Like jewelry, the decorative arts can tell us a lot about the culture of the time period in which objects were made. According to Matthew Thurlow, Executive Director of The Decorative Arts Trust, it’s more important than ever that we listen to the stories these pieces hold. He joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about the value of decorative arts, why “crafts” is not a dirty word and how listeners can join one of the study tours offered by The Decorative Arts Trust. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today our guest is Matthew Thurlow, Executive Director of The Decorative Arts Trust, a non-profit national membership organization that promotes and fosters the appreciation and study of the decorative arts. He’ll be telling us more about this very interesting organization today.
Just by way of background, I learned about The Decorative Arts Trust when I was attending one of the conferences put on by Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts. Decorative arts is an art related to jewelry, and it’s just one of the reasons I’m happy to have Matt here today. Matt, thanks so much for being here.
Matthew: Thank you for this invitation and opportunity, Sharon. I’m happy to help.
Sharon: It’s great to have you. You have extensive experience in education in the decorative arts. Can you tell us about your journey in this field and when you became interested? Was it when you were young? What did you want to do in terms of studying, and what were your career goals?
Matthew: Well, my tie to the decorative arts originates with a passion for American history, which I developed at a very young age. Like many children, my parents brought me to Colonial Williamsburg when I was in elementary school, and I quickly developed a very deep interest and an excitement for American history and the way that places such as Williamsburg can convey information about the past. That led me through a circuitous academic route in college to study archaeology. I wanted to study history and culture in a way that differed from the more traditional historians’ route, which relies solely on documentary evidence to recreate the past. I studied American archaeology as an undergraduate and then into graduate school, and the connection between archaeology and the decorative arts is quite strong. They are very similar disciplines. On one hand, the archaeologist tries to create a narrative from a handful of objects, often partial remains of the material life of an earlier settlement or people, whereas the museum curator has the pleasure of working with a whole item of museum quality. But, in general, the stories they’re trying to tell based on those objects is quite similar.
After finishing my graduate degree in archaeology, I went back for a second master’s. I went into a program in early American culture, which is a partnership between Winterthur Museum and University of Delaware that focuses solely on the decorative arts and has been the primary training ground for museum curators in American decorative arts since its inception in the 1950s.
Sharon: What did you think that you wanted to do with that?
Matthew: My goal was to be a museum curator. After finishing the Winterthur program, I went on to work for six years in the American Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. My focus and training were on American furniture, specifically New York-made furniture from the American Revolution through the Civil War. I enjoyed that experience a tremendous amount and was able to participate in and contribute to a major renovation of the American Wing, as well as a special exhibition and publication focused on the work of the New York furniture maker Duncan Phyfe. He worked in the city from the 1790s through the 1840s and is widely considered one of the iconic names and most talented craftsmen of his era.
Sharon: What took you from there to The Decorative Arts Trust?
Matthew: In between The Met and Trust, I spent four years back at Winterthur. In 2009, I was asked if I was interested in a position relinquishing my curatorial work in favor of fundraising. During my time at The Met, I developed an interest in arts administration and the need for a broader variety of skills in order to play that role. I identified fundraising as an important point that was lacking from my résumé, and the chance to go back to Winterthur to help that institution further its mission and strategic goals was a very appealing opportunity. As I mentioned, I was there for four years working with the curatorial staff, academic programs and colleagues, fundraising initiatives under those wings before having the chance to take over as executive director of the Trust in early 2014, succeeding a colleague who had held the post for 30 years.
Matthew: Yes, a long and illustrious tenure. Those were difficult shoes to fill.
Sharon: Yes, definitely, and you’re doing a great job at it. Can you tell us what decorative arts means? What does it refer to?
Matthew: Certainly. From common parlance in the field, whether that be in the academic sector or the museum sector, decorative arts represents functional arts or material culture. It includes objects that were made primarily for use in the home or in a commercial location that were intended to serve a true purpose, rather than solely as artistic achievements, hence the common phrase, “functional arts.” Depending on the institution or collection you’re referring to or visiting, the mediums included within a decorative arts department might change. For example, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on the European side, sculpture is included in the decorative arts department, whereas on the American side, sculpture is considered part of the fine arts. But primarily, when you consider decorative arts as a broader field of study, you can think of furnishings, ceramics, glass—any of the various materials that would have been purchased or fashioned to outfit a home, whether a grand manor house in England or a very humble cabin in colonial America.
