craft organizations and museums in the United States. The loss of any 79-year-old arts organization is to be lamented, especially one that has had a longstanding impact on craft and has done so outside the gravitational pull of the Northeast Corridor. Volunteer and exhibition director Maurine Roberts was among the first honored as a Fellow of the American Craft Council in 1975, alongside craft giants Harvey Littleton, Sam Maloof, Toshiko Takaezu, Lenore Tawney, Peter Voulkos, and Frans Wildenhain. In 1987, on its 50th anniversary, the Oregon Ceramic Studio was honored by the ACC with the Award of Distinction. More recently, the exhibitions, publications, and programs of the MoCC have demonstrated its role as an innovator and thought leader despite its small stature, physically and financially.
Those finances, ultimately, loom largest in the closing of MoCC. The museum remained in its original location on Corbett Avenue, on a plot purchase from the Portland Public School District, until a move to Davis Street in 2007. The move, accompanied by the change to the organization’s current moniker, was reported to be costly. The merger with PNCA seemed a lifeline to save an institution struggling with lingering relocation expenses during the economic downturn in 2008. The merger was understood to be strategic for the college; PNCA had its own financial difficulties and, in the years before its joint administration of MoCC, the college came within striking distance of losing its accreditation. Perhaps, as it has been asserted on social media, PNCA viewed the ongoing fiscal responsibility of keeping the museum open as too onerous, too difficult, in light of its other duties and programs.
Rail as we might against the decision of the college, it must be acknowledged that the financial difficulties of the museum that led to oversight by the college and ultimate closure also face numerous small arts institutions and organizations nationwide. The role and value of the MoCCs of the world are overshadowed by the METs, MoMAs, and MFAs. Small arts organizations typically receive less attention for their exhibitions, smaller bequests of objects or funds from patrons, and publish fewer tomes of scholarship than major-name or flagship museums, schools, or institutions. But they are, particularly for contemporary craft, an invaluable contributor to the success and longevity of the field. Small museums drive innovation in curation and exhibition practices, pose current and cutting-edge questions, and are able to experiment to a greater degree than encyclopedic temples of art. They are embedded in their communities, supporting local guilds, encouraging new visitors, and developing relationships. And, not infrequently, they are the first museum exhibition venues for emerging artists. When fiscal support for these smaller institutions falters, the field as a whole bears the loss.
But in this instance, the future financial liability of MoCC for PNCA is only part of the picture. More ominous is the seeming disregard by the college of the mission of the museum and the work it interprets. The move to jointly administer the museum in 2009 now appears to have been a Faustian bargain; it preserved MoCC for the time being, but put its future in the hands of an institution that doesn’t appear to care greatly about contemporary craft. PNCA is not the first to subsume “craft” under “art” or “arts” in the renaming of an institution; the renaming of the American Craft Museum as the Museum of Arts and Design in 2002 and the dropping of “craft” from the name of California College of the Arts in 2003 have been dutifully cited in the devaluing of craft as a category of art. PNCA’s proposed title of Center for Contemporary Art & Culture is even more anemic – broad to the point of ambiguity and providing little clarity of what it hopes to interpret. And it reflects an unfortunate trend that extends beyond the microcosm of craft. Even as the boundaries between disciplines waver and become increasingly porous – a remarkable and exhilarating development to observe and unpack – the manner of art interpretation is increasingly restricted. The craft world’s discomfort with the contemporary art world’s new interest in fiber or ceramics isn’t that the usual gatekeepers or oracles of craft have been circumvented, it is that every “rediscovery” of an “overlooked” career or material dismisses previous critical interpretation, scholarship, and support, the hard work already done, in favor of the dominant historical and critical paradigm in art. And it affects all categories of art, from design to dance. It is the patronizing voice of authority, saying “don’t worry, we’ll take it from here.”
Whether the closing of MoCC will truly provide PNCA the opportunity to use its collections as a “dynamic, student-centered educational resource” remains to be seen. Those collections, ranging from examples of ceramics from the Pacific Northwest at the birth of the American studio craft movement to the archives of the documentary on contemporary DIY culture Handmade Nation, will remain invaluable no matter the name chiseled over its doors. But the impending closing of the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland this April asks: What else are we in danger of losing?
Perry A. Price is the American Craft Council director of education.