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Published 04/05/2007 email E-MAIL print PRINT

MAD's Chief Curator Makes An Art of Making Connections

An interview with David Revere McFadden

by CINDI Di MARZO

David Revere McFadden's career could function as a case study. With more than 35 years of experience behind him, McFadden is adept at injecting energy, excitement and surprise into museum settings. He has an uncanny ability for finding unusual images and objects made by the most inventive artists and a talent for making art accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. On a typical day at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City, where McFadden is chief curator and vice president for programs, school children participate in one of the museum's educational programs; docents spark lively discussion among tour-group members and visitors raise eyebrows and smile as their ideas about art, craft and the museum-going experience are challenged. A community has developed at MAD, and creating a community in New York - a major challenge in itself - is one of this curator's main objectives.

In September 2007, McFadden will celebrate ten years with MAD. A specialist in decorative arts, he is a three-time recipient of the Presidential Design Award for Excellence. McFadden has organized more than one hundred exhibitions, including two 'firsts' in the US: 'Scandinavian Modern', 1880-1980 (Cooper-Hewitt, September 1982-January 1983), featuring modern design from all Nordic countries, and 'Structure and Style: Modernism in Dutch Applied Arts', 1880-1930 (Cooper-Hewitt, September 1994-August 1995), showcasing Dutch applied arts made during the period. Prior to joining MAD, McFadden was executive director of the Millicent Rogers Museum of Northern New Mexico in Taos. From 1978 to 1995, he was curator of decorative arts and assistant director for collections