I met Ken Trapp at a luncheon during SOFA Chicago, just after he had left the Oakland Museum as the curator of decorative arts to take the position of curator-in charge of the Renwick Gallery, in Washington, DC. We had been invited, along with a few other contemporary studio jewelry enthusiasts, by Susan Cummins to explore the possibility of developing a national organization devoted to the understanding and promotion of this developing field of American craft.
Susan had invited Ken—who as curator at the Oakland Museum had overseen the significant addition of contemporary jewelry by California makers to the museum’s permanent collection—to share his vision and expertise to those gathered. The day was lighthearted and comfortable, with most of us meeting each other for the first time. I remember how impressed I was by the energy and enthusiasm of everyone involved, but more so by the sage advice and warnings from this engaging, articulate man, who had obviously maneuvered such organizational efforts by other like-minded groups. We acknowledged the presence of national groups devoted to both contemporary ceramics and studio glass, and dedicated ourselves to continue our dialogue and avoid the pitfalls that had befallen early stages of development of other groups. This coming together of strangers would lead to the formation of Art Jewelry Forum.
Work began with groups of two or three furthering discussions and sharing with others. Throughout the process, Ken remained the ex-officio voice of knowledge and experiential counsel. During this time, I found myself not only learning from Ken but becoming his friend. He made several trips from Washington to visit us in Columbia, South Carolina, certainly not a destination city for those in the arts. In addition to ongoing conversations about life, art, and Art Jewelry Forum, I received valuable information about where we might want to concentrate our desire to share pieces of our collection with public institutions. Ken’s counsel was invaluable, and he is as responsible for our gifts as we are.
Ken served the Renwick from 1995 to 2003. This was a period of exciting growth for the institution, but the time was also marked by a politically charged attack on the arts. Arts organizations, artists, and museums faced many obstacles related to their missions. With difficulty, Ken maneuvered the roadblocks to bring new experiences to visitors to the Renwick. He instituted the first Renwick Invitational, Five Women in Craft, and a rotational display of craft objects from the permanent collection. He curated two wildly successful exhibitions of the permanent collection devoted to specific craft mediums, glass and ceramics. He co-authored Skilled Work, a compendium devoted to the nation’s craft collection to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Renwick. During his tenure he persisted when others might have decided to accept the status quo. Prior to seeing all his plans come to fruition, he left Washington to return to his home state of Arkansas to care for ailing family.
I think Ken would be most impressed with the depth and breadth of accomplishments by Art Jewelry Forum. As a founding member, he certainly contributed to those successes.
The Wingate Foundation has created a $300,000 grant for acquisitions to the Renwick Gallery in honor and memory of Ken.