Seattle, Bellevue and Tacoma are blessed with a number of museums, each with a unique mission and vision that helps connect local audiences with the rest of the world, and the rest of the world with regional artists. The Bellevue Arts Museum is among the institutions most committed to advancing the work of regional artists in a range of mediums. For instance, its most recent biennial show (which closes on March 29) showcases work from dozens of artists from Washington and Oregon working with wood as a medium.
BAM is also known for bringing to light the power and beauty of objects generally considered to be “craft,” instead of “fine art.” For those in the art world, this distinction can be rather fraught, but for most audiences the distinction may not be as clear. It is, in fact, a distinction that has not always been accepted in western culture and has never taken root in others, including far eastern and Native American cultures.
Institutions like BAM are helping to challenge these distinctions in a variety of ways, and BAM’s Director of Craft and Design, Stefano Catalani, is a passionate advocate for the breaking of these barriers. He professes not just a passion for art-for-art’s-sake, but all forms of art and design as tools for better understanding ourselves, our culture and the ideas we often take for granted.
The museum’s latest show, opening today, is Read My Pins: The Madeline Albright Collection. Originally organized by the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, Catalani and the rest of BAM’s leadership have brought it to west coast audiences. What at first may seem a whimsical collection of accessories opens up a larger dialog of how we present ourselves to the world, what assumptions we make and must combat personally, and what—if anything—really divides art, design and craft.
Leslie Wheatley: Stefano, tell us about where you grew up and when you first fell in love with art?
Stefano Catalani: I grew up in Italy, in a small town outside of Rome and growing up as a child and teenager I was exposed to art in my home. My father was an amateur painter and he always had this fascination and passion for painting and it trained me to appreciate art and the beauty of an image. He liked to do landscape paintings, and I was surrounded by his art. I fell in love with art in my high school years when I studied the Greek, Latin and Italian cultures in their wholeness—from not only the languages, but from the dramas, philosophies and cultural aspects of their art. I fell in love with the artistic expressions of each one of these cultures, through their different time periods, which spoke to me about their ethos and their world views.
LW: For those not clear on what a curator does, can you explain your role as curator, and some of your personal methods?
SC: The curator has an important role within a museum or institution. It’s an educational role, to become the interface between the artwork and the artist and the public. It’s facilitating that communication between object or installation and the public, to put artwork in a context that allows others to receive it in a relevant way. Of course, in doing this each curator has his or her own agenda, but curators need to work within the framework of the museum’s mission, so as the Director of Craft and Design here at BAM, I implement the museum mission.
My goal as a curator is always to inspire the audience to see things in a different light, to see things that they might have overlooked because they are somehow culturally accepted or part of a cultural code of conduct or assumption. Sometimes it is to reveal [through the artist’s work] the construction behind this assumption.
BAM has a vast scope in our mission: Arts, Craft and Design. We want to talk about art as both a process and a practice, so to speak, in getting your hands dirty with the materials. We want to discuss what creativity means, how one arrives at a sense of accomplishment, and inspire the public to do the same. We want to talk about design as the thinking process behind the solution to a problem and how we are affected by new problems as cultures evolve—new solutions for new problems and more effective solutions for old problems. Ultimately, we want to talk about a system of objects that surround our lives. We don’t live in a vacuum; we surround ourselves with objects in our homes, on the bus and at work. What do these objects mean to us, how are they made, and how do they express a culture? This is really what inspires me in my job.
LW: On that note, tell us about the curatorial basis of the Read My Pins show.
SC: I believe that jewelry has an interesting status within the arts. It can be a body ornament but also can be considered a sculpture. The process of making jewelry is also very important. Sometimes the process informs the output in both the craft of making of it and the materials used, whether they be semi-precious metals and gemstones or non-precious. It speaks of the times, the design and ethos of when it was produced. Jewelry is also an expression of individuality, of personal taste, of class. It becomes very much associated with an individual’s identity.
In the bigger picture it also can portray the identity of an entire social and economic group. Jewelry has amazing potential to impact not only the fashion sense of the individual but the way certain groups represent themselves in our whole society. Jewelry, with all its possibilities and wearability, becomes a form of communication. This brings us to Read My Pins, the name of the show, and it needs no explanation. It is about reading and taking in a message.
I was very excited about the importance of a figure like Madeleine Albright, and the idea that she collected a large number of pins and brooches throughout her political career. Not many of the pins in the exhibit are actually precious, in the standards of metals or precious gemstones, but she would use these pins in very important diplomatic settings to get her message out.
LW: How do you feel that “crafting” in art and “fine art” differ, and why is there still such dissension between the worlds?
SC: I think this is trite, old baggage we inherited from later modernism that really despised early modernism’s professed integration of craft and design. Take Bauhaus for example. [Editor’s note: Bauhaus was a design movement founded in 1919 in Weimar Germany. In its incipient stages, it embraced craft and handwork, but by 1924 it had shifted toward emphasizing a unity of art and technology, in which artist and aesthetic choice were supreme and sometimes at odds with what was most efficient for the technology in question. Symbolic function was preferred over true functionality. T.s.F.]
Later there was a differentiation, with craft being associated with being the “lesser,” and design and fine art being the “better.’ There have been many books, too, written way back from the renaissance era, that imply “painting” as being considered higher forms of art versus the more material and craft-based practices. So it’s a five hundred year old western art world argument. The Asian cultures of course—Japanese, Chinese, Korean art, etc—had a totally different approach to crafting in their art.
