What a Crock

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

The old joke about ceramics--that muddy array of things made of clay--is that the difference between a pot and a vase is about 10,000 bucks. Not long into the tour of Anne and Sam Davis' El Paso home, it's apparent that the Davises, who recently donated about $400,000 in pots and vases to the Arizona State University Art Museum, have been tastefully living that difference for quite some time.

Every room in the house is a gallery. The walls and surfaces are gray and sleek, to avoid clashing with the colors and occasionally elaborate detailing of the pottery and other art in view. Every doorway frames a household scene that easily could have been torn from a magazine with perfume on its pages.

After driving I-10 west up the hill from the urban scraps of downtown El Paso, past the hovels scattered atop the hills of the neighboring Mexican town of Juarez, the house is a jolting change of taste. Almost too well-arranged. Too tidy. Too filled with serenity and an aura of aesthetic sanctuary to be plausible in a town more known for dust and drug blight.

Some collectors pile their belongings like fat desserts atop a six-course meal, filling every domestic inch with visual morsels any normal eye would be too stuffed to sample. But the Davises follow the less-is-more school of display. All of the works have plenty of breathing room--inhaling big Texas space, exhaling rarefied sensibility.

"I don't like to have a lot of pottery out because I feel it detracts from the work and shows a lack of respect for it," says Anne Davis, who has been the force and eye behind the collection.

A stylish grandmotherly Britisher with tinted red hair and matching coppery rouge on her lips and brows, she's been buying ceramics for more than 20 years, and collecting seriously since around 1983. She and her husband settled in El Paso in the early 1970s. Sufficiently long ago to make her crisp Londoner's cadence sound almost like a chipper defense against a land of gravelly western drawls.

She pauses at every pot she comes to and quietly announces it, as if she's introducing unacquainted friends. "This is one of my favorite Bacerras." An orangey spouted form by Californian Ralph Bacerra, it's tucked into an altarlike alcove off the entryway. Like a lot of high-end ceramics these days, its loose interpretation of a traditional teapot wasn't designed to steep anything stronger than artistic whimsy.

Around the bend in the next room, three more pots rest on a belly-high shelf with a blade-thin edge. Like Bacerra's teapot, their function is more visual than actual. They're all superb and pricey examples of their kind. And they come with a ceramic pedigree that any art museum in the market for modern clay would covet.

For those who measure art in numbers, the 50 or so ceramics that the Davises still live with are relatively small potatoes compared with the stash of kiln babies they unloaded last year on ASU.

With 315 works by about 120 artists, the Sam and Anne Davis Collection is the largest donation of ceramics the museum has ever received. About a third of it is now on view at the museum in a show that runs at least through May 2, possibly longer--museum officials are considering extending it, perhaps in a slightly altered form, through next summer.

By almost any standard, the Davis Collection is an extraordinary gift to an institution that already has a quiet reputation for having one of the largest university holdings of modern studio ceramics in the nation.

In addition to boosting the size of the museum's trove to about 1,600 objects, museum officials say it substantially bolsters the quality and scope of the museum's permanent collection, roughly valued at $1 million before the Davis additions.

Heather Sealy Lineberry, the museum's senior curator, says the Davis gift fills some historical gaps, adds key artists that the museum didn't have previously, and enables the museum to tell a fuller story of the modern studio ceramics movement that emerged after World War II.

In addition to giving students a remarkable study collection, says the museum's director, Marilyn Zeitlin, it changes the scale of the museum's commitment to ceramics by putting it in a position to develop an encyclopedic array of modern British and American studio ceramics--an area that few museums nationally have collected comprehensively.

Davis, who claims to have sworn off collecting ceramics, says she was attracted to ASU by its reputation as a friend of clay and craft, something the museum had developed under its former director, Rudy Turk. When she began thinking about finding a home for the collection several years ago, she knew she wanted it to remain in the West. She didn't have much faith that institutions around El Paso could properly care for it. She didn't want to disperse it, or give it to an institution that could afford to go out and purchase a sizable collection. "I really wanted it to be wanted, and to make a difference wherever it went," she says.

To an institution accustomed to receiving gifts a handful of objects at a time, the deluge of clay has been almost too much of a good thing. Museum officials say the gift has given the museum some growing pains and food for institutional thought that it hadn't expected to encounter just 10 years after moving into its new building at the Nelson Fine Arts Center.

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.

Davis confined her collecting to British and American ceramics. She also stuck to pottery forms, which these days include just about any configuration with a hole in its top. She avoided ceramic sculpture altogether.

"I suppose my mother may have been my influence on that," she says. "She would go for drives in the country, and have lunch or tea with friends, and come home with pots by Bernard Leach."

Leach's 1940 A Potter's Book--often referred to as the bible of studio potters--made him the great modern evangelist for handmade pottery.

