Makers: The MAD Biennial (New York, July 1 – October 12, 2014) is Glenn Adamson’s first outing as the new director of the Museum of Arts and Design in NYC. He did not curate the biennial; that was the role of Jake Yuzna, MAD’s director of public programs. But Adamson did oversee the event and his enthusiastic interview-blitz in the last few weeks suggests that it contains his core beliefs about the future of MAD.
When the event was announced, a blogger at Artlog asked if this would finally reveal whether MAD “is a craft museum, contemporary art museum, jewelry shop or the set of Antiques Roadshow?” The blogger reflected overall bemusement at MAD’s enigmatic programming and mission. Alas, Makers created more fog than clarity.
The biennial has made the identity crisis worse. It purports to celebrate making but only trivializes it. It seeks to be egalitarian, but much of the press is focused on the presence of Yoko Ono and a sprinkling of other art glitterati. Their presence trivializes the real makers.
The installation is in a museum too small to host 100 makers. Objects are put in cheek-by-jowl proximity with about as much sympathy for each as feral cats. The disparity of quality, both in making and in creating, is distressing. This was done on a budget too small for the grandiosity of the project and it feels cheap, like a street fair. Lastly, this large project was rushed into life in less than a year.
In her New York Times review Roberta Smith correctly described Makers as a “belly flop, inchoate, messy” and bemoaned the fact it has almost no substance. In closing her paragraph, always the one to watch (it’s where she keeps her scorpion skill), she suggests it’s worth seeing but wishes it had never been born.
The failure is not surprising. It’s the child of a committee. One hundred movers and shakers nominated a mob of 400 makers. Then a committee of ten representing all the boroughs along with Adamson, Yuzna and Lowery Stokes Sims, the museum’s chief curator, cut that number down to 100. This is not curating. It is herding.
Adamson is a great critic of contemporary objects, maybe the best, but the exhibition does not reflect on any of his gifts. There is no meaningful conceptual basis to the show. A generalized, unframed notion of “making” (which includes everything from a shipping crate to a print that only shows its content on a cell phone) is too amorphous, it’s barely a notion. Maybe the scholarship can be found in the catalog, but it is not evident on the floor. The contextual material is too meager and the presentation is tawdry.
The major error was to declare this a biennial. In New York that term belongs to one institution only, the Whitney Museum. Entering their territory could only be justified by a superb event and that was not delivered. What compounds the error is that the Whitney’s 2013-2014 edition, which closed earlier this year, was widely dubbed the “craft biennial” because of its strong emphasis on making and material. Following on after that event was foolhardy.
The inclusion of MAD in the title makes things worse. What is a “MAD Biennial?” MAD is not a beloved tag in the arts community and it is constantly derided in the press. Its associations are madcap, crazy and insane. The word has the amazing effect of dissolving the gravitas of any word that follows it. MAD says that the show is less an exhibition than a festival. Then why not use that term instead of biennial? It would have been a happier pairing.
Adamson at least seems happy with what he has wrought. He has done numerous interviews recently with his Blouin Art Info interview and Designo interview among others to talk about making and skill. They are wordy, complex and difficult to understand.
It now seems (I really am as confused as anyone) from his Art Info interview that MAD is again going to be a craft museum and that design is largely out. He practically never uses the “D” word and has (all too readily) ceded that discipline to the Cooper-Hewitt, even though the City desperately needs a good design museum. And of all the potential constituencies for MAD, design is the only one with deep pockets. I can see 60% design funding and 40% craft but not the other way around.
Also Adamson gets a tad moralizing, talking about skill and unsung makers in a way that sounds depressingly like the old class war of art vs. craft. Pointing to Jeff Koons (whose retrospective is at the Whitney Museum and is drawing surprisingly good reviews) as the evil king is impolitic for a new kid on the block. Furthermore, at some point he will have to go to those who enthroned Koons for funding. New York is small town when it comes to art money.
But perhaps the worst moment, and least believable was in Designo and his attempt to resurrect “Arts and Design” as a virtue when he was one of the first, and rightly so, to deride its sleazy meaninglessness. It was a bizarre explanation which involved drawing the letter “T.”
There is a disturbing sense that Adamson is reinventing his ideas from one interview to another. Each article seems like another opportunity for him to engage in an intellectual debate. But that is not his role anymore. As director he needs to be able to lay down the museum mission and program in two paragraphs with little deviation. It is how communication works. With exposure the repetition begins to create clarity. But maybe those two paragraphs are still being formed. Nonetheless, my bet is that Adamson will, with a few more bumps, still pull it off.
This moment is a remarkable paradox. The man who once very loudly declared his departure from craft has returned as a born again evangelist, proselytizing about skill and making as MAD’s path to salvation. He will be doing this from a museum that not only tore craft from its name but also did serious damage to its credibility, setting off a panic with several groups jettisoning the term.
Now, he has demoted design to the back burner. But that word is in MAD’s name. Confused? How can anyone expect a clear identity from the “Mad Museum” (which is the media’s favorite way of describing it) without a change of name that states its purpose and reclaims its dignity? Suggestions anyone?
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above images: Installation views of NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial, Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), New York. Photographs by Jake Naughton of the New York Times.
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