There are few moments in a curator’s career more thrilling than the realization of a major exhibition project. While more modest exhibitions may take months of development, others require curators to commit years of their professional lives to researching the topic, seeking loans of works of art, and bringing together the necessary participants and funding to craft a touring exhibition and a substantial scholarly catalogue.
Following my organization of the DMA’s last major decorative arts exhibition, Modernism in American Silver: 20th-Century Design, in 2005, I began work in earnest on a topic that I had considered years earlier, that of the work of one of the leading figures of the American Arts and Crafts movement, Gustav Stickley (1858-1942). In recent decades, Stickley’s name had become nearly synonymous with the boldly functional Craftsman furniture more broadly known as “Mission furniture” (a term that he despised), and examples of his factory’s works had been included in major Arts and Crafts survey exhibitions in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Given this, I found it curious that no museum had yet undertaken a monographic study of Stickley’s production for a major touring exhibition. As I later discovered, some colleagues had pondered the topic but for various reasons were unable to pursue it. It was, for me, and for the DMA, an opportunity to forge another strong link between the Museum’s development of its 20th-century decorative arts and design collections and an exhibition idea that seemed to resonate with possibilities. Stickley, as an orchestrator of design and a proselytizer for the simple life – he even published a magazine, The Craftsman, to promote his progressive ideas – was far more than an owner of a furniture factory. In the first decade of the 20th century, he sought to change the way Americans thought about the home, machine-made goods, craft, and, ultimately, their lifestyle. The subject was about not only furniture as design but the very art of how one could, or in Stickley’s mind, should, live.
An appointment in Manhattan provided me with an opportunity to walk by Stickley’s Craftsman Building, which still stands right off of 5th Avenue and 38th Street (it’s now a restaurant and offices). He leased the entire 12-story structure in 1913 and used it as a headquarters and a department store. Furniture, garden supplies, household equipment, rugs, and a host of goods were sold here; there was even a “Craftsman Restaurant” on the top floor. What exactly was in a Craftsman fruit cocktail anyway?
On the left, one can just barely make out the Stickley mark as a red decal on the back of this desk. A joiner’s compass (an archaic woodworker’s tool used to lay out circles) surrounds his borrowed motto “Als ik kan” (If I can) and below is a copy of his signature. While subtle differences in this mark can tell us what year this piece may have been made (this work is from 1903 or 1904), the paper label to the right is especially interesting to me – it indicates where the piece was originally sold. Surviving retailer tags such as this one are far rarer than Stickley’s own mark. Dallas had two retailers of Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman furniture between 1902 and 1916.
Stickley comes to Newark.
Five years later, on September 15, 2010, we celebrated the public opening of the exhibition Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement at the Newark Museum. Although it is unusual to premiere an exhibition at a museum other than the organizing one, there was a happy synchronicity in that Craftsman Farms, once Stickley’s New Jersey home (and located a mere twenty minutes from Newark), is celebrating their centenary. The night before the public opening, lenders, colleagues, museum members, press, and other guests convened at the museum for the usual slate of honorific speeches, convivial chats, and a sneak peek at what would be revealed when the doors officially opened the following day. Arriving at this point required hundreds of hours of research into Stickley’s career, pouring over surviving business papers at Winterthur, examining original sales catalogues, advertisements, photographs, inventories, and other documents, and, with this information in mind, reviewing the actual pieces of furniture, metalware, textiles, and architectural drawings that are included in the exhibition. This research is the very heart of such exhibitions and associated catalogues and not only allows us to satisfy our curiosity as scholars – the why, when, and how these works were made and for whom – but also provides us with the knowledge for shaping a new and compelling story for our visitors and readers.
The Newark Museum’s staff never slowed down for a moment – preparing for an opening, especially one with large pieces of furniture and a recreation of an entire dining room, is not a simple matter. Each work must be handled with care, its condition well documented, labels written by the curator and placed by the preparation staff. That’s the condensed version. One of Stickley’s rectilinear oak bookcases from 1901 looms in the background, awaiting its public premiere.
DMA registrar Brent Mitchell consults with Newark’s team as we prepare to install Stickley’s own chest of drawers (far left). The best laid plans must always be adjusted to accommodate those unexpected challenges.
After spending nearly two weeks supervising the installation of the exhibition with DMA registrar Brent Mitchell and the dedicated staff at the Newark Museum, including Ulysses Dietz, their curator of decorative arts, I at last felt a sense of relief and exhilaration as the last object was placed. The exhibition is done, at least for now – come February 13, 2011, the doors will open to the DMA’s presentation of Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement.
Kevin W. Tucker is the The Margot B. Perot Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Dallas Museum of Art.