Namita Gupta Wiggers is curator at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in partnership with Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon, where she leads the exhibition, collection and public programs. Wiggers combines a background in art history, museum education, anthropology, design research, teaching and writing into a program that explores craft, design and curating through a museum environment in new ways. Wiggers is particularly interested in curatorial practice as a vehicle to examine contemporary culture and history, using exhibitions and public programs, including podcasts and YouTube videos, to dissolve boundaries between and hierarchies surrounding art, craft, design and museum experiences.
A former studio art jeweler, Wiggers’s interest in contemporary jewelry is explored through exhibitions, lectures and writing. Touching Warms the Art (2008), co-curated with Rebecca Scheer, placed non-precious, artist-made jewelry into the hands of museum visitors through an interactive format. Lectures on the project have been presented at College Art Association, SOFA Chicago and several universities and colleges around the United States. An expanded version, ‘Curatorial conundrums: Exhibiting Contemporary Art Jewelry in a Museum’ was published on the AJF website in 2010.
Wiggers has authored Unpacking the Collection: Selections from the Museum of Contemporary Craft (2008); Ken Shores: Clay Has the Last Word (2010); edited Garth Clark’s How Envy Killed the Crafts Movement: An Autopsy in Two Parts (2009); co-authored ‘Mining History: Ornamentalism Revisited’ with Lena Vigna, published in Metalsmith (2009); and regularly contributes essays to museum publications, magazines and journals, including the recent essay ‘Craft Performs,' in Hand+Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft (Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, 2010).
Currently, Wiggers serves on the Board of Trustees of the American Craft Council. Wiggers studied at The University of Chicago, where she earned an MA and she also holds a BA in art history and English from Rice University in Houston, Texas.
The following interview took place in April 201, via telephone and has been edited for continuity and readability.
Gabriel Craig: First of all, Namita, thank you for taking time to talk to AJF. I have it on good authority that despite your dedication to craft generally, jewelry occupies a special place in your heart. I guess what I really mean is that you have a background in jewelry. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Namita Gupta Wiggers: Sure. I have to say the more I work as a curator, the more I’m hesitant to say that I have a background in jewelry because I didn’t actually study it in school. Jewelry has always been important to me. My grandfather gave me a diamond ring that he had designed when I was two. He introduced me to gem stones at an early age. Later, the little boys up the stree, when I was four years old, used to give me all their costume jewelry from antique stores, so beautiful jewelry has always been part of my growing up. And I’m of Indian origin, I know it’s not politic to say, but I think we have some of the most beautiful jewelry out there [both laugh].
In high school I began making beaded jewelry to give myself extra pocket money and I always wanted to study metalsmithing. I finally got the opportunity when I was in Chicago in 1996. I used my Christmas bonus money from a company I was working for – I was doing video ethnography for a product-design research firm called e-lab – and used my money to take a metalsmithing class at Lill Street. Within two weeks I decided to quit my job and focus just on making jewelry. Luckily, we were in a financial position where I could do that. So I basically spent the next year taking classes intensely at Lill Street and learning a lot of really solid basics, which is how I like to describe it. It was enough technical experience and education to make me comfortable with launching a line of studio jewelry. I sold through a number of different galleries from 1997 until 2005. When I took this position at the museum in 2004 I was in about ten galleries across the country, selling on guild.com, which is now Artful Home. I sold through the Museum of Contemporary Craft when it was still Contemporary Crafts Museum and Gallery. So that’s my background in jewelry and why I think it’s important to me.
How does having a background as a maker inform your curatorial practice, if at all?
I think it has a huge impact on my curatorial practice. When I look at objects I think about the fabrication, I think about the making. I’m very tuned in to materials – and form and weight and tactility – in a way that did not come from my art-history training at all. In art history we’re taught to look, in anthropology you're taught to think about use and cultural place, but it really is through the years of making that I became tuned into the physical and bodily experience of objects, specifically with jewelry. Do you want me to expand on that more?
No, that is a great lead-in to what I wanted to ask you about the Museum of Contemporary Craft’s 2008 exhibition Touching Warms the Art. Certainly when I think of your work as a curator, I think of dynamic and engaging exhibitions that invite viewers to go beyond just looking. So, for me, Touching Warms the Art not only engages the audience with jewelry, but also address a dominant theme in contemporary jewelry, that of the use of non-precious materials. Did you consider this physical and psychological accessibility of the show to be a critique of art-jewelry modes?
