Welcome to Learning from Things

Conversation with Prof. Catherine Whalen....

posted on 24 Mar 2014 12:47 by Elena Pinto Simon

Assistant Professor Catherine Whalen includes in her areas of expertise American Craft and Design History. She teaches a number of courses in this area. Together with her students, she recently launched the Bard Graduate Center Craft,
Art and Design Oral History Project (http://www.bgccraftartdesign.org/). The Archive is a treasure trove of oral histories, compiled and conducted by her students with craftspeople, designers, and artists. It focuses on contemporary work. There are also photos, video, and a good deal of enormously useful reference materials on the site.

I had a chance to speak with her about this new repository recently.

EPS: Congratulations on the launch. Tell us about how you came to realize that this could be a very important project, and filled a real need.

CW: The project started out in 2007 as an in-class assignment for the seminar “Craft and Design in the U.S.A., 1945-present,” which I regularly teach at the BGC. Oral history is an important methodology for the study of contemporary makers, and one that I believe BGC graduate students should have at their disposal. Time after time, seminar members enthusiastically took on the assignment and came up with great results. I was so impressed with the quality of the interviews they conducted that I began thinking about ways to make them publicly available, and an online digital archive seemed like a very good solution. The fields of craft and design history are vibrant and expanding, and oral histories have been a key resource for new scholarship in these fields. So, the central goal of the Bard Graduate Center Craft, Art and Design Oral History Project document, preserve and make available the voices of contemporary makers for the purpose of research. What makes this archive especially valuable is its range and inclusivity. By highlighting individuals in diverse fields and at different points in their careers, it provides the opportunity to consider the distinctions, continuities, and fluidities among their practices and their work. Interviewees range from those using traditional craft media, such as Mira Nakashima in wood and Mary Barringer in clay, to designers and architects like Ignacio Ciocchini, developer of New York’s newly installed CityBench, and Malcolm Holzman, nationally recognized for his innovative performing arts centers and civic buildings. They also include emerging artists like Allyson Mitchell, who draws upon women’s hobby crafts with a feminist ethos. Our project has garnered praise for its breadth as well as its design, use of images, tagging, and links to resources. These features distinguish it from other oral history projects that may focus on a particular group of makers, don’t incorporate images, or lack ways of making linkages among interviews. Here I am very fortunate to have had the expertise of Kimon Keramidas, director of the Digital Media Lab, designers Laura Grey and Vanessa Rossi, and BGC librarian Erin Elzi.


EPS: How do you hope it continues to grow in the future?

CW: I plan to teach “Craft and Design in the U.S.A., 1945-present” yearly, in which seminar members will continue to conduct interviews for the project. Students undertaking interviews for other research endeavors are also welcome to contribute them. In addition to building the archive, I’d like to make more and more researchers aware of this resource.

EPS: What were some of the surprising things the students discovered as they worked on these projects?

CW: So many things! Interviewing is a revelatory research methodology. This assignment is often students’ initial foray into this mode of intellectual inquiry. It may also be the first time they speak to contemporary makers about their work. It’s impressive to see how much they bring to and get from this experience. Their first task is to select an interviewee, someone they really want to talk to about what they do. If needed, I’ll match them up with a practitioner, but almost always they make the choice on their own, often a person they know, or whose work they admire. Then they draft questions, which we review together. So at the outset, the process raises fundamental questions: Who is a maker? What is practice? What do you want to know? How are you going to find out? How can this material be best presented digitally? How can it be used for future research? The next stage is conducting the interview, which always produces unexpected insights, and that’s exciting. Then, we discuss the interviews as a group, noting their differences and similarities. At present there’s a lot of discussion going on about the convergence of art, craft and design. What do the interviewees have to say on this topic, implicitly or explicitly? Among the makers they’ve spoken with, students have found designers who describe their work as problem solving and craftspeople who stress self-expression, but all are passionate about the relationship between what they make and the people who encounter it.

EPS: Art, Craft and Design seems to be an area that is growing in interest. Why do you think it is historically important to document the ongoing work of these contemporary art and craft makers?

CW: Two reasons: to better understand what is going on now, and to build an archive for future scholars to draw upon. Especially in craft but also design, synthetic secondary literature is a recent and ongoing development. Good oral histories are an essential primary source for this work. In his interview for the project, Paul J. Smith, who assumed directorship of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the Museum of Arts and Design) in 1963, remarked that he wished there was more documentation of the field from that time, but no one was thinking of its historical importance. Now, he is repeatedly asked for this kind of information. I take this cautionary tale to heart. Through the Bard Graduate Center Craft, Art and Design Oral History Project, I believe we are creating a valuable resource for current and future scholarship.

