A few weeks ago, Garth Clark wrote about his experiences at this year’s NCECA conference (“Is it Time for a Conference of the New?“). That commentary generated a lot of interest, and from no less a person than Josh Green, NCECA’s executive director. We’re reposting his response today and a re-response from Garth follows.
Thanks to you, Garth Clark, for participating in NCECA for many years. Your contributions to scholarship and discourse over time and your decision to be part of the 50th conference with CFile in Kansas City remain important to our organization and the field at large. We are appreciative that your review took the care to notice efforts at improvements in the conference’s management. We learn a good deal from feedback and have been working hard to apply it over the past several years.
As a member of NCECA, past Onsite Conference Liaison (a board volunteer role in support of Pittsburgh 2008), and now its executive director, I have had an opportunity to experience the organization and its efforts from a number of perspectives. Prior to joining NCECA in these roles, having spent the broadest expanse of my career in the culture of K-12 and community education, I have a sense of the value of interaction, relationship and accessibility that the NCECA conference can provide to a broad spectrum of people and their interests in clay and culture.
Many of the assessments of exhibitions in the review are close to my own. I was particularly impressed with the Convene show that Bruce Hartman put together at Nerman Contemporary, not only for the selection of artists, but also for the depth of insight embodied within the texts that resulted through pairing writers with artists. That said, museums as institutional environments embody constructs that are not welcoming to all. Their mode of display ought not be the only manner and standard we have for sharing ceramic art with the public. It’s also true that NCECA hopes to expand the group of those encountering ceramics as an aesthetic experience, even as we seek to deepen understanding of the art form and the people who toil within it. Across the Table, Across the Land, a project co-curated by Namita Wiggers and Michael Strand at the La Esquina Space of the Charlotte Street Foundation was but one such stand-out experience that enabled objects, voices of makers, and users of ceramics to be revealed with insight and unexpected charms.
CFile’s assessment of the conference, and exhibitions in particular, cite intelligence quotient(?) (one can’t be sure of the meaning behind the abbreviated IQ) as an essential lack in NCECA. The review’s rationale assumes that we agree with the proposition that the quality of intelligence operating in ceramic art is contingent upon where one is situated along a continuum between subjectivity and objectivity, with the latter perspective correlating to a higher value. Perhaps the time has come to consider putting this distinction to rest as shibboleth.
It’s not too surprising that CFile’s review found Liz Lerman’s keynote presentation to be a bore. Lerman’s notion of horizontality suggests a process to bring diverse perspectives and life experiences to bear within the stream of creative inquiry. This diverges from the worldview that places distanced vantage points as the essential prerequisite of critical expertise. Lerman argues that we are living, working and creating in a time when such hierarchical distinctions are losing traction. She favors the between spaces of words that begin with the prefix inter- (subjectivity, disciplinarity), and uses their transitive properties as lenses to bring the impact of creativity into focus. Her presentation sought to frame this concept by creating a context that encouraged the thousands assembled to talk with and listen to one another about their work. Rather than demand we direct our attention to the authoritative position of the lectern, she gave the gift and responsibility of that position to each of us. Many of us seek this interconnected critical experience in our own work, or have friends or students who seek it in and through us.
This is the core promise of NCECA passed down to us by its founders, and it’s not an easy one to live up to. It takes continual looking, learning, and listening. One aspect that contributes to the sense of improved management of the conference is related to systems employed to review proposals and to develop programming. Systems are by their nature are limiting, and perhaps these limits contribute to the perception that the spontaneity of past conferences has been superseded by a regulated tradeshow-like experience. A system that could encourage new and unexpected experiences while also generating the most thoughtful and rigorous program possible would be the ideal. Some experiences with creativity by their very nature should probably occur only once. Repetition might otherwise dull the freshness and vividness of our remembering.
