Art or Craft: American Museums and the Shaping of Perception

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Art or Craft:
American Museums and the Shaping of Perception

Contents

Introduction 3
Craft in America6
Jewelry as a Transitional Model9
Introduction to Case Study11
The Museum as Ritual13
Institutional Titles16
Collection, Exhibition, and Work Titles and Labels18
Display and Presentation21
Conclusion25
Visitor Interviews: Museum of Fine Arts Houston27
Visitor Interviews: Houston Center for Contemporary Craft39 Staff Interviews46

Bibliography57

Introduction:
Museum professionals and art historians often refer to museums as shapers of perception. This is a rather apt label, assigned for a myriad of reasons. Exploring how museum practices have changed, and how museums construct perceptions that affect individual works of art, genres of art, and the contemporary art world as a whole provides insight into why museums were assigned this label. Jewelry is a genre of art whose reception and perception by the American public has been changing rapidly. As museums are understood to inform and alter the way viewers perceive objects, a study comparing exhibition practices within a fine arts and a craft museum respectively may contribute to an understanding of how American museums constitute the cultural status of contemporary American jewelry. This study analyzes the development and progression of jewelry from craft to fine art within the American art world, with the intent of examining the role the museum plays in shaping our perception of what is or is not art, and how we interpret and understand art. This study also explores the complexities of the distinction between craft and fine art, analyzing the difficulties and complications faced by many craft artisans as they attempt to be perceived as both artists and producers of craft objects. In order to determine the role of the museum in representing jewelry as art or craft, a case study approach was taken towards the Houston Museum of Fine Art and the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. While a case study does not have the statistical authority to generalize, it does allow for insights into a larger group through careful analysis of a unit within that group. Analysis and comparison of the treatment of jewelry within these two different, smaller units provides a basis for understanding the treatment of jewelry within the larger group, American museums. Two methodological approaches were combined and utilized in the case study comparing exhibition practices of these two institutions. To begin the study, traditional literary research was conducted exploring the history and definitions of craft, jewelry, and fine art and their relationship and or presence within the art world. The second component of the case study involved field work at both locations, in the form of personal observations, and visitor, and staff interviews. The visitor interviews were gathered through multiple visits to the selected institutions and were conducted randomly. The staff interviews were planned in advance and conducted both on site, and via telephone. All interview material used in this study was recorded and transcribed. The collection of primary data from both locations provides specific instances and examples of how and in what ways museums alter or affect the perception of jewelry in the American art world. Examining and comparing the status of jewelry as a craft or fine art within the contemporary American museum requires an understanding of what these institutions mean by craft and fine art, and how or where jewelry falls within these definitions. The phrases, “craft,” and “fine art,” are very complex and contain a multitude of diverse interpretations. In order to maintain the parameters of the study, a very specific, narrow, and westernized understanding of these phrases was utilized. In the study, the phrase “craft” can be equated with the decorative...
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