What a Crock

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

In the early years, he bought most works for under $100. An exception was Voulkos' 1968 "Steel Pot," which cost about $700--a similar pot today could easily fetch more than $60,000.

Turk didn't have to travel to collect. Joanne Rapp and Star Sacks' The Hand and the Spirit Gallery in Scottsdale, which specialized in American ceramics and crafts, gave him a wide window on the field.

And he made regular rounds to the few craft collectors in the area, where, many say, he displayed all the charm and chutzpah of a sophisticated shoplifter.

"Every time that man came over," says Mitzi Schoninger, a Phoenix art patron who has regularly donated works of craft to the museum, "his palms would start itching, he'd start sweating, and he'd go over to a piece and this orgasmic expression would come over his face, and he'd say 'it's time to donate this to ASU.' And he'd walk out with it. I think he kept blankets and boxes in the trunk of his car, just in case."

His preparedness paid off. In his 25 years at the museum, Turk secured sizable donations of pottery by Maria Martinez and Gertrud and Otto Natzler. Piece by piece, he brought in a full range of American studio works, growing the collection from fewer than 30 objects to around 800.

That effort put the museum on the nation's craft map, made it a friend to potters and other crafters and made it a relatively easy beacon for Anne Davis to spot from Texas.

Yet despite the notoriety, the significance of the museum's ceramics collection has remained somewhat murky. Ceramics curators and dealers around the nation know of it, but scratch their heads a bit about what, other than its size, sets it apart.

The museum has never had the money or staff to publish a catalogue of the collection--one way to spread the word about it beyond the region. And before the Davis gift arrived, it wasn't comprehensive enough in more than a few areas to use as a basis for significant exhibitions.

Turk and others say that the shoestring manner in which the collection has developed inevitably has made it a quirky and haphazard amalgam that ranges from tchotchkes to masterpieces.

Current museum officials say its strengths and weaknesses have never been formally assessed and that carrying out such an analysis would require a considerable infusion--they're not sure how much--of money and staff.

They and longtime museum supporters say the arrival of the Davis Collection brings new urgency and leverage for the museum to get that done.

"What we have now is really two very quirky collections," says Zeitlin. "What we need to do is sort of line them up and see where we need greater depth, where we have holes, and what we need to add to make the collection topnotch."

Joanne Rapp, the former owner of The Hand and the Spirit Gallery, a former member of the museum's board and a nationally respected observer of the ceramics field who has donated works to the museum for years, agrees that the collection needs to be thoroughly analyzed and sifted.

Part of that assessment, she says, should include an extensive wish list and plan that looks far into the future with a strategy that encompasses building, refining and exhibiting it.

Mark Leach, director of the newly opened Mint Museum of Craft and Design, in Charlotte, North Carolina, which recently has received numerous significant donations in all areas of the crafts, says those kinds of assessments and wish lists give museums the road maps they need to grow in a direction that makes sense.

Of course, that means having the room to grow.
Says Rapp, "Someone really needs to start politicking for more space, more storage, and a way to get the work out and make it available in a much more meaningful way."

She and others point out that the museum's other forte--prints--has a formal study area at the Nelson Fine Arts Center. The collection of about 3,750 prints is constantly used by university students, scholars and children from local schools.

"We really need that kind of facility for ceramics," says Rapp.
Museum officials agree with all of that. But money is the persistent issue. The museum store now generates about $35,000 for the museum's general kitty. Another $7,000 comes from a foundation. That doesn't allow much for special projects. But the roughly $140,000 raised by the museum for last year's Cuban exhibition indicates that it can find additional funds when necessary.

For several years, Lineberry has been trying to secure funding through grants to have the collection assessed. Lineberry and Zeitlin also say that some help might eventually come when the second phase of the Nelson Fine Arts Center expansion gets going. A university official says that although an expansion is planned, it hasn't been designed, funded or scheduled for construction.

Whatever occurs, growing national and international interest and activity in modern studio ceramics may bring more pressure on the museum to act sooner than later. Ceramics is no longer the sleepy area that Turk wandered into in the 1960s.

Experts say that steadily rising prices for works by some of the field's better-known ceramists may make it more difficult in the coming years for ASU to fill the gaps in its collection.

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