If you are planning on giving work or money to the Ceramics Research Center at Arizona State University, our advice is don’t. Not yet. Unsettling developments at ASU question whether the center has a future. Let us begin with the unacceptable manner in which it director Garth Johnson was terminated. He took over from Peter Held who established the center and created an exceptional collection and programs to which Johnson has added to.
Johnson is a widely-known beloved figure in ceramics, gracious, generous, gentle, the consummate professional and smart as whip. He is one of the accessible and sophisticated voices in the field, a rare pairing. When I was present at Ceram-A-Rama, the CRC’s annual biennial fundraiser. The affection and the respect with which he was held (could I say “love”) was palpable at every level from the CRC’s sponsors to the students.
Now enter Miki Garcia the former Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara who is the new director of the ASU Art Museum, which serves as the umbrella institution for the CRC.
A few weeks after my visit Johnson had just completed a talk and was chatting with students, supporters and also taking care of a visiting curator gallery talk with the three curators of ASU’s The Good Making of Good Things: Craft Horizons 1942-1979. With several dozen patrons and students in attendance, Miki Garcia arrived, asked him to step aside, told him that his contract with ASU had been terminated forthwith and that the security guard / human resources staffer accompanying her would go with him to his office where he could gather any personal items and he was then escorted off the University premises, leaving his guests confused and perplexed.
Johnson had done an exceptional job for the Center. Was this the most gracious manner that ASU could deal with an exit? It was handled more in the spirit of ICE than saying goodbye to a dedicated director. Wasn’t there any opportunity to honor what he had done and bid him goodbye instead of this overnight disappearance that left the CRC support team bewildered ?
In the four months that he worked under Garcia, Johnson only had a single brief one-on-one meeting with her that reportedly consisted of a series of pro-forma questions that were asked of each of the staff members.
It is not entirely a surprise. Overall the University karma has become more and more corporate and inhuman, a form of bureaucratic brutality. And there was a telltale sign before Johnson’s ouster. At a fundraiser I met Garcia and she was, well, icy. There has been a lot of chatter about the museum burying the “Craft Horizons” exhibition, co-curated by Meghan Roddy, Lily Kane and Elizabeth Essner—three design-world curators with a very fresh perspective on the CRC’s collection. In particular Meghan Roddy is the Vice-President for Design at Philips auction house who was responsible for the huge Voulkos result and the recent auction, the most sophisticated attempt yet to upgrade ceramics auctions. See our post on her event. It was unconscionable that ASU buried such a terrific show.
Now this does not mean that CRC itself is on the chopping block but it does feel that way. Since Johnson’s termination in March, barely a peep has been heard from the Ceramics Center. In October, the ASU Art Museum convened a group of experts including Namita Wiggers, Jeffrey Spahn, Peter Held and Jenni Sorkin to mull over the future of the CRC. It, despite the convening being open to the public, received little publicity (one Facebook mention), virtually no one in the broader ceramic community knew of it (including in Phoenix and Tempe) and no press or announcement since from Garcia.
Following the symposium, ASU quietly put up the job posting for Johnson’s replacement, rebranding it as “Curator of Contemporary Craft and Ceramics”. The vaguely worded job posting, unduly rushed with a November 23 deadline, which could either be a way of reinventing the center or else one of those government style commissions that appear to be even handed while slipping in the knife? Either way it would be foolish to support the CRC in any way until Garcia has given a clear indication of its fate.
Her goals are ambitious, no less than completely changing the nature of the museum today (good luck on that,) but she also stated that she “wants to teach the community to value art through community engagement and having important conversations.” Johnson did a remarkable job of this but then maybe she does not consider a ceramic conversation important. If so a little reeducation might be called for as ceramics continues to excite and its importance is ever rising in the fine arts world.
Johnson has moved on…not to mention up. He recently accepted a position as the Paul Phillips and Sharon Sullivan curator of ceramics. He is now chief curator for ceramics at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, charged with reviving what was once their dominant position modern and contemporary ceramics.
He has joined at an important moment; the museum is celebrating its 50th year as it gears for a come-back. Given his leadership skills, energy and vision, the Everson is now the best place to give support if you want to a ceramics institution with deep historical roots in the modern movement that can become a springboard for a more dynamic contemporary presence.
The Everson’s powerhouse director Elizabeth Dunbar has shown her support for the museum’s ceramics collection by permanently endowing Johnson’s position via a nearly $5M gift by Syracuse benefactors Dr. Paul Phillips and Sharon Sullivan. This gift is the cornerstone of the Everson’s $17M First and Forever capital campaign, which will also increase the museum’s general fund and help continue the renovations for their acclaimed I.M. Pei-designed building (the architect I.M. Pei attended celebrations).
Let me add that this post has not been initiated by Garth Johnson. His only input has been to check a few points in my writing for factual errors. And again, I reiterate, we suggest withholding support of CRC until Miki Garcia convinces us she is on board with CRC for the long term.