The so-called Miracle Mile on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles admittedly has an odd mix of cultural institutions. There is the world renowned Los Angeles County Museum of Art, then the car enthusiast’s Petersen’s Auto Museum, the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum of natural history and the museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is in the process of being built. A bit further down the street in one direction is the Hammer Museum at UCLA and, in the other direction, the Zimmer Children’s Museum. Amidst these large-scale institutions is the Craft and Folk Art Museum, a three-story house converted into a showcase for contemporary crafts that operates on a relative shoestring – just $730,000 per year – with the goal of exhibiting the work of contemporary artisans and teaching visitors how this work is made.
“We’re not a collecting museum,” said Suzanne Isken, executive director of the museum since 2011. “We are more what is called in the art world a kunsthalle, a pure exhibition space.”
The museum’s exhibition programming offers a wide mix of artists and materials, including washboard assemblage sculptures by Betye Saar, artists’ books, photography and videos from Iran, objects created by U.S. army veterans, ceramic objects by a Japanese-born American artist that were made in China, quilts made by men and crafts pieces on the theme of baseball. Diversity is more the common theme than any one material or style. Also uniting these exhibitions is the fact that the objects were produced by contemporary artists.
“We want these artists to receive recognition,” she said, noting that many of the artists and craftspeople in exhibitions would be characterized as “emerging.” One way in which the museum judges its success is when “we launch an artist and he or she gets recognition in the media. We want critical articles written about these artists.”
Isken noted that Los Angeles is not an obvious place to highlight crafts. “We’re not Asheville, North Carolina, where you go into a gallery – any number of galleries – and see a painting next to a nicely made ceramic work.” The acceptance of crafts as art in this big money, car culture city remains a stretch, which is why she, the former education director at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, places a great emphasis on informing the public what the artists in this museum’s exhibitions are doing. “You have to do a lot of work to attract people in Los Angeles. People look for activities.” As a result, throughout the year, the Craft and Folk Art Museum offers a variety of workshops and classes, art talks, readings and participatory projects, all focused specifically on what is currently on display.
The difference between a crafts museum and an art museum, she noted, is that “craft is so much about process and not so much about meaning. If you went to an exhibition of Jackson Pollock paintings, how Pollock made his paintings is not so mysterious. Rather, it is what Pollock meant to do. With crafts, the issue for most people is how you make it, how this piece was cast, how it was glazed, what type of materials are being used.
“We’ve asked ourselves, who is the audience for a contemporary crafts museum, and the answer is, people who want to make things and learn things,” she said. “Our goal is to attract and build a community of makers.”
Perhaps, those makers might also become buyers of the works of the artists and craftspeople exhibited at the museum, but that is not the primary interest of the institution. “We don’t sell the artwork in our exhibition, and if someone asks if a particular piece is for sale we tell that person to call the artist. We might give that person contact information for the artist, but we don’t broker sales, and we want to be separate from the art market. Our mission is education, not commerce.”
The museum has a gift shop (“It’s not really profitable”), but the items in it tend not to be the high-end objects in its exhibitions, such as dolls, ceramics, jewelry and other decorative objects, , as well as do-it-yourself books on and kits for crafts projects, such as egg decorating, doll embroidery, block printing, craft beer brewing and herb growing.
However, every penny counts at this museum whose neighbors have far larger budgets ($2.2 million at the Petersen, $92 million at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and annual visitors (200,000-plus at the Petersen, 1.4 million at LACMA, compared to the Craft and Folk Art Museum’s 32,000). A recent exhibition on book arts in southern California was only made possible through a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which helped pay for the cost of shipping pieces to and from the museum ($800), security ($1,200), postcard printing and mailing ($150), advertising on a local public radio station ($1,500), the fabrication of display cases and object labels ($8,000) and fees to the artists ($6,000), according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.