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Furniture Society Seminar...

posted on 05 Feb 2014 15:37 by Elena Pinto Simon

Professor Jeffrey Collins shared his thoughts with me about the recent Research Seminar on British and Continental Furniture and Interiors, 1600-1930,held at the MMA this past week. He notes that four present and former BGC students addressed a packed room at the day-long session, sponsored by the Furniture History Society and hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art on February 3.


( Tilles, Rabie, D'Amato)

“They were among the eleven young museum and academic professionals to share their findings in this prestigious forum, which included multiple BGC faculty, senior Met curators, collectors, and current BGC students. Martina D’Amato (M.A. 2013, now in the BGC’s doctoral program) presented aspects of her ongoing work on “The Chabrière-Arlès Collection and Renaissance Furniture in France and America, 1875-1935”; Haneen Rabie (M.A. 2009, now in the doctoral program in art and archeology at Princeton) spoke about “Dazzling Pastiche: Decorative Art and Design in Second Empire Paris”; and Rebecca Tilles (M.A. 2007, now curatorial research fellow for decorative arts and sculpture at the the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) gave a talk entitled “Historicism or Modernism? Re-evaluating the Regency Revival, 1917-1930.” A fourth former BGC student, Leslie Klingner (now curator of interpretation at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.) spoke about “Vanderbilt at Biltmore: Building on British Traditions.” This very successful event was the first of what the FHS hopes will be further opportunities to encourage and showcase the work of emerging scholars on both sides of the Atlantic.” Congratulations to the students and alums who participated!

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recent alum activity...

posted on 24 Jan 2014 15:12 by Elena Pinto Simon

What are the alums from classes that graduated in 2012 and 2013 up to?

Well, I thought a good way to start the New Year, and the new term, would be to ask them, and then share that with all of you. If there is interest, I’ll turn it into a series, so that we can all catch up, re-connect, and stay connected.

Sara Spink wrote to say she started as a Curatorial Associate at the Museum of the City of New York last November. She notes “I'm definitely pulling on my BGC experience here, acting as project manager on exhibitions and publications, assisting with rights and repro, editing texts, budget management, research, and web content management (yay, DML!). I'm also, as of last July or so, a regular contributor to MODERN Magazine's Form + Function section, an opportunity that emerged because of the relationships I forged through my summer internship with MODERN and The Magazine ANTIQUES while at the BGC. Some of my coverage is also included (in somewhat truncated form) on MODERN'sTumblr page. I'm also attempting to maintain my own blog on exhibitions and their designs: http://spinkdesignblog.wikidot.com (though I'm afraid I haven't had time to update it lately).

Not to worry, Sara. I’ve been a little tardy with this BLOG of late, myself.

From sunny Southern California, Andrew Goodhouse writes that he is a Graduate Intern in Publications at the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles, and is working on editorial projects and the recently launched Getty Publications Virtual Library. Here in New York City, Colin Fanning and Katrina London are both curatorial assistants at the American Federation of Arts.

Meanwhile, from Texas, Einav Zamir tells me “I spent last year as the executive director of ArtWatch International, an organization that deals with issues in art conservation, and I'm currently in the first year of my PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. An article of mine on ethical concerns in the conservation of looted artifacts will appear in the next issue of the ArtWatch Journal.”

Across the pond, in London, Roisin Inglesby is an Assistant Curator of Design at the V& A, and will be the next New York Silver Society speaker here at the BGC in October. Also on that side of the Atlantic, two other recent alums, Sophie Pitman and Katie Tycz have started work on their PhD’s at Cambridge University.

The news from Amber Winick was doubly joyful: “It's official! I'll be heading to Budapest in March for a Fulbright grant, where I'll be researching designs created for Hungarian children, including schools, illustrated books, toys and other objects. Of course, I'm most proud of my baby daughter, Alice Esarosa, who will be joining me in Budapest.”

Shoshana Greenwald’s update also had news about a new job. She writes that “ I am working as the Collections Manager at an as yet unopened museum, Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center that seeks to study the Holocaust from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. My background in Material Culture is perfect training for the job because I handle all types of archives and artifacts, from prewar books to baby clothes that were hand-sewn in the DP camps to an extensive anti-Semitic postcard collection. “

Nicole Pulichene writes from Harvard, where she has begun work on a PhD in medieval art. I visited with Nicole, and fellow alum Meredyth Winter, when I was last in Cambridge. Meredyth is also at the start of her second semester at Harvard.

