Arts and Crafts jewelry and art is unusual because it’s one of the few styles where pieces can look nothing alike. Nonie Gadsden, the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, explains why on the latest episode of the Jewelry Journey podcast. She shares the history of MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing and what curators like her do every day. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, my guest is Nonie Gadsden, the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She has been co-curator of several exhibits at the MFA, including the current exhibit, “Boston Made: Arts and Crafts Jewelry and Metalwork.” In addition, she is the author of the upcoming publication on American modern design, “America Goes Modern, 1920-1945.” Today, we’re going to be focusing on the Arts and Crafts movement but looking at it from a broader perspective than just art or decorative arts. Nonie, welcome to the program.
Nonie: Thank you so much for having me.
Sharon: Glad to have you. You have a position at the Boston MFA that seems like it wouldn’t be work at all, but a dream job to a lot of people. Can you tell us about your career path and what you studied? Did you always want to work in a museum? How did you end up here?
Nonie: Great twists of fate brought me to where I am now. I did not always want to work in a museum. In fact, my mother dragged me and my siblings to museums all the time as children and we thought it was horrible. She constantly reminds me of that, by the way, but I got interested in studying history and culture and looking at other ways of learning about history by studying art, by studying music, by studying literature. I became an American Studies major as an undergraduate at Yale University. I was extraordinarily lucky to be at Yale because they have a pretty rare collection of American decorative arts. I stumbled into that and suddenly, all of my interests came together under the rubric of studying objects to learn more about history. I would say I’m really a social historian that’s masking as an art historian. I like what the objects can tell us about people, about time periods, why major decisions were made the way they were and help us understand the society a little bit more.
Sharon: That’s really interesting that you don’t bill yourself as an art historian, but that it’s more looking at the sociology, the culture around it, just like when you study jewelry history. The jewelry’s interesting, but the history around it really tells its own story.
Nonie: Absolutely. I think museums definitely have a strong bent in social history, but that is the root of where I come from and where my interests lie. Obviously, I have an art historical side or I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, but I really tend towards the stories.
Sharon: Did you come to the MFA right away?
Nonie: I graduated from Yale and then worked for a year for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. Then I went back to get a graduate degree at the Winterthur Museum, the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, which is linked with the University of Delaware. That’s a specialty program that focuses on studying early American decorative arts, and I had the good fortune of going to Winterthur for two years and getting free rein over their collection and having the real hands-on experience that you need to become curator of this material. You have to be able to hold it. You can’t just look at it. It was used; it was functional. You need to be able to get your hands on it yourself to truly understand the works. So that was an amazing opportunity.
From there, I went out to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I was a Fellow at the Chipstone Foundation, which is a private foundation that studies early American furniture. I was helping them start a relationship, or restart a relationship, with the Milwaukee Art Museum. That was a great opportunity to be involved in planning a 15-gallery installation that we unveiled in 2001. While I was in Milwaukee, I became the curator of the Milwaukee Art Museum, which has a wonderful collection of Arts and Crafts material and modern design.
From there, I got the opportunity to come here to Boston, and what really attracted me was that Boston was embarking on building a new wing for the Art of the Americas: North, Central and South America. This massive new wing would have 53 galleries dedicated to the art that I love, so who in their right mind, if they are able to, wouldn’t pick up their life and move to be part of that? I opened the Art of the Americas Wing in November of 2010. It’s hard for me to believe that that’s almost nine years ago, but it was a wonderful opportunity with such an amazing collection behind it as well.
Sharon: From what I understand, that was a newer philosophy or newer perspective, in terms of having Central and South and North America all under the same rubric.
Nonie: Yes, we’re one of the few institutions that are still doing this. A few more are starting to do that. I would say that the L.A. County Museum of Art, LACMA, studies North, Central and South as well, but it’s really a hallmark. What we’re able to do is show the effects of colonization on indigenous cultures and the wonderful things that come out of that, and also point to the negative things that come out of that. Showing how European colonization so drastically differed between North, Central and South America has been really intriguing and has expanded my knowledge. I have wonderful colleagues who focus on that material that I’m learning from as well.
Sharon: That sounds very interesting. We could probably have a couple of hours of discussion on the things you talked about, in terms of how things differed and the impact they had, the colonization depending on where you were. I’m being sarcastic in a sense, but what a concept, that it would all be under one roof, showing 360 degrees, as opposed to just, “O.K., here’s North America, here’s South America.”