That’s an interesting question. You know, I think it could be perceived as a critique of art-jewelry modes, but that wasn’t the intention. The critique was really intended to be more about the limitations of the museum environment and offer the full experience of certain kinds of objects. It was intended to address the fact that within a museum you can’t let people touch things, you can’t let them try them on – only the privileged few get that opportunity. It’s not possible to educate broader segments of the population to understand what it feels like to wear contemporary art jewelry or what if feels like to engage precious or non-precious materials if they can’t touch it, handle it, put it on and see what they look like in it and talk about it with their friends. It’s a social experience. How do you offer that social experience if all they have the opportunity to do is look at something and imagine it? Then it becomes this abstract thing rather than a concrete experience.
I can see where it’s possible to see this as a critique. The reason we said non-precious materials was primarily because of the danger of theft. I have to be honest with you, there were a number of outstanding European jewelers in particular, who offered us – through the jury – work that had gold, that had silver, that had gemstones and were willing to take that risk. But we had set forth in our call that we wanted things that were out of non-precious materials, so as much as it was painful to say no, we actually turned those pieces down in the jury.
I have press you on the point that having an exhibition that specifically invites viewers to touch is, in someway, a critique of the standard display mode where you don’t touch. In being different it becomes a critique.
Oh absolutely! It was definitely meant to do that. But it wasn’t so much about the luxury materials as much as it was about saying, ‘We need to find new models for presenting work that accommodates a haptic desire.’ People have the desire and need for haptic engagement with certain objects. The museum environment – the white cube environment – is not set up to offer that and it’s a problem. It’s a real problem when you’re trying to curate exhibitions about craft-based work.
I was wondering if you could talk about the jewelry in the Museum of Contemporary Craft’s collection and the permanent collection space. How are the objects from your permanent collection accessible to the public? How do you use the permanent collection?
That’s a great question. Basically, we have at this point roughly 1000 objects in the collection, primarily ceramics because we were originally founded as the Oregon Ceramics Studio, in 1937. For many, many years ceramics was really the focus. In many ways this organization was part of the founding of the modern American Craft movement. On the flip side, jewelry that has been collected over the years has been minimal. We have a few pieces by some outstanding Northwest jewelers including Ramona Solberg, Ron Ho, a couple of beautiful pieces by Joe Apodaca and Linda Apodaca, Donna D’Aquino, but that’s pretty much it. To that end we are starting to work with collectors and specifically, some folks who are part of AJF to help us build the collection.
Now, living in the Pacific Northwest, one interesting thing is that Tacoma Art Museum has had a long-standing commitment to collecting and preserving art jewelry thanks to some really forward thinking collectors and Rock Hushka’s guidance over the years. What we will try to do – because we have a really wonderful exchange relationship with Tacoma – is to try to develop a collection that complements what they have so that we are creating a broader representation of art jewelry in the region than if we all try to collect the same people. There will be some overlaps, but for the most part we’ll try and broaden it that way.
In terms of exhibition of the collection, upstairs in the museum there is about a 1000-square-foot space that has cases in it. That is the place where right now Garth Johnson’s exhibition, Era Messages, is located. I think when you visited it had Collateral Matters up, it was all about sharing graphic-design history through the archives. So that area is essentially dedicated to exhibitions drawn from or that contextualize the collection in some way. I try really hard to invite people in who will mine the collection and bring out their own personal perspectives, and to consider new ways of presenting the work, but then also think about relationships amongst objects I might not see.
We’ve done things like invite John Arndt and Wonhee Jeong from Studio Gorm to work with us on an exhibition called The Academy is Full of Craft, where we pulled every person in the collection that has or is still teaching in an academic environment and created a 3D visual mapping of that relationship – kind of à la Edward Tufte – using auto decal tape all over the museum. This 3D mapping let you see how many people served as major nodes of connection amongst this community. It was a way of using the collection to debunk that myth that people today learn how to work with clay by doing an apprenticeship with the potter down the street. That hasn’t happened since the 1950s, but this was a way for me to use the collection to show that academia is really where people are going now – it has become very professionalized.
I would say that in terms of the amount of the collection that’s out, I don’t think we’re too different from other institutions that show only a very small percentage on an ongoing basis. However we are in the midst of a project where we are trying to photograph as much as we can and get it online in the next two years. That will provide other access. And then we do two to three exhibitions out of the collection every year. Typically, for those I try to invite an outside curator and occasionally I’ll collaborate with someone, like I did with Studio Gorm.
And if I can add that the results are really dynamic and interesting. I think one of the reasons why I wanted to interview you in the first place was the results of those collaborations, delving into your own permanent collection there. So switching gears a little bit, I wanted to ask you about the AJF book project that you’re involved with. I know you are working with Damian Skinner, Benjamin Lignel, Monica Gaspar and Kevin Murray on this book project. I’m just going to pretend I don’t know any of the details and if you could give me an overview of the project and explain what your role is concisely.