At the other end of the Boston-to-Washington corridor is Craig Lee, with lots of news on his own progress. His note is brimming with activities: “I’m in my third-year in the doctoral program in the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware. I’ve completed my coursework, passed my comprehensive exams, and beginning to work on the dissertation. This past summer I was an intern at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in the Department of Architecture and Engineering. Also, in the past year, I received an Ailsa Mellon Bruce Predoctoral Fellowship for Historians of American Art to Travel Abroad from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art for a five-week research trip to study the history of architecture, with a focus on modernism, in South Africa. Lastly, in addition to making progress towards candidacy, for the 2013-2014 academic year I am a McCrindle Intern at the Princeton University Art Museum in the Photography Department working on an exhibition about photography and urbanism in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles from 1960-1980.”

Earlier today, Nynne Just Christoffersen sent me a note saying she had just heard from the Humboldt University in Berlin, and has been accepted to start a PhD program there. Her note indicates that she has been “ accepted as a doctoral research fellow for the research project "Networks: Textile Arts and Textility in a Transcultural Perspective (4th-17th Centuries)". The research project is directed by
Prof. Dr. Gerhard Wolf from Humboldt Universität zu Berlin (where she will enroll) and is part of a joint research project with the University of Zurich, “An Iconology of the Textile in Art and Architecture”, directed by Prof. Dr. Tristan Weddigen.” Brava!

From Chicago, Alyssa Greenberg sent news that she is in her third year “as a University Fellowship doctoral student at UIC, studying for preliminary exam and writing her dissertation proposal concurrently. She writes, “ My exam areas are Museum Studies (with a focus on art museum education) and 20th and 21st Century Art and Activism (with a focus on socially-engaged art practices and their museum manifestations). My dissertation will trace the history of social reform and community engagement in American art museums from the Progressive Era to the contemporary. I expect to attain my candidacy in May 2014. As the Education Assistant at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, I am the second-in-command in the Education Department. My responsibilities include facilitating tours and dialogues, writing curriculum and interpretive materials, grantwriting, and supporting projects including the Summer Teacher Institute and the Community Docent program. I recently published an article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Curriculum Theorizing. I have presented my work at several conferences, and won small grants for conference expenses and professional development. Last but not least Rebecca Mir and I are currently partners in the 2013-2014 Art21 Educators program.” Rebecca Mir herself notes that she was “ …recently hired by the Guggenheim as the Associate Manager, Digital Media and Online Learning. I'm based in the Education Department here and will be working mostly on a global collaboration with UBS called the MAP Global Art Initiate: www.guggenheim.org/map . She also still serves on the NYCMER Board as their Web Resources and Social Media Coordinator.

Also in Chicago, Sarah Rogers Morris writes to say she is working as the Program and Communications Associate at the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. She has also been doing some freelance writing, and has several forthcoming articles, including her QP, which will be published in Future Anterior, a peer-reviewed journal devoted to the critical examination and the study of historic preservation.

Meanwhile, here in NYC, Sharan Twickler tells me that she is a Researcher at A La Vieille Russie. She very kindly notes “ I am very content with how my role has evolved since starting with admission and catalogue sales for the Sandoz exhibition back in the fall of 2011. I will always be grateful for that email you sent out about their needing help. I am proof that it never hurts to gain a little experience from what, at first, seems like a short-term opportunity. You never know what can become of it! In addition to updating the website and researching the collection, I am pleased to have a role in expanding the gallery's social media presence. I am particularly excited about the blog, where I aim to give context to our collection, exploring everything from the history of cufflinks to the folklore of opals. I recall in my application essay saying I hoped to bridge the gap between academia and the public. I definitely feel like I am doing just that.” Many paths to the goal!

And on the doctoral front, Amy Sande-Friedman (PhD, Graduating Class of 2012) recently launched an art advisory practice, helping people buy and sell works of Contemporary art. She's excited to help both new and seasoned collectors find pieces that will bring them joy every day. amysandefriedman.com . Congratulations on your new venture, Amy.

And in Chicago, Jon Tavares (PhD, Graduating Class of 2013) is postdoctoral fellow at the Art Institute in Chicago (Arms and Armor). I visited with Jon last October and had a wonderful tour of the storerooms of the department, and saw some of Jon’s first recommendations for purchases for the department.

Keep those notes coming!

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New Website Launched!

posted on 10 Dec 2013 15:56 by Elena Pinto Simon

The Bard Graduate Center launches the Craft, Art and Design Oral History Project this month.

