The wait is over. After months of collectively holding its breath, the art world woke up earlier this week to the news that Glenn Adamson, head of research at London’s august Victoria and Albert Museum, is the new director of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. Perhaps summarizing the skepticism many feel about this appointment, Robin Pogrebin led off the announcement in the New York Times with the following:
The Museum of Arts and Design has named Glenn Adamson as its director, choosing a researcher without the typical executive experience who has been one of the museum’s most scathing critics.
Well, yes, on all counts. Dr. Adamson is a 41-year-old professional art historian whose resume does not, to put it kindly, show the type of fundraising and board experience one would expect the board of a major New York City museum to expect in a CEO. As for the ‘scathing criticism:’ No sh*t. I remember well the stunned looks around the office on the day Dr. Adamson’s review of The Global Africa Project came out (whoops; I forgot to mention that MAD was my employer, and my spiritual home, for a good eight years). Dr. Adamson concluded his meticulously crafted (sorry, couldn’t resist) excoriation of MAD’s name change (from ‘American Craft Museum’) with this: ‘Having abandoned its former raison d’être [‘craft’], the museum has little more than indiscrimination to call its own.’ Aside from the pat snarkiness (and his own statement about craft, made less than a year later, that ‘that sense of operating from a category or from a disciplinary basis has essentially gone away’*), it’s too bad that Dr. Adamson chose to hijack a review of a pretty important show with an ex post facto discussion of an event nine years prior. Besides that, I don’t think that beating out Donald Trump for the right to develop a site designated by New York City’s Economic Development Corporation as critical to the revitalization of Columbus Circle and the Upper West Side would have been possible for a cultural institution with ‘little more than indiscrimination to call its own.’ But what do I know? I haven’t really spent any time in academia since I graduated from Yale thirty years ago.
But I digress (equally snarkily, and possibly unfairly). Let us discuss Dr. Adamson’s appointment on its own merits and using his own words. Two things in particular bother me: One, Dr. Adamson’s very first tweet after he was appointed, which referenced ‘Craftsmanship in a Changing World,’ the title of MAD’s 1956 inaugural show, and second, a quote from an interview conducted with him on the day the Times learned of his appointment. As to the first: Sorry, Dr. Adamson; the reverence you displayed for the past didn’t imply continuity so much as stagnation. As to the second: In his interview with Robin Pogrebin, ‘Dr. Adamson said that he would like to see the museum “put greater emphasis on the core mission,” that is, “making.”’ Well. I spent years in and around the offices, galleries, artist studios, theater, retail store, education center, elevators, stairwells, sidewalks, neighborhood, and greater community of MAD, and I can tell you uncategorically that not once in those years did I ever see anything that would cause me to question the museum’s commitment to making. Nor did I question the museum’s commitment to, more importantly, the community of makers it represented and the field they were re-imagining. The Oxford Dictionaries, to which I am partial, define ‘make’ as ‘form (something) by putting parts together or combining substances; construct; create…’ During the years that I was privileged to be a part of MAD, we spent every day putting disparate parts of art, design, and allied fields together to form a new field of study and practice whose identity was so fluid that, for lack of a better term, we called it, for a time, ‘the blur zone.’ Indeed, the very act of creating 2 Columbus Circle—a building faced by 22,000 ceramic tiles glazed individually by the artists of Royal Tichelaar Makkum and (as former director Holly Hotchner was fond of pointing out) the largest object in MAD’s not inconsiderable collection—was itself an aggressive act of making and a statement that here, at last, was a place for practitioners of yes, Dr. Adamson, all the arts, and design too. Speaking theoretically about the practice of making is all very well, but perhaps it’s hard for someone whose entire life has been spent in the rigorous pursuit of academic justification for the existence of art to understand that the actual act involves constant change and struggle and abandonment of tropes when they no longer serve a field that is messy, exciting, and putty in the hands of the many artists and designers who control its future. Dr. Adamson’s statement—so dry, so certain, so academically sound—sounds like a funeral bell for the best museum I’ve ever known: A museum in which nothing was perfect, everything worked, and the greatest review of any exhibition came from Assemblymember David Weprin’s then-small son, who said of a particularly important ceramic piece, “That looks weird! I could do that!”
What I fear most about Dr. Adamson’s appointment is not that he has no vision for MAD, but that he has a very particular one—one that will return this vibrant, thriving place of artistic revolution to the dusty days of obscure wall text written of the scholars, by the scholars, for the scholars. Holly Hotchner’s vision for MAD—a place for people to do things that mattered without regard either for conventionally perceived boundaries or historically assumed limitations of materials and/or process—was crazy, sure, but it worked. It worked mostly because we all, each of us in the MAD community, spent our days advocating not for making, but for makers. Of the tens of thousands of people who thronged MAD on its opening weekend five years ago this month, those I remember most were the artists who wept openly at the elegance and determination of purpose displayed within and by the building that contained not only the products of their labors but, equally importantly, their fiercest advocates. Were I to hear Dr. Adamson sound excited about people, I’d be celebrating. Instead, I hear him sounding excited about an idea whose shape and construct has already transcended the form he has given it—and that does not bode well for a museum just five years old in its current incarnation. I hope, when Dr. Adamson gets to MAD next month, that he conducts an extensive listening tour around the museum and around its community. He might just find that MAD is already putting the greatest emphasis possible on its core mission, and that—as MAD has so elegantly done for the past ten years—he should look to the future, and not to the past, for his direction.
*Interview with Glenn Adamson at the Lamar Dodd School of Art during the week of April 10, 2012.