What a Crock

A recent gift of pottery leaves ASU's art museum wondering where to stack its wares

When the works arrived last summer, they overwhelmed the museum's main ceramics storage and study area on the second floor of the old museum building at the campus' Matthews Center, filling it with stacks of boxes, packing materials and crates, and forcing the closure of what had been the museum's only place for students and scholars to regularly see the museum's ceramics.

"I guess the thing to say about it is we're running out of space," says Zeitlin. "Unlike prints, paintings, drawings, which can be laid flat or stacked, ceramics simply devour storage space."

Zeitlin says the museum might buy itself time to develop a plan for the collection by leaving the Davis exhibition up until summer. "But I don't think there's any question that as we elevate and expand the quality of the overall collection," she says, "we'll have to begin thinking about finding or building additional space. It isn't something we can pretend we won't need."

But some longtime museum supporters contend that space is only part of the museum's present clay conundrum.

"I think it kind of boils down to a lack of vision," says one patron, speaking anonymously to avoid jeopardizing future relations with museum officials, "Clay and other crafts just aren't Marilyn's primary concern."

Zeitlin says that's simply not true, and that developing and improving the collection is a museum priority.

Art patron Stephane Janssen and other strong supporters of Zeitlin and the museum say the Davis gift is a dramatic measure of Zeitlin's commitment to the field; she could have turned it down.

Still, the concerns underscore a growing competition within the museum between its old strengths and new ambitions, and highlight the hard choices and competing interests that young museums sometimes face in developing and refining their areas of focus.

Some museum supporters worry that changes in the museum's direction have made it increasingly difficult for the public to see a collection acknowledged to be one of the museum's chief assets.

The rub is most evident at Matthews Center, the old museum building that's a five-minute walk onto the campus from the museum's main site at the Nelson Fine Arts Center.

When the new building was opened in 1989, Matthews was intended to serve as the institution's ceramics and craft space. But in recent years, its displays of ceramics and other crafts have been squeezed out to provide more exhibition space for other forms of contemporary art, and to allow the growth of the university's Institute for Studies in the Arts, a lab dedicated to multi-media experimentation in the arts.

Last summer, the museum dismantled its only permanent ceramics display at Matthews and shut down the ceramics study collection there. Museum officials acknowledge that the arrival of the Davis ceramics was only partly responsible for that. Zeitlin needed the additional space to mount her exhibition of contemporary art from Cuba. Now the area is being used to stage an exhibition of contemporary art from Los Angeles.

Lineberry and Zeitlin consider conditions in the area--an Indiana Jones room of cabinets and shelves filled with pottery, where students, scholars and writers traditionally have been able to see the museum's ceramics--so chaotic that they denied repeated requests by New Times to see or photograph it.

The closure of the study collection surprises Anne Davis, who says, "The open storage was one of the reasons I gave the collection to ASU. I thought that kind of arrangement would be a good way for people to see the works."

Museum officials say the closure is temporary; that some time in the coming year a plan will be finalized for housing and exhibiting the museum's permanent ceramics collection. Zeitlin says the short-term solution will probably include bringing back and perhaps sprucing up the open storage.

She says no date has been set to reopen the area. She says the museum currently doesn't have the money to make the necessary improvements, adding, "I really couldn't tell you what that would cost."

Ceramics occupy a niche of art that often causes even museum people to scrunch up their noses, furrow their brows and ask, "You mean pots?"

Well, sort of.
Like many arts born from crafts, the pots coming out of modern clay studios range broadly from common mugs, bowls, pitchers, plates and other usable items right up--or down, depending on how you look at it--to works that thumb their spouts, lips, handles and lids at the very idea of usefulness.

The museum's current 120-work sampling from the Davis Collection, covers just about the entire spectrum. Its earliest examples are of British studio pottery from the 1920s and early 1930s. Yet most of the works in this show--and in the collection--were made in the past 30 years.

Objects range from small suitcase- and wastebasket-size containers down to vases you can fit in your palm. Many embody the frenzied experimentation that has been the norm in ceramics since the 1950s. That's when Peter Voulkos and other renegade American potters on the West Coast began reshaping the purposes and identities of traditional ceramics forms, turning them into vessels and sculptures designed almost exclusively to dish out artistic expression.

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