Mingei Crafts Opportunity | Mingei International Museum

Barbara Hanson Forsyth brings multiple perspectives to her curation of fine art, decorative art, folk art, design and craft. Her background includes collections management, content curation, appraisals, education, marketing and development expertise on behalf of museums, galleries and auction houses spanning Mingei to Christie’s. She holds an MA from Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture and a B.A. from Stanford University.

Tell us a bit about Mingei and CRAFTING OPPORTUNITY - Mid-Century Work from the Collection of Mingei International Museum, the show that opened May 11. Who and what can we expect to see?

So the short explanation when it comes to Mingei is that we are an art museum, but an art museum that focuses on folk art, craft, and design, with an emphasis on the arts of daily life. We don’t actively collect what one considers fine art (i.e. painting and sculpture) but instead we see the power and beauty of everyday functional objects. People unfamiliar with us hear a Japanese name and don’t necessarily understand what we’re about but the word mingei roughly translates to art of the people, or hand-crafted art by ordinary people.

Mingei International Museum’s founder, the late Martha Longenecker--who was a prominent professor here at SDSU and a potter in the Japanese mingei tradition--expanded the concept of mingei to include all eras and cultures of the world. As a result, our collection of roughly 25,000 objects is about as diverse as it gets. The majority of our works are by unidentified craftspeople, as many traditional cultures would not have documented the makers of everyday objects. What this art has in common is how it reflects a joy in making, by hand, useful objects of timeless beauty that are satisfying to the human spirit.

Our upcoming exhibition at the Central Library downtown features American mid-century design and craft, ceramics, furniture, jewelry, fashion, etc., all from our permanent collection. So, in the spirit of mingei, the exhibition features art of everyday life--things that were useful, of course, but also things that showcase the incredible creativity and ingenuity that defines the era. In this case, we know who the makers are and there are many well-known names: Charles and Ray Eames, Jack Lenor Larsen, Arline Fisch, Ellamarie Woolley, and Maria Martinez, to name a few. And some of the designer-craftsmen featured in the show, especially the potters, were actually directly inspired by the mingei movement in Japan, such as Peter Voulkos, Karen Karnes, and our founder, Martha Longenecker. I’m also excited to report that we are exhibiting many pieces for the first time, namely selections from a sizeable donation received in 2016 as well as some recent purchases.

Why the title CRAFTING OPPORTUNITY? What was the role of craft or why was it so important in the mid-twentieth century?

Well, putting together a permanent collection show differs from other exhibitions because you are working with what you already have--you’re not borrowing pieces from other institutions or private individuals to fill in the gaps in your collection. This is not, in other words, an exhaustive look at mid-century design and craft. Instead, I looked at our mid-century holdings, which are actually quite extensive, and started thinking about what themes united this disparate group of material. I was struck by how experimental some of it was, but also how accessible, even practical. The postwar period is a complicated one. On the one hand, there was a sense of optimism for the future with the baby and housing boom that defined the era. On the other hand, this was a time when women, who had gained some freedoms during WWII were essentially being told to return to the kitchen, to be homemakers and the housing boom itself resulted in a lot of bland, planned communities.

American art really rose to prominence during this time--think of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art. These were movements dominated by men. However, in the field of craft and design, there was room for both genders. The GI Bill offered veterans the option to go to college and pursue careers in the arts, but a surprising number of women were working in the field as well--sometimes independently, sometimes as part of a husband/wife team. The housing boom created a lot of homes that needed to be furnished, which helped re-establish craft and design as a viable career path. Some designers found teaching positions at University arts program, which saw extensive expansion during this period. Others got commissions at companies known for mass-produced goods but it was OK during this period to produce both hand-crafted pieces and design for industry--hence the term “designer-craftsmen” that emerged during this period.

Now, as the 20th century progressed, the tension between craft and production, as well as art versus design, became more intense and complicated, which I touch upon in this exhibition as well, but back to why I chose this title...As I scrutinized our permanent collection, I kept coming back to this theme of opportunity...an opportunity to make a living doing something physically and intellectually satisfying, an opportunity to revive and reinvent craft traditions, an opportunity for women to participate in the workforce when many other doors had been closed.

But I don’t want to oversimplify...there were more opportunities to be experimental in a place like California than in many parts of the country, and not all societal groups are adequately represented in the designer-craftsmen movement. Still, I think this exhibition, while not at all comprehensive in scope, offers a window into the fertile environment for art and design that characterizes the era. Some pieces are relatively traditional, and some are quite counterculture and experimental. It’s a lot of fun!

"What this art has in common is how it reflects a joy in making, by hand, useful objects of timeless beauty that are satisfying to the human spirit."

Is this the first official off-site show while Mingei’s Balboa Park location undergoes transformation? Any events planned in conjunction with the show?

Yes and no. When we temporarily closed our doors Labor Day of last year, we had already mounted a large exhibition of our quilts at CECUT in Tijuana that ran through November 4 of last year. We also currently have our beloved restaurant scene on view at the Municipal Gallery up in Escondido. But this is the first full-scale pop-up exhibition to go up since our Balboa Park museum closed for renovation, and we are excited to offer some fun programming in conjunction with it.

For instance, Leigh Wishner, from FIDM in Los Angeles will give a lecture titled “Museums by the Yard” about museums’ impact on textile and fashion design during this period at the Shiley Auditorium, just adjacent to the Library Gallery, on May 30. And for those who are more hands-on, there will be a mid-century inspired punch needle rug hooking workshop on June 14, also at the library but part of our Mingei Makers series, which requires pre-registration through Mingei International Museum.

Is the curatorial team looking forward to returning to the redesigned museum? Are there any opportunities around being a mobile museum until the renovation is complete?

Absolutely! We are definitely all eagerly awaiting our return to Balboa Park. The renovated museum is going to be gorgeous and better serve our community, completely redesigned by local architect Jen Luce but still retaining the human touch and intimacy that people associate with Mingei. However, in the meantime we are taking full advantage of -- and here’s that word again, our opportunity -- to forge new partnerships that can allow us to continue a San Diego presence in the here and now but will also expand our community for the future.

These partnerships include the current one at the Central Library but we also have a strong presence at Liberty Station. A branch of our popular store and cafe are at the Naval Command Center there, and we will be participating in rotating public art program titled Installations at the Station. We also have a fall exhibition planned featuring San Diego’s Allied Craftsmen at City College, and more is in the works.

I suggest checking our website, mingei.org regularly for updates!

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