For most of the 20th century, fine art museums have eschewed craft as not worthy of being showcased in a gallery alongside revered artworks. “The C-word,” craft, had been too closely associated with hobbyists and amateurs.
As recently as 2002, the American Craft Museum in New York dropped the word “craft” from its name, becoming the Museum of Art and Design.
Philadelphia has always been a little different, with it’s history of textile industry, a plethora of art schools, and Etsy.com proprietors sprouting like weeds. Recently the Philadelphia Art Alliance in Rittenhouse Square shifted its focus to contemporary craft.
When the Philadelphia Museum of Art hired Elisabeth Agro in 2006 to be associate curator of American Modern and Contemporary Crafts and Decorative Arts, it was one of the very few positions at a major museum with “craft” in the title.
For the last five years she has staged exhibitions in one of the museum’s corridors, which is basically a glorifed hallway.
“I don’t think I’ve seen on the books an exhibition that was in one of the sacred spaces, in one of the main exhibition galleries,” said Agro. “I think this is the first in an extremely long time, or maybe ever.”
The show “Craft Spoken Here” in the Museum’s Perelman Building, features pieces made from glass, burlwood, clay, and woven works. A few of the bowls could be considered functional, but all the pieces express aesthetic ideas about geometry, shape, color, culture, or light.
“Static,” by Jessica Jane Julius, is comprised of clusters of black glass threads that seem to be skittering across the floor and up the wall like dust bunnies or mold. It is frought with emotion, inspired by the artist’s recurring anxiety dreams.
The sprawling, unwieldy piece (actually several disconnected pieces) fits into a craft show because it is as much about anxiety as it is about the artist’s knowledge of what glass can do. The glass may be black, but the process is transparent.
“For Jessica, it’s understanding the material,” said Agro. “It’s about skill, reverence of materials. It’s about the hand and ideas that support it beyond functional.”
To bridge the gap between amateur hobbyists and fine artists, the museum is scheduling local crafting groups to use the gallery space to knit, weave, crochet, or work on whatever their handwork might be.
The outside of the building has been yarnbombed by Jessie Hemmons who knitted bunting, runners, and socks adorning the entrance doorways and railings.
Last year, Hemmons surreptiously knitted a sweater for the Rocky statue in front of the Art Museum, a covert stunt which garnered national attention. This year, she was commissioned.