"In those days you would probably buy pots by Leach in a cafe, or a restaurant, or a tea room, or little craft galleries in the country," says Davis.

In the 1970s, Davis began adding to the small collection of pottery her mother had given to her. She initially shopped the Indian reservations, buying works--in the show at ASU--from the renowned mother/daughter potters Lucy and Emma Lewis, and Maria Martinez. She shifted her attention to other areas of American and British ceramics in the early 1980s.

"I really tried to approach the work strictly on the visual level," she says. "I looked a lot and tried to stay away from listening to speculation about who was going to be the next up-and-coming or hot ceramist. Sometimes you can get into that thing where collectors or dealers would say, 'Oh, you've simply got to have one of these.' I think it's important that you sort of step back and see things for yourself."

Garth Clark, a leading scholar and dealer of modern ceramics, whose New York and Los Angeles galleries sold many works to Davis over the years, says he grew accustomed to having her ignore his advice.

Clark says Davis was always independent, never a bandwagon collector, and never one to lean on him for aesthetic advice.

"In some ways, she's always been a bit of an enigma to me," he says. "She didn't try to keep up with every show. She'd show up at the gallery maybe every year or 18 months or so, buy in a burst, and then disappear back to Texas again."

Wayne Kuwada--who served as director of the Garth Clark Gallery in Los Angeles before it closed in 1995, and who is now a consultant to the Frank Lloyd Gallery there--says that many collectors frequently reach a point where they begin collecting with museums in mind, so the nature of their collections change. "But Anne really never collected for anyone other than herself. It's always been a very personal view."

Some of that comes through in the way she displays the works around her house. She usually clusters them in small groups. And unlike the display at ASU, which presents a sea of objects bobbing at about the same pedestal height, the household displays sit high and low. Rising up a wall of shelves in one room. Extending along cabinet countertops in another. One bathroom has a single pot on a chest-high stone shelf beside a window. Another exhibits a figurative vase in the shape of a mermaid on a low tiled surface beside a bathtub.

Collectors like to joke that their belongings become collections when museums begin asking to borrow them. But to Davis, it was obvious that she was building a collection long before museums entered her head. In the late 1980s, the Davises remodeled their house to suit the art, designing one room for storage, another as a formal gallery where works could be brought out of closed cabinets and viewed.

"She was very conscious of scale," says Jo Lauria, associate curator of decorative arts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who once visited Davis. "As a collector she seemed to feel free to go beyond the tabletop scale. And her clusters of works were usually by the same artist, instead of mixing artists together like some potpourri."

Lauria and others recall that before the bulk of the collection went to ASU, the gallery room in her house was a place where you might find a dozen small forms by the Austrian-born British master Lucy Rie. "And if you wanted to see more," says Lauria, "all you had to do was open the cupboards below."

Collectors of ceramics have never been terribly high-profile. Until fairly recently, they haven't been courted by museums to the extent that collectors of paintings and sculptures have been. Even so, Davis's independence and location in the middle of nowhere has given her an added layer of anonymity.

She's never been averse to letting people come see the collection. In fact, she's often hosted classes of students from local colleges. But she avoids openings of shows featuring her works (she was on her way back from Bali the night of the ASU opening). And she refuses to have her picture taken for publication.

The relative handful of ceramic specialists familiar with her collection describe it as a highly personalized snapshot of the main British and American clay movements and artists in the past half century.

Lauria, who had hoped Davis would deposit some of her works with the L.A. County Museum, says the collection's primary strength "is that it contains a great amount of depth in a limited number of artists. It isn't what you'd call a postage stamp collection, where there's one work by everybody and all within a five-year span. She went about it with great seriousness and for quite some time."

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."

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.

"Not so long ago, you could buy great work for less than $5,000," says Garth Clark. "Now it tends to cost over $10,000 and over $20,000 across the board. And when you get into the really special stuff, it can shoot way up." He recently sold a work by the late California ceramist Robert Arneson for $170,000, and another by Californian John Mason for $95,000.

Clark and others also point out that many museums around the nation are aggressively expanding and adding works to their ceramic collections, raising the competition for the best works.

The L.A. County Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Mint Museum of Craft and Design all have received substantial gifts of ceramics collections.

Other museums dedicated to ceramics and crafts will be going up at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred, and in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Craft experts agree that this mini-boom reflects the maturation both in the producers and collectors of the studio crafts that have thrived in the past 50 years.

The Davis gift is one small trickle from that.
Elsewhere in the nation, says Mark Leach, "There are so many collectors who have reached that point in their careers where they're beginning to consider what to do with their works. What that means is that we're on the cusp of a new period of philanthropy in studio crafts and other areas. And museums that plan for it will be in a position in the coming years to develop some extraordinary collections."

Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: elebow @newtimes.com

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