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.
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.
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.