To say that this conference lacked rigor and thoughtfulness is to dismiss the very fine and considered presentations I saw by people including Jenni Sorkin, Karen Atkinson, Ingrid Murphy, Klein-Reid, and Peter Pinnell, all of whom engage with ceramics from perspectives of scholarship, criticism, education, research and/or design that this review indicates were absent from this program. Admittedly, there was more than I could possibly experience in real time during the conference. Some of the criticism appearing in this review and the strand of commentary by those who admitted not attending the conference needs to be placed into perspective. It is as though a negative critique of a restaurant was based on one’s inability to sample the entire menu of offerings. We live in a big, complex world and are continually confronted with choices and decisions.
Many of us like to think about ceramics in the most lustrous and socially noble terms. We characterize it as the world’s most enduring art form; yet one role of an organization like NCECA is to destabilize the notion that it is immune to change. Many of us like to think about clay along with community: we envision ourselves as workers united under the idealistic banner of plasticity. It’s important for organizations like NCECA to remind us that communities must be perceived as permeable and mutable enough to welcome new people, perspectives, and ideas. Whatever forms the ceramic conferences of the future might take, one can hope that moving towards more exclusionary models as CFile’s review suggests is not the only way forward.
Josh Green is the executive director of NCECA.
I have immense respect for the order you have brought to NCECA’s management. Thanks too for explaining the meaning of Liz Lerman’s keynote address. You need not have bothered. I have deep roots in contemporary dance (I ran the board for the Bill T. Jones Arnie Zane Dance Company) and so Lerman’s books and views are well known to me. And it may come as surprise to you, but I have long supported the key tenets of her philosophy (albeit from other sources and from decades ago). But a keynote address is show business; it’s the skyrocket that launches the event. I felt that the talk itself, not the content, was average, not as powerful and inspiring as it could and should have been.
You have done well occasionally, Dave Hickey’s talk in Las Vegas (“What does art do? It builds community.”) is still etched in my mind. Theaster Gates in Madison (which I hear was a very tough sell) made the whole of the conference worthwhile. And finally the genius of Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art, and his talk on how Jackson Pollock painted, blending art and craft into a single experiential moment was exceptional and poignant, given his death shortly afterwards.
My argument with NCECA is its intellectual and scholarly passivity. Your policy of paying such a small stipend ($250 – $300) means that a speaker has to lay out about $2,000 to attend if they are not local and pay for the conference itself. The best speakers on aesthetics, history and criticism are not ceramics teachers, so they gain very few brownie points by attending NCECA. Bear in mind speaking is part of their income source. They do not have mugs and jugs to sell. They cannot enlist students for their courses. And we need them more than they need us.
Yes, you have an occasional outsider like the brilliant Linda Sormin but your policy means that you generally do not get the brightest and most objective voices. When an artist plays critic or theorist they are unavoidably made subjective by their own art, Marc Leuthold’s poor research and superficial presentation being a case in point. When they are part of an incestuous ceramics world they often cannot call out their colleagues for intellectual and aesthetic failures (with the exception of the fearless Léopold Foulem) without repercussions. Our community’s intimacy hobbles criticism.
Lastly, I find it strange that you see specialist conferences as “exclusionary.” I have experienced your halfhearted support of anything outside of the annual jamboree. The Ceramics Critical conference in Santa Fe turned out to be a great event, but NCECA would not pay for a video recording or a publication. Clearly NCECA thought that the information had no future value even though some of the top critics in the art and ceramics fields participated. And for a conference that costs more than $300 per delegate, to not even allow coffee to be served during breaks was shocking.
What you call exclusionary events are needed. I would prefer to call them specialty events, designed to reach out to new communities in the field. Ceramic creatives cover many disciplines, they drink from separate streams and the emerging sophistication does not surface in your annual event.
We need more people who are not part of the regular NCECA gang to be drawn in as participants in events, curators, writers, artists who not specialists. Yes, we need that and given that your organization is profitable, maybe you could spend some of your largess in helping that happen. It does not have to be under your umbrella but you could fund satellites.
I would not change much about the annual conference. It works for lowest common denominator programming, as it must. But can’t NCECA invest some of its resources in the edgier aspects of the field that students are now craving? Voices are rising for an alternative conference.
Garth Clark is Chief Editor of cfile.daily.
Do you agree or disagree with this commentary about contemporary ceramics? Let us know in the comments.