How Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson and Gaetano Pesce Have It Made

Glenn Adamson of the Museum of Arts & Design tells on getting homo sapiens back into the spirit of making.

Darroch Putnam

Set designers, painters, potters, fashion designers, gardeners, textile and wallpaper makers, print experts and a repairer of musical instruments – a motley crew you don’t normally see in a single exhibition.

But this is just what will happen at the New York Museum of Arts and Design’s “NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial,” which opens July 1. Works of 100 different “makers” will be on hand, including some by famous names like Laurie Anderson — musical instruments that she builds herself — Yoko Ono and architect Gaetano Pesce.

“The first and most important thing you learn is that New York is absolutely filled with makers. And that sounds like an obvious point, but because New York has a reputation as a city where you go shopping, and a city where there’s a lot of finance and other white-collar business, it certainly doesn’t have the reputation of a place where we have industry or manufacture,” says Glenn Adamson, the curator of the exhibition, who took over as the museum’s director last September.

“If you broaden the conception of what counts as manufacture to include the set builders of the Metropolitan Opera, who are absolutely amazing, then you realize that the city is full of makers and also that most of the important things about the city would close down tomorrow if you didn’t have the makers.”

The term “makers” signifies a change in the museum’s outlook; a transition from “craft” to “making.” The new terminology has been embraced by the media and the museum world. For example, in 2011, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London staged an exhibition entitled “The Power of Making,” curated by Daniel Charny.

The show addressed the growing distance between homo sapiens and basic workmanship skills, and what the loss of such skills bodes for the future. It included 105 different objects, whose selection was based on two questions: 1) How do you make this? 2) How good are you at this? Technique and skill, in other words.

Somebody who's creating an environment

Last year, the London Design Museum staged its “In the Making” exhibit on the production process of a variety of everyday objects before they leave the factory. Twenty-four objects were presented at different stages of production, giving viewers a chance to appreciate how they are made and what they are made from.

Heidi Lee's Parasol Skeleton Hat in Black at the 'NYC Makers' exhibit opening July 1, 2014. Photo by Marcelo Krasilcic

“I think that’s a broad category, but when you think about it it’s no more broad than art or design. Those are very broad categories also, and we have a very good museum that looks at design — the Cooper Hewitt — and we have a very good museum that’s exactly our size — the New Museum — that looks at contemporary art,” Adamson says.

“We’re the museum of our size that looks at making. In terms of drawing the line around it, I’d say physical making, so not poetry, and not even necessarily performance in the sense of athletics or musicians, but somebody who’s creating an environment physically or with physical skills.”

According to Adamson, there are therefore many borderline cases, but there’s a “big obvious center.”

“For me, the really important thing is to focus on people who are testing their skills against raw materials using tools, and often inventing tools, inventing materials, so it’s about skill, and innovation, and creativity, and the actual process of making,” he says.

The look at Brooklyn's Kings County Distillery. Photo by Valery Rizzo

"And the other thing that’s really key to me is that visitors, the general public, have a huge interest in watching things be made by somebody who has incredible skill. They look at an object through new eyes, and they’re more intelligent in their appreciation for the object.”

About a month ago, Adamson was in Israel to attend a conference on craft in material culture in memory of Prof. Ami Drach, held by the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and the Benyamini Contemporary Ceramics Center. Adamson, 41, is a leading theoretician in crafts.

Born and raised in Boston, he earned a doctorate in art history from Yale in 2001. He became director of the Museum of Arts and Design after eight years heading the research department at the Victoria and Albert Museum. During that time, he also curated exhibitions, including the acclaimed “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990” in 2011.

Not necessarily a craft movement

Adamson views his new role as continuing the tradition of the 56-year-old institution while leading it on a new path. “The way that I think about this is that the museum has gone through three phases already. The first phase was when it was the central institution for the studio craft movement in America. And that’s mostly ceramics, furniture, woodworking, textiles, metal and glass,” says Adamson.

Misha Kahn's Geometrics, Figures and Solids Table at the 'NYC Makers' exhibit opening July 1, 2014. Photo by Clemens Kois

“From the 1980s to the present you have a second phase where the museum looks more broadly beyond the craft movement and ultimately changes its name to imply that breadth. And that change is about looking at process and materials as they are important in art and design. And what I want to do now in what you could say is the third phase is refocus the museum’s activities on the act of making, but without necessarily framing that in terms of a craft movement.”

Would you say that “making” is something the museum is creating or reflecting?

“We inhabit a post-disciplinary environment. In other words, categories of production that used to seem very stable are now very interesting to people mainly as reference points rather than as identifications.

Fredericks and Mae brooms at the 'NYC Makers' exhibit opening July 1, 2014. Photo by Darroch Putnam

“So, for example, you might have a choreographer who also is in architecture and makes films and paintings, and so they are a choreographer maybe in their core business, but they also work in these other areas. So for me the word ‘making’ really does accurately describe the way people are thinking right now because they have that movement in their practice.”

As museum director, what’s important to you in putting together an exhibition? How do you decide what to present?

“In terms of the content for us, obviously the idea of looking at making in some intensive way, and I’m also interested in the idea of an egalitarian museum. The thought experiment I like to use is: What if you have a museum where the artist and the fabricator who makes the sculpture of the artist and the crate maker who helped the artist ship the work were all treated on a level playing field because they were all skilled makers of a different kind?

“Because we all know that typically the artist is more high-status than the fabricator who’s more high-status than the crate maker. At MAD it would be nice to think that we could treat them all with respect.”

Misha Kahn's Cactus Heels at the 'NYC Makers' exhibit opening July 1, 2014. Photo by Misha Kahn

Then what exactly is the difference between an art and design exhibit, and a making exhibit?

“I think what I would say is that if art exhibitions make you feel and design exhibitions, maybe you learn something. I think an exhibition about making makes you curious to try — that’s the most important thing. It’s motivating. It inspires you to participate. That would be the best outcome.

“I think that makes it very different from a lot of museums in that most museums are somewhat passive and you stand in an implied critical relationship, and even an exhibit which invites you to touch or interact already does this. I think a museum exhibition about making is like an invitation. I think that’s different, really different.”

David Bachar