Sharon: Why should we pay attention to the decorative arts today? What do they tell us today? Why are they important?
Matthew: Decorative arts are important because it’s a very democratic field of study in terms of the ubiquity of the items that fall under this rubric of study. For instance, only the smallest portion of 18th century society would have owned a painting of any scale or type, whereas even the most modest household could have owned a chair or a stool or a pewter trencher or some other item that had value as a functional item. By definition, it would have had some design aspect to it, but was a commodity that was approachable in terms of its cost and its accessibility. By nature of that broad availability, you can tell a much wider variety of narratives through decorative arts that allow you to extend throughout the socioeconomic spectrum and share narratives, not only that touch on the very wealthy, but also those at the other end of that range. Through that jumping-off point, you can touch on important topics of early American history that are often challenging to tackle through the fine arts, including notions of race, immigration and slavery that are so important to making objects relevant in contemporary society.
Sharon: Interesting. In a way, that does relate to jewelry. Jewelry tells a lot about the culture, the fashion history, what was going on, what metals were available, that sort of thing. We talk about art jewelry a lot on this program and art jewelry is often looked at askance by those in the fine arts. Do you find this with the decorative arts? Are they looked down by some as a dirty word? Are they looked on as, “Well, it’s just a craft?”
Matthew: First and foremost, in the decorative arts community, craft is not a pejorative term. That’s a phrase used with applause to describe the talented artisans of the past. Now, I think jewelry in its various forms is celebrated by those with an interest in material culture exactly for those reasons, because they do represent the history of materials and the cultural and commercial exchange of materiality. They speak to the creation of identity, in terms of not only the intent of the maker, but those who might have been wearing a particular piece, and what that object speaks to relative to the place and time in which it was created. More so than ever before, I imagine museum departments in the broader decorative arts community are embracing jewelry as an essential connection point to the past and filling out a broader narrative about the material culture throughout time.
Sharon: There’s definitely that connection, and crafts can bridge decorative arts; they can bridge jewelry. People who do crafts, I’m in awe of their skill and what they can do as artists.
Matthew: Indeed, it’s something to be celebrated.
Sharon: Absolutely, that’s a good way to put it. So, tell us about The Decorative Arts Trust. Why was it established, what’s your role and who should be a member? Is it only collectors or students?
Matthew: The Trust was established in 1977 and throughout our 42 years now, we’ve been headquartered in the Philadelphia area, but always with a national scope in mind. The founding father of the Trust, if you will, was a gentleman by the name of Dewey Lee Curtis, who was a museum curator, architectural historian and antiques dealer who, prior to the founding of the Trust, was allied with an organization called Pennsbury Manor, which is the recreation of William Penn’s 17th century home north of Philadelphia.
Dewey Lee Curtis had an enviable Rolodex of colleagues in the museum and antiques and publishing fields. He determined that there were no organizations at that time focused on bringing likeminded people from all over the country together to celebrate the field of decorative arts scholarship and to create opportunities for those individuals to explore American history and culture without the help of larger arts and cultural organizations. For example, the 70s is an era when we see the birth of the museum affiliation group, where high-level donors were invited to special events and offered opportunities to take tours at home and abroad through the agency of that organization. Mr. Curtis and the early board that he recruited wanted to create a special opportunity for people all over the country to attend what we refer to as symposia, which are a combination of academic lectures and field study or tours and explorations of local areas.
From 1978 onward, the Trust has offered two symposia per year. Our members continue to gather at locations from coast to coast with the chance to learn about local regional culture and the art and architecture that make that area distinct. We also celebrate the accomplishments not only of the craftsmen who work there, but also the modern-day curators and historians who are promoting their local history.
Sharon: Can you tell us about some of the symposia? To me, they are very intriguing and ambitious. I did attend the New Orleans symposium, which was fabulous and eye-opening. Can you tell us about those and who should participate? Is it basically curators?
