Tuesday December 22, 2009 | by intern

New “cottage craft” advocate Garth Clark ratchets up his criticism of “palace craft” and the America

FILED UNDER: Art Market, Events, News

Garth Clark at the ACC conference in October, delivering his "Palace and Cottage" lecture on the state of craft. photo:

With the recent shows in Miami still top of mind, the glass community might turn its attention once again to gallerist Garth Clark, whose remarks at the American Craft Council’s Minneapolis conference last October (just recently made available for listening online) emphasize a very different view of art-from-craft-media than what we recently saw at Art Basel Miami Beach and its satellite shows.

First, a quick recap: Regular readers of the Hot Sheet might recall that in a passionate 2008 speech, Clark argued for a clear distinction between art and craft, a separation that, in his view, became perilously muddled in the late 20th century. In his October 2008 lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Craft entitled “How Envy Killed the Craft Movement,” Clark contrasted the situation in crafts with that of the design world, which has enjoyed greater success as a result, in his view, of avoiding pretensions to being “art” and embracing its own nature and function. Crafters should do the same, he argued, and embrace the potential of their own techniques and materials to create objects that are ultimately important to society but are not the stuff of “art,” at least not according to his definition. (Note: Clark did acknowledge that a select few ceramicists are actually making art, but stressed that the vast majority are simply tacking on footnotes from art history textbooks to their artist statements to dress up work that is clearly craft).

In his follow-up presentation at this year’s ACC conference, entitled “Palace and Cottage,” Clark was just as brutally frank, disarmingly humorous, and (even more) harshly critical of the American Craft Council as elitist and painfully out-of-touch with the bulk of its constituents in a wide-ranging lecture that deserves a closer look.

This time around, Clark launched an attack against so-called “palace craft” and presented himself as an unabashed advocate of “cottage crafters,” a notable position to take for this particular ceramics dealer who is one of the few craft-media specific gallerists to have made it into the prestigious and, one might safely say, extremely elitist Art Dealers Association of America. Clark explains his newfound idealism in terms of an epiphany he had at the September 2009 Burning Man, where he saw the potential to make art in a non-commercial, highly social, and utopian way. This experience radically changed his outlook (he says he lost 10 pounds of cynicism) and transformed him, in his own words, into “a reformed art dealer.” Even the title of his presentation, which he had originally named “The Case for Conservatism” (the title that had been printed in the conference program) was apparently altered by his Burning Man transformation. In his introductory remarks, Clark warned the audience that he had changed the title of his talk, and would be delivering something between a “call to arms and a Molotov cocktail.”

“I believe in a craft nation,” Clark began, “in something vast, unquestionably real, and yet deeply mystical.” Exactly what Clark’s craft nation looks like is hard to say since his talk ranged from describing the anarchic exchange of free art at Burning Man, to government-subsidized apprenticeship programs in the crafts, to incorporating industrial process into craft practices to lower price points. What is abundantly clear is that Clark finds the state of craft today to be essentially in decay. For this state of affairs, Clark knows exactly whom to blame—the ACC—and for what: namely the overindulgences of the “Versailles period” of roughly 1980 through 1995. During this disastrous window of time (which, it must be noted, coincides with the 1981 founding of Garth Clark Gallery in Los Angeles, and his 1983 move to New York City, where for 25 years he personally had a major impact on encouraging the acceptance for art made from ceramics in the elite art world, and for which he deserves great credit), Clark laments the results of all this. The problem? Very high prices, “in glass particularly,” became de rigueur; the work became “pointlessly virtuosic;” and, to his eye, excess became the governing aesthetic in the 1980s and 90s.

If work in craft media has become too expensive, then are lower prices the solution? It is hard to square this point with an economic analysis that figured into his presentation. Clark focused part of his talk on a recent academic study of the economic impact of craft on the economy of Western North Carolina for the picture it painted of the average craftperson’s income (just above $24,000 per year). A more active ACC (and one that undertook economic research such as this), Clark said, would allow “cottage” crafters greater opportunities to support themselves and return “dignity, and even a little luster” to craft itself.

At the ACC conference, Clark offered a lecture that managed to be both quite polemical and yet offered several seemingly different points of view. Listening to the savage attacks on the ineffectiveness of the ACC as an organization, and Clark’s indictment of the elitism of the ACC board by revealing their private remarks to him, one was alternately amazed at the fearlessness of the ACC to subject itself to such harsh criticism by giving Clark such a prominent forum, and the bravery, if not audacity, of a speaker to so aggressively critique those who invited him to speak. In spite of the surprisingly harsh tone, Clark did offer some highly pointed criticism: The ACC needs to be more open to its rank-and-file crafters and not focus exclusively on the top tier, it needs to do more for its constituents than simply publish a magazine, and it should start a lobbying office in Washington to fight for craft’s share of stimulus money. Clark also questioned the teaching of crafts in universities, and wondered whether a different approach should be explored.

Toward the end of his remarks, Clark invoked the founder of the American Craft Council, Aileen Osborn Webb, and challenged the ACC to get back to her original vision for the organization, which in his view was supporting the crafts in America and, by implication, not advancing work in craft as fine art. However, this point seems hard to reconcile with Webb’s dedication to elevating the crafts through her support of American Craft magazine (founded as Craft Horizons) and building the Museum of Arts & Design (founded as the Museum of Contemporary Craft) practically across the street from the Museum of Modern Art in the heart of New York City.

If one were to equate the Miami shows with the “palace,” one could counter Clark’s argument that “palace craft is dead.” Palace craft is not dead; palace craft is art, by a very specific and current definition that seems to be surviving and expanding to include greater amounts of work in craft media. “Cottage craft,” as Clark defines it, remains both valuable and in need of greater support. ACC, Glass Art Society, and other craft media organizations, take note.

Analisa Coats Bacall and Andrew Page

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.