The project an online interview archive of contemporary craftspeople, artists and designers can be found at www.bgccraftartdesign.org.

Topics include interviews with the makers, and range in focus, length. Some of the artists talk about their own backgrounds, their influences and their materials and insprirations, while others are histories/biographies.

All the interviews were conducted by grad students in the seminar “Craft and Design in the USA, 1940-Present”. This ongoing seminar is taught by Assistant Professor Catherine Whalen, who is also the director of the project.

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....midway through the first term....

posted on 11 Nov 2013 13:48 by Elena Pinto Simon

EPS: I’ve been catching up with some of our first year students now that we are past mid-term week. We chatted about how they are doing, and what their BGC experiences have been like so far. This is part one of what will be several BLOG posts/conversations with current BGC students….This one is with students Jaimie Luria and Robert Gordon-Fogelson.

EPS: Hello, Jaimie and Robert. Well, you are now heading towards the end of your first semester at the BGC. Tell me a little what it has been like for you both so far.


JL: Nearing the close of our first semester, I have had a chance to really explore the BGC’s unique curriculum and to connect with a remarkable community that extends well past its walls and into New York City. I must express how relieving it is to find a community that fosters such a strong sense of what is going on in contemporary studies of material culture through a diverse interdisciplinary approach. Aside from establishing a hard won routine and finding my own balance between coursework and nurturing personal research interests, I believe that I have found my people. That is to say that my love for all things made (and their stories) is shared by my new professors, colleagues, and friends who value parallel yet distinct explorations of the history of stuff and what we make of it. My experiences inside the classroom have been amplified by outside encounters curated by the BGC, such as a glass-making workshop at Urban Glass and exchanges with conservators and museum staff at the Met, MoMA, and the Whitney through Hanna Hölling’s Cultures of Conservation course. I could not be more excited about this opportunity to expand and refine my curiosities at the BGC at this critical time in the history of material culture studies.

RGF: It’s hard to believe the semester is almost over already. I’m still adjusting to the pace and to the profusion of information and opportunities at the BGC. Having focused so closely on my coursework and research, I barely took advantage of all the lectures, symposia, and brown-bag lunches, not to mention everything that goes on in the city beyond West 86th. I’m hoping to be more adventurous next semester. Having said that, I feel so at home at the BGC already, both academically and socially, that I’m finding it difficult to tear myself away from campus.

EPS: Tell us about your background. Where did you do your undergraduate work, what was your major/minor, and what are you focusing on so far now?

JL: I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts. Rather than declaring a major in a specific field, something that few SLC students do, I created an individualized concentration that culminated in a thesis on representations of Native North American cultures in museums across the U.S. (most of my research was done in New York, Colorado, and Florida). My interests in cultural anthropology, art history, and studio art- with an emphasis on gender studies, cultural heritage, and indigenous rights- have left me slightly to the peripheries of any one discipline. Since graduating I have worked with curatorial and visitor services departments at traditional and contemporary art museums, as well as the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History. Issues of conservation (regarding both material and immaterial subjects), exhibition, and the incorporation of emerging approaches and media to the maintenance and representation of material culture are at the core of my current studies. I am continuing my research on the American Museum of Natural History’s American Indian culture halls and collections, specifically dioramas and displays of medicinal materials.

RGF: When I began my undergraduate career at NYU I thought I might focus in Classics or Ancient Civ, having taken Latin for seven years and ancient Greek for two. I quickly realized these weren’t the right fields for me, and that NYU wasn’t the right school. I transferred to Brown, where I went on to double major in Visual Art and Art History, with a focus in early modern Italian print culture. Now I study twentieth-century interior and product design. I’ve been sort of leap-frogging across the history of human material production, but since I can’t get much more contemporary than I am now I think I’ll stick with this current focus.

EPS: What is it that drew you to study at the BGC?