Matthew: Certainly, only a minority of our membership is professionally involved with the field, I would say, and only a minority might consider themselves to be a collector. For some people that’s a dirty word. They might very much be acquirers of objects and artwork, but they would not choose to refer to themselves as collectors, because they think that has a very formal connotation in terms of a dedicated focus within a particular medium or range of time or place.
So, far and away, our typical member and typical attendee is someone who has an interest in history and culture and has identified the Trust as an organization that can offer them a special opportunity to access sites in the given area we’re travelling to. For instance, during the New Orleans program that you referenced, which took place in the fall of 2018, we try and construct over four or five days the opportunity to visit a broad range of sites that tackle cities’ or larger regions’ histories over the course of many centuries. Occasionally, these events are scheduled in celebration of a particular moment or event. Last year was the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Orleans, so it was a perfect time for us to visit there as a group. Not only did we have the chance to visit sites and collections within New Orleans proper, but we also offered pre- and post-conference tours, which tended to range a bit further afield. During an overnight trip in advance of the conference, we had a portion of the attendees visit largely private plantation houses north of New Orleans, all the way up to Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupee Parish, across the Mississippi River and back.
The opportunity that we offer in terms of opening doors, both to private collections as well as behind-the-scenes experiences without colleagues in the museum field, creates a very special moment that our members enjoy. Although we do have new attendees who are always coming to these events, we also have a very loyal following of participants who will be predominantly signed up for an event, wherever it is we’re traveling.
As you mentioned, in addition to study tours and domestic events, we are now offering three programs overseas, which we refer to as study trips abroad. Those have traditionally focused on continental Europe and Great Britain; although this spring we made our first expedition breaking away from that more tried-and-true territory by visiting Morocco. We’re planning to focus at least one of our three tours per year on a more exotic locale or destination that is further afield.
Sharon: When you look at your website and the lineup of what you have planned, it’s really jaw-dropping. It makes you want to sign up for everything. I do have to say that at least in New Orleans, the opportunity to go behind the scenes and be invited to places that you never would see otherwise was so worthwhile. The whole trip was eye-opening, in terms of learning about the history of what you thought you studied.
Tell me a little about the trends you’re seeing in decorative arts. I know in the antique field, we talk about a waning of interest as baby boomers get older. There’s also a renaissance or a renewed interest with younger people wearing antique jewelry, but still, it’s a field that is perhaps shrinking. What are you seeing in decorative arts?
Matthew: In this instance, I think it’s important to separate market forces from larger cultural trends. It is true that the dollar value of decorative arts generally has declined since the recession, although the cream of the crop continues to command very strong prices across the spectrum of the antiques markets.
I think we’re at a point now where there’s a tremendous amount of volume that’s become available, which doesn’t assist the price point for many types of decorative arts. People in their 30s and 40s who are setting up households have a different aesthetic or point of design and comfort that they’re willing to achieve, and I think that’s created a negative influence on the market as well. That being said, there are a number of prominent collectors in that age bracket, and I think culture is always cyclical, so I fully anticipate that what today is considered not worthy of a home is going to come back around again.
Certainly, from a cultural profession point of view, there continues to be tremendous interest from young people in pursuing the arts, historic preservation, history, and those people are not only tremendously talented, but also have shown an ability to broaden the narrative that defines the study of the decorative arts. They’re reaching out to new audiences and creating more exclusive museum institutions and exhibitions and publications, so I think there’s a great deal of excitement and enthusiasm coming in now. If antiques aren’t necessarily as valuable as they once were, I think the stories those objects are telling are no less important at this moment.
Sharon: That’s a very good point. The stories are not any less important. I also like your point about culture being cyclical. It just keeps revolving. It may not be popular now, but give it 10 or 20 years.
Matt, thank you so much for being here. To everybody listening, we’ll have a link to The Decorative Arts Trust in our show notes. You can find out more about the organization there and take a look at the study trips, which will make you want to pack your suitcase.
That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, please subscribe 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 jewelry and related arts.
END OF AUDIO