What a Crock

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

That care is apparent in the scope and depth of her choices. The collection that came to ASU includes 17 works by Rie, several by the German-born British master Hans Coper, and more than 50--all considered as one piece--by Britisher Geoffrey Swindell. It contains a few pots by Leach (Davis has kept some of the best ones, but says she's likely to eventually donate the rest of her collection to ASU). Also included are works by Leach's son, David, and Leach's friends and protegees Michael Cardew and the Japanese master Shoji Hamada, both of whom worked with him for a time.

The American side of the collection is a Who's Who of studio potters who have come to prominence in the past 30 years. Among them are Roseline Delisle, Akio Takamori, Ralph Bacerra, Robert Turner and the late Beatrice Wood. One also finds works by Karen Karnes, Michael Lucero, Rudy Autio, Ruth Duckworth, Ken Price, Kurt Weiser and Adrian Saxe. These are hardly household names in the arts. But in the tiny world of modern studio ceramics, they are among the blue chips whose works sell for four and occasionally five figures.

That might sound expensive for pots and crocks. But it's peanuts compared with prices for paintings, sculptures and other forms of mainstream art, which regularly go for millions of dollars at auctions.

The fact that ceramics is a comparative bargain partly explains why the ASU museum has been able to amass such an extensive collection of it. "What often happens is that museums begin collecting ceramics and other studio crafts because they're affordable," says Greg Kuharic, vice president of 20th century decorative arts at Sotheby's auction house in New York.

What it boils down to, say Kuharic and other art experts, is smart shopping--a balance of luck, begging and buying in overlooked, therefore underpriced, areas of the art market.

The Phoenix Art Museum, for example, was able to shop for 18th century paintings in the 1960s and '70s, when 18th century works were out of fashion. It reeled in a lot of early modernist American pictures in the 1970s before that market boomed. More recently, PAM was one of the first museums to buy 18th- and 19th-century Chinese art, helping to establish and bump up the prices for those works.

James Ballinger, director of PAM, points out that the Oliver and Mabel James Collection of American paintings and sculptures that sparked the ASU Art Museum in 1950 was itself assembled when American art was an "off area." The Jameses bought the 130 works that eventually went to the museum long before American art began selling at a premium, at a time when most American eyes were still preoccupied with European art.

By the time Rudy Turk arrived at ASU in 1967, when the museum was housed on the second floor of the Matthews Center, the kind of American art the Jameses had bought was already beyond the museum's means.

"I had a special budget of about $3,500 a year for acquisitions and other things," says Turk, "but that amount also had to cover whatever we did in the way of publications, which wasn't much."

Turk recalls that during his first 20 years at ASU, university policy prevented him from soliciting contributions of money. But he could accept donations. So whenever people offered him money to buy something as a memorial for a loved one, he would.

Other money came from Astrid Thomas, a museum docent who bankrolled the purchase of the more than 300 pieces of historical American crockery that became the core of the ceramics collection. Thomas also got the museum store up and running by selling a hodgepodge of items from a folding table in the museum lobby. Store proceeds went directly toward museum acquisitions and other special projects. All told, cash from donors and Thomas' efforts amounted annually to somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000.

Turk directed whatever money he could toward strengthening the museum's collections of ceramics and prints, and broadening its scope to include contemporary works in glass, wood, textiles and other crafts. Craft experts say that Turk's addition in the 1980s of the Edward Jacobson collection of wooden bowls made the museum among the first nationally to collect that kind of object.

Turk says his interest in ceramics began in the late 1950s, when he took a job as art historian and gallery director at the University of Montana in Missoula. The inventive potter Rudy Autio was also teaching there. Through him, Turk met Peter Voulkos, who was then leading the revolution that transformed American studio ceramics from an area of polite utilitarianism to one of freewheeling, no-holds-barred expressionism.

Turk ran across Voulkos again, and other clay rebels, when he took a job in the Bay Area in the 1960s as director of the Richmond Art Center. But ASU was where he was able to build his familiarity with the field into a collection.

Like Anne Davis, he didn't have any overriding agenda or plan.
Says Turk, "The goal was just to put together a collection that the school could use as an education tool, so students in ceramics, for example, could come in and see what other potters were doing, and how they were doing it."

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