JL: My first instinct when I began to explore potential graduate programs was to look for museum studies programs with the option of incorporating cultural anthropology. The more I read about museum studies, though, the less I felt a part of that world of scholarship. I knew that if I ended up in a museum studies, anthropology, or art history program, I would be distracted by the structure of the program itself, with the issues concerning the existence of the fields themselves! I originally figured that museum studies was probably the best way for me to combine many of my interests and turn them into a single, ‘trainable’ career path. Now that I think of it, museums themselves have always represented a lot of the interdisciplinary questions that I was asking during my undergraduate studies, so I felt that it was only natural to pursue some kind of path there. Then I spoke with Don Rubell, for whom I worked in Miami at the Rubell Family Collection, who knew of my frustration with traditional approaches to arts and culture. He said, “You must go to Bard.” I had never heard of the BGC and it was not until I scanned Bard College’s masters programs that I read- word for word- a list of terms that were at the very source of my obsessive quest for a field of study: Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. So, naturally, I applied. But in the process of applying I realized that I was brewing the most diligence, focus, and energy I had ever mustered for any sort of writing or application. Ever! The fact that I had so much fun during my interview with Professors Elizabeth Simpson, Jeffrey Collins, and Aaron Glass (for whom I am currently working as a research assistant) that I continued to laugh and smile the whole subway ride home meant a whole lot, too.


RGF: I found the BGC attractive for what I saw as a sort of simultaneous specificity and broadness of scope. There aren’t many institutions where the somewhat offbeat topic of twentieth-century design receives such close attention in terms of exhibitions, research, and coursework. At the same time, there seems to be a nearly endless number of ways to set about studying the subject matter, from art history and anthropology to semiotics and actor-network theory. Being at once committed to a specific moment in the history of design but open to a variety of approaches, the BGC was really an ideal place for me to be.

EPS: We’ll be registering soon for spring term. What will you be focusing on this spring?

JL: The courses offered next semester are so tempting; it will be a very difficult choice! There are a number of conservation and exhibition-focused opportunities, each with a distinct and exciting approach. Many courses involve collaboration and engagement with institutions and communities outside of the BGC, such as conservation labs, museums, public folklore projects, and arts councils. I plan to take Postdoctoral Fellow Gabrielle Berlinger’s Cultural Conservation course, which, in conjunction with new Mellon Foundation Cultures of Conservation initiative, will consider the role of folkloristics- “the study of creative expression in everyday life”- in conceptualizing and maintaining cultural heritage and practice. It will incorporate site visits and work at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, as well as at public projects related to folklore and community arts programs and councils. I also hope to examine Issues in the Study of Ancient Art with Professors François Louis and Elizabeth Simpson, especially in regards to the ethics and politics of archaeological practices and cultural patrimony. I look forward to working with material from the ancient Mediterranean, Near East, Central Asia, and China, much of which is quite new to me, and to asking questions about national identity-building and ethical, political, and legal conflicts in claiming material heritage of the past. I am excited to take a class with Professor Aaron Glass, whose research also focuses primarily on First Nations art and culture and through whom I have had the honor of contributing to a number of projects regarding Northwest Coast material culture. He is teaching a course called Exhibiting Culture/s: Anthropology In and Of the Museum, which will further consolidate and enrich a lot of my own interests in museum practice and processes of ‘imagining’ and constructing stories of ‘cultural others’.

RGF: I’m on a bit of a theory kick this semester, which I’m looking forward to continuing in the Spring. I have my eye on a number of theory-oriented courses dealing with topics such as consumer culture, the anthropology of the museum, and the theory and ethics of conservation. I’m also hoping to start taking advantage of all the Digital Media Lab has to offer - I have a few ideas fermenting already.

EPS: What are you working towards? What would you like to be doing four or five years from now?

JL: My answer to this question will hopefully never be a simple one. For now I think it will suffice to say that I am working towards a deeper and clearer understanding of the many ways in which objects and their value are constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed. I hope to apply different histories and perspectives to the study, expression, and experience of objects, through the help of my new family at the BGC, in order to re-examine transfers of meaning through the material in everyday life and to imagine how new forms of communication can be made through objects. I feel that whatever it is that I want to do or build, whether it is a kind of space dedicated to the ‘performance’ of culture or an institute, does not yet exist- at least not in a form in which it can be referenced by name- at present. There is certainly something to say for the ways in which people experience material culture and the predicament in which we find cultural institutions and spaces, political and social environments, and the natural environment at present. What I can say is that in the near future I know that I will be using all of my passion for creative expression and all of my knowledge of history, cultural systems, and representation to build positive connections between individuals and communities and a stronger, unified sense of responsibility to our environment and to each other.

RGF: It’s hard to say for sure, but I do know that I want to be educating in some form. I think there’s a real need for people to learn about the history and mechanisms behind the design of their everyday lives, and there are an increasing number of ways to go about teaching this. So while I’m definitely contemplating more traditional paths, such as academia and the museum world, I’ve also considered areas like publishing and the tech industry as alternative means of influencing public discourse around design. I feel that I still have so much more to learn, though, so there’s a good chance that in four years I’ll be continuing the process in a PhD program somewhere.

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