I will say that the exciting thing about this project is working with Damian and the other collaborators. They are really interesting thinkers and writers. I think that this project is going to be a great example of the kind of dialogue and back and forth that can come from interaction. Damian has done a fantastic job of setting up online opportunities for us to have exchange. The difficulty is that we all live very crazy, hectic lives and I think that at this point all of us are really excited to actually get into a room, face to face, and start hashing out some of our ideas and thoughts in person. It’s interesting when you are working from a distance with people and you get to know them in a particular way, but seeing them face-to-face changes a lot of things and makes conversation flow in a very different way. My role in this project is to be one of the core contributors. We are exploring a number of different issues and questions in a way that allows for conversation to become more global and to hopefully provide springboards for other people to really delve into the questions about what contemporary jewelry is and how it functions right now.
I don’t know if this question relates to the book we’ve just discussed, but I have a personal research interest that I wanted to ask you about, and this is the idea of American art jewelry. From your position at the Museum of Contemporary Craft as a custodian of historical works and as curator of contemporary craft, from your involvement with AJF and the American Craft Council, as well as your background in jewelry, I think you have a good vantage point for what is going on in American art jewelry right now. This is such a difficult question, but what do you see, could you characterize it?
That’s a very good question, because that is what I’m struggling with right now with writing my position paper for the conference and my contribution for our preliminary round table. I find the category of American really problematic because what actually I think is happening in contemporary art jewelry in the United States is still primarily influenced by Europe and Western traditions and does not necessarily reflect the range in the population. I find it perplexing to figure out how to get my head and my writing around the breadth of what really constitutes American identity because there is no single identity. Not that there is in other places either – you can’t essentialize people in that way. I find it really difficult because I start thinking about Native American jewelry that was so popular with people like Mabel Dodge Luhan in the 1920s and 1930s. She was collecting turquoise and silver jewelry. I think about other kinds of practices that are part of what make up the jewelry landscape in the United States, but are not part of what is considered officially in discourse as contemporary art jewelry from America.
Personally, I am struggling to understanding the incredible influence that continental European art jewelers have had on the American jewelry landscape. As I understand it, European art jewelry aesthetics and working methodology arose as a reaction to lengthy and heavily technical apprenticeships. Obviously European art jewelry is now seeing the legacy of that reaction playing itself out in the work of second and third generation students of the people who were the original reactionaries. In the United States, the education landscape for studio and art jewelry since the 1950s has been primarily the university system, which has always been pretty free and autonomous in terms of acceptable outcomes in the academy. So I think there is some incongruity there. I think a certain amount of influence in terms of European art jewelry can be attributed to transference through social media and the internet in recent years. Groups like Klimt02 and now AJF have had a certain amount of influence in the art jewelry world. But I also see American galleries – Ornamentum, Charon Kransen, and Jewelers’ Werk among them – who show a lot of European work. I am trying to wrap my head around how the influence of European art jewelry is affecting the identity of American art jewelry. Does it even make sense to categorize jewelry in terms of national identity that way?
Well, particularly for a country like ours, in terms of jewelry and academic training and the galleries you’re talking about, Europe is the core; it’s the foundation, that’s the tether from which things are happening in contemporary art jewelry As a jeweler who was making studio jewelry outside of academia, I actually am also trying to get my head around the other layers of what constitutes contemporary jewelry and the kind of making in which I was involved. When we talk about AJF, we talk about SNAG [Society of North American Goldsmiths], we talk about the really outstanding galleries like Ornamentum and Sienna Gallery and Velvet da Vinci, and then previous galleries like Susan Cummins Gallery and Helen Drutt – Charon Kransen is in there too – there’s definitely a very particular curatorial lens that each of those galleries offers that is heavily rooted in European tradition. But there is this other range of galleries that is more about production work. I’m not sure how to articulate this yet, Gabriel, but when we’re talking about contemporary art jewelry, we’re talking about it just in terms of its relationship to the academy and to a particular kind of gallery, that’s one conversation. But if we’re trying to broaden that conversation, to really broaden it, how do we encompass the other, so-called ‘fine-craft’ galleries that are selling really well-made work that is production work and work in multiples and isn’t necessarily the same kind of work in terms of conceptual focus? There’s frankly, a lot more of that work out there from those arenas that people are actually wearing and using and buying and engaging. So where do we bring that into this conversation? That in some ways is a place where there is kind of a broadening of global influences. But even then, it’s still not particularly global, considering the range of kinds of places people come from in the United States.
I think in every conceivable way that I think about studio and art jewelry – the identity of the field, the identity of the region and the influences – they’re all completely fragmented. Maybe that reflects the culture of America in so many ways.