Nonie: I would say that our collection is as much an ambition in the concept as it is a reality. Our collection is heavily weighted towards North America, particularly the United States and the history of the United States, but we have a desire and are steadily growing our amazing collections of Spanish colonial art. We have a fabulous collection of ancient Americas of Central and South America and Native American art; we’re growing that collection as well, native North American. In some ways, we are putting out the ambition and now we’re trying to make good on that promise.
Sharon: Sounds very exciting. I’ll have to walk through some of those wings. I’ll spend more time next time. You mentioned that part of being a good curator is that you have to know how to hold these objects. What does a curator do, because there’s a lot of mystery around that?
Nonie: I think there’s a lot of mystery because everyone’s role is different. Every curator shapes their role and every institution has their role for a curator, but in general, what curators do is take care of a particular collection. By take care, I mean everything from the physical well-being of the object to researching the object and publishing that research or showing it in exhibitions. We create exhibitions. We create our permanent displays. We’re responsible for keeping up with the current research and getting to know others in the field who are studying the material or collecting the material. We are responsible for adding objects to the collection through gifts or purchases, mostly gifts. We work with our colleagues throughout the building, depending on what size institution you have, on various things such as programming and exhibitions and so forth. It can be a very wide-ranging job, and one of the things I love about it is that it’s pretty much different every single day. I’m constantly learning, and I love that about being a curator.
Sharon: It sounds great, the constant learning. That can happen anywhere, but it sounds like that would be the milieu for it. Also, the fact that you’re keeping up with the new discoveries new—
Nonie: I’m trying to.
Sharon: Tell me a little bit, because what really intrigued me when I heard you talk about the Arts and Crafts movement, which I usually think of as being, “O.K., that’s Arts and Crafts jewelry, or that’s an Arts and Crafts vase,” but you were saying that it’s really a philosophy; it was a way of life. Can you tell us what you mean by that, and how that came about and how it impacted people? Did people really try and live their lives based on this?
Nonie: The Arts and Crafts movement can be very confusing to people because you can see different objects that people call Arts and Crafts, but they don’t look anything like each other. That’s because, as you said, the Arts and Crafts movement wasn’t a specific artistic style. It’s more a philosophy about a way of life in which art played an integral role. What I mean by that is that the people behind it were looking more at society at large and looking at the effects of industrialization during the 19th century and the dehumanizing effects of machine production and mass production. They linked the arts that you surround yourself with, or that you make, with the rest of life. To them, living and producing useful and beautiful art was a crucial element for living a happy and fulfilled life. This was a way of transforming the effects of industrialization.
When you think about it, it’s a massive change, and we are in a similar time period now with the massive effects of the internet on communication and technology, and you’ll see that people go back to handcraftsmanship. People go back to nature and look to a more—this is more a nostalgic view—simple life, where you focus on the objects, the handmade, the things around you and getting joy from the work in creating them or joy from using them, because they’re so beautiful. In some ways, with the artisan movements of nowadays to Etsy and all the homemade phenomena of the art movement, there’s some resonance to this time as there was over a hundred years ago.
Officially, the Arts and Crafts movement started in England with figures. The most famous figures of the British Arts and Crafts movement are John Ruskin and William Morris, but all of whom were philosophers and artists who had strong beliefs about art and life together. This movement spread throughout the globe and came to the United States and really coalesced into a strong movement in the 1890s. The first Society of Arts and Crafts in the United States, which was an exhibition society for artists to be able to show and sell their wares, was founded in 1897 here in Boston. Boston really became the hub of this Arts and Crafts philosophy and this concept, but as this philosophy spread across the world, different countries and regions took what they needed. They picked and chose from the various aspects of the Arts and Crafts tenets and philosophies and emphasized some more than others, based on what needs their communities had. As some European countries struggled to build a national identity, they emphasized the Arts and Crafts idea of looking to the past to revive local folk cultures as a way to unify the country. Here in the United States, there were different interpretations, depending on the region in the United States you were in. The Arts and Crafts movement encourages you to look at your local landscape and respond. Your artwork should be melded and harmonized with the local landscape.
One of the American or U.S. styles of the Arts and Crafts movement is the Prairie School, best known by Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. The Prairie School architects and designers and so forth focused on this low, horizontal prairie and a lot of indoor/outdoor mix of living, and you see that in the designs. That’s why you start seeing these different styles come up, because each different region is taking what aspects and what interpretations of Arts and Crafts philosophies work best for their particular community.
Sharon: So it’s not so much that they were trying to create something in a certain style. I’m thinking of what I consider typical Arts and Crafts pieces of jewelry or vases. It’s not that they were creating them to look like something; it was more that they were creating them handmade to have that beauty around them, and it happened to fall into this timeframe or place.