I profess that it is a very old and stale conversation, especially in the last twenty years. The reason for this, in my opinion, is post-modernism, the breaking of hierarchies and the acceptance and celebration of cultural “otherness.” Craft practices in art have become suddenly relevant, and there have been a whole host of artists—not craftsmen, but artists—who have looked to craft and its processes to address their cultural identity.
Putting this in the bigger picture, we are now witnessing a time in which even in academia, in colleges and university courses, professors are celebrating this post-disciplinary approach, and so we have students who are graduating with masters in fine art that are left the complete freedom to select and choose whatever pleases them, and whatever works for them to get their message across. The design, craft and art of the past—although very distinct—become tools for students and emerging artists as a means of inspiration and creative output. You have a whole freedom that is unprecedented. This is what Bellevue Arts Museum is all about. We are not a “craft museum.” We are about this new movement. We find our roots and foundation in the past and respect the old expression of the craft, but we are grounded in the reality of the here and now, and in the knowledge that we are actually blazing a trail.
It is so nice and exciting to see some other institutions around the Seattle area who are following us, meaning that they are relieved that they can talk about craft, and jewelry and past practices without feeling that the word “craft” is associated with something negative. It has been a team effort. Tacoma Art Museum has always celebrated craft, and there are other institutions who have played a role in this new way of thinking, to be sure, but I believe the Bellevue Arts Museum has had a very important role in ferrying the concept of craft from an old, stale idea to something fresh and hot.
LW: You have been quoted as saying that the NW produces artists who are “as good” as nationally and internationally recognized artists. Can you explain that?
SC: I think it is a matter of fact. I think of an artist like Patti Warashina. We can look at the masters, the ones who had really blazed a trail in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and I think of Sherry Markovitz. But there are also new masters, and people emerging and gaining recognition nationally, and there is a whole host of them. I think that although we might perceive ourselves as being in a little corner of the country, we are a strong local scene where the community supports our artists and they find pleasure in supporting them. That allows these artists to feel comfortable about going out of the NW to gain attention.
Look at what is happening with John Grade. He is winning national awards and has shows that are traveling across country and doing collaborations with major galleries on the east coast, and he is only in his early 40s. I don’t know if I would call him a contemporary master, but he is definitely an artist who is not just emerging but asserting himself on a national and international level, doing shows in London and in Paris. So I think that should explain my statement.
The Bellevue Arts Museum is dedicated to supporting local artists and my job is really to show some artists that I believe in, that have a vision and are relevant to our time, to hold the mirror up to us to reflect ourselves and to see what they show us about the present and the future. Hopefully, by giving them a chance they will reach the sky! Ultimately, it is up to them to take the opportunity, but I always say one of my greatest pleasures is to be the facilitator for them to take it on to the next level.
LW: What do you see happening at Bellevue Arts Museum in the next ten years?
SF: I’m glad you don’t mean the next ten days because that means a lot [laughter]. I’m not the executive director of the museum, just the Director of Craft and Design. But I think that the museum has some interesting challenges as well as opportunities, and this is related to the growth of Bellevue. Look at what is happening here: This city is burgeoning so fast, and there’s an incredible process of urbanization. I live in Seattle in Capitol Hill, and it is happening there too. My god, there are cranes all around my condo! I feel Seattle has a very strong established architectural and urban identity, but Bellevue is creating it as they go along. I see BAM being the epicenter, the core from a cultural point of view for the transformation of Bellevue, and it will help to define what living on the East side will mean, of what living in the NW in general will mean. I can see our city growing so fast and becoming so relevant economically, and with such a boost in the population here, that they will need a museum that reflects that vitality, growth and dynamic reality. BAM will be that place.
I can say definitely for the mission of the museum in the next ten years that we have already begun to embrace design more in the last four years and will continue to do so. I can now announce that we will be having a major architecture and design show coming to BAM in 2016, the likes of which we have not yet seen. Also, in April of this year we will be opening an exciting new exhibit, The New Frontier, which will be a celebration of the ingenuity and design of younger designers homegrown in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. I foresee design becoming extremely important for us and then BAM becoming the design destination of the Pacific Northwest. That is something that I am investing in with time, resources, vision and emotion.
We will be continuing to follow the changing growth of the craft movement, which has been moving and changing so much it is almost like a live creature. We will explore where the medium is going and how it will change over time, and merge with design, and cross over again.
LW: How do you see art evolving in the NW in the next 20 years, and how would you like to help shape that?
SC: I think the evolution of art and growth in the NW will definitely be affected by the social and economic growth that we are seeing now—meaning we are planting the seeds now of what will be happening in the NW art scene in twenty years. I think some of the challenges the cities of Seattle, Bellevue and Tacoma are currently witnessing with fast growth is income inequality and the rising costs of housing and living. We all know that artists are more likely to be on the fringes and outside of the boundaries of wealth. I believe this growth will determine and affect the content and tone of the NW art community.
In truth, I’m not really able to predict the future. I am more of an interface between what already exists and the public, but I just say that some of these challenges already exist, and will continue to shape the creative output we see from these artists here in the next twenty years.
LW: When Madeleine Albright comes to the reception and book signing of “Read My Pins” at BAM, what type of pin will you hope she will wearing?
SC: Hmm…I would love her to wear one special pin from the collection that I really like so much. It is called “Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling.” I love it because it speaks so much about how she has empowered a whole generation of women to think for themselves and of themselves in a different way. I know that this piece was done by a known artist, and it really reflects her achievements and her personality, and I would want her to wear that one for sure!
Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection is on display at BAM from March 13 until June 7. Read more about it on BAM’s website.