The other thing that happens too, going back to The Academy is Full of Craft and your point about academia being the place where craft is really being heavily explored, I think you can start to see influences. Just one example, Jamie Bennett and Myra Mimlitsch-Gray and the way that they work at the State University of New York at New Paltz, you can see the impact on – and interest in – the history of jewelry and ornament and class and raising all of these questions in Anya Kivarkis’s work. And now Anya has been teaching long enough at University of Oregon that you’re starting to see her students then expanding that interest in their own way. So the fragmentation is really, I don’t want to say it, originated at SUNY New Paltz, but you can see these trajectories. And that’s where fragmentation happens. Even then, in those conversations, because European jewelry and the history of ornament and decoration is so much more documented and accessible in research institutions, on the internet, anywhere, that still is the foundation of those historic explorations.
For example, Anya’s project where she was looking at old baroque drawings and then in the places where the drawings were obliterated or damaged, putting cubes in those spaces, that project started me thinking about the issue of the loss of history with Asian jewelry and south Asian jewelry in particular. In India, you pass your gold on from generation to generation and people melt down gold. It becomes the family wealth in a way and we’ve even done this in our family where we got bangles, we didn’t like them anymore, we traded them in for the weight of the gold and bought bangles that were newer that we liked better. Where that kind of historic loss happened, I am not seeing any kind of conceptual exploration coming out from contemporary art jewelers in the United States. It makes me feel more and more like there are a lot of historic questions and a lot of space that has yet to be explored and thoroughly thought through. I’m not sure with the demographic composition of folks who are part of the art jewelry community, I’m not sure when and where that’s going to change in the United States.
Your last statement about the exploitation of history and lineage conceptually in the work, it really makes me think of how much I admire the fibers field because of a real engagement with its social history, with labor, and particularly gendered labor. As a field there are many, many fiber artists doing amazing work around those issues. There are those core issues at play in the jewelry field, like you point out, that are underengaged, I would say. Speaking partially as a maker myself, I try to activate some of those issues in my own work.
You make a really good point. In the fiber field, there was a broadening that happened, but I do think that one of the really negative repercussions of the whole political-correctness thing – that was the backlash from multi-culturalism – you went through some years where there was a hyper-sensitivity to borrowing without credit from other cultures. And even today I have funny conversations with people who say, ‘Oh well, you can’t do that kind of dyeing process in your work because that’s a Japanese process . . .’
The history of studio ceramics. Huge examples with Bernard Leach and Paul Soldner!
Ha! This is how it happens, you have to have cross-fertilization to have new things come out of it. That said, one positive thing is that there is this acknowledgement of multiple, rich histories, that there isn’t one singular history of the world, but there are multiple interconnected histories and ways of working and making. The positive thing is that it does make people more sensitive. The negative thing is that it shut down some experimentation at a moment when it could have been really fruitful. I’m waiting for that to kind of kick back in.
On this discussion of identity I will say that I’m looking forward to – this is going to come off like a plug but it’s really not meant to be – I wrote an article about counterculture imagery for Metalsmith magazine and I profiled the work of a few young makers who deal with things like third-wave feminism, racial identity and sexual identity and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the reaction is in the critical jewelry community about people actually engaging these issues in a new and hopefully smart way.
That’ll be interesting, very interesting. When I think about people like Arlene Fisch, and Nancy Worden and Kiff Slemons, they did wonderful work that was based on particular forms from other places in the world and they continue to do a fabulous job with clear personal vision. And that’s where I think some of our closing in happened. The 1960s were a wonderful time where everyone got to travel and the world was opening up on many levels. But we’ve closed back down again in some strange way. It’s curious to see where this is going to go.
My last question, is there anything that I didn’t ask that you would like to talk about?
One thing that I would like to have more conversation about and the AJF book is not necessarily the vehicle to do this, but I would like to see more conversation about broadening outside of our little sub-field. There are a lot of people who are in this particular part of making right now, working through jewelry and in jewelry and with jewelry and so forth, but because jewelry is so ubiquitous around the globe you walk around and people are adorning themselves in many, many ways . . . I feel like there is something about textiles where there’s been a way critically to engage textiles and fabric and clothing in this really interesting, rich way. We haven’t quite figured how to broaden the jewelry conversation in the same way. And it is a little bit different because clothing is a basic thing. Everybody needs to cover themselves for protection from the cold, the rain, the ice, heat, whatever. Human beings adorn themselves; they have adorned themselves for a long, long time. So what is it that we are missing in how we talk about jewelry that is not allowing jewelry to enter that kind of more broad dialogue that we see happening with textiles. It’s a very interesting question.
Thanks again for talking to me and to AJF.