Nonie: What they cared about was how the objects were made, the intentions of the artist, the conditions under which the artist was working, that the artist was the designer and the maker rather than what was happening in the manufacturing world at the time, where the designer was completely different from the person who was making it. It was that concept of how the objects were made that was the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts style than the actual look of the objects themselves.
Sharon: I’m presuming that at this time, somebody who’s handmaking something is also the designer, in terms of they have a concept in their head.
Nonie: Yes, going back to that. That had been pushed out of a lot of the artistic community because as companies, such as silver manufacturing companies, got bigger and bigger, they specialized. One group of people did the designs; another group of people did a certain aspect of the creation, maybe the raising of a pot or the creation of a jewel setting; and then another person would do a decorative touch or enameling or another aspect to it. This is recombining all of that into one person. The Arts and Crafts movement, to be perfectly honest, was never financially successful because it was trying to fight against this mass-produced, more efficient commercial world, but it was more about an ideal of a way of living and a way of making that the Arts and Crafts movement was featured around. It was a bohemian lifestyle of the era.
Sharon: Did they call themselves Arts and Crafts? Did they know they were a part of this or what this was named after?
Nonie: Yes, very self-consciously. The British were the first to use the term Arts and Crafts movement, so the Americans were self-consciously using that as well.
Sharon: That’s very interesting. That makes a lot of sense on why there’s such a variety of styles, because it’s just, as you’re saying, how it was made, the fact that it was the designer—it was one person’s hand in a sense.
Nonie: It’s awfully confusing because there are exceptions to every rule you make, Louis Comfort Tiffany being a good example of that. He designed jewelry but did not make the jewelry. Some people call some of his work Arts and Crafts; others would call it Art Nouveau, but there are exceptions to everything.
Sharon: Art Nouveau because it wasn’t Arts and Crafts, because it wasn’t made by one person, or because—
Nonie: Louis Comfort Tiffany was very fluid across multiple styles and these styles all existed at the same time. It’s only in retrospect that we’re putting these strict divisions between them. Many artists, including the artists working in jewelry here in Boston that we feature in our exhibition, “Boston Made,” worked back and forth between Art Nouveau styles and Arts and Crafts styles. There wasn’t a strict line between the two.
Sharon: About when did it start in Great Britain? When did it start there, like 1870?
Nonie: They started formulating ideas in the 60s and 70s, and they took the term Arts and Crafts in 1888, I believe, when the society was formed.
Sharon: Most of the things in “Boston Made,” which is a fabulous exhibit, they were between 1900 and 1920, would you say?
Nonie: The timeline that we framed this exhibition around was from the founding of the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston, so 1897 until the market crash in 1929, but that’s the era that we put ourselves into. The Arts and Crafts Movement lingered for a very long time, particularly in New England, where it had taken a strong hold. In many regions, the Arts and Crafts were really on the outs by World War I, but in New England, in certain communities, it lingered for quite some time.
Sharon: Why was that?
Nonie: For multiple reasons. I think Bostonians had particularly gravitated to the philosophy, and all of Boston’s educational institutions had promoted this through education, through the arts institutions and so forth. Bostonians continued to hold onto this in a way where other areas of the country, say Chicago, New York and so forth, moved on more quickly.
Sharon: I was surprised that you would say the Prairie School was part of it. It makes sense when you talk about the low, horizontal aspect, but to me, I think of the Prairie School as being more 1930s.
Nonie: Oh no, the Prairie School started in the late 1890s. Frank Lloyd Wright was working in 1899, 1900 when he started. It has a much more modern feel than what you’re seeing coming out of the Boston area, but it is an Arts and Crafts interpretation that’s developed in a very different way. Many say that it stood as a protomodern, you could say, that it was looking towards what was coming.
Sharon: Interesting. That’s earlier than I thought. When was Fallingwater?
Nonie: I don’t know the exact date of Fallingwater, but Frank Lloyd Wright’s career lasted until the 50s and maybe even into the 60s.
Sharon: I know it was a very, very long career.
Nonie: It was a very long career. He went through multiple different worlds, but his original start of his career, where he built his original reputation, was in the Prairie Style, and would be focused on in the 1900s, 10s and 20s.
Sharon: That’s very interesting. Thank you so much for talking us through this. It really is very illuminating and makes me think. I know when I look at a piece of jewelry, I’ll be thinking in a broader sense. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain it to us today. To everybody listening, we’ll have Nonie’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com.
This wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of arts and jewelry. Thank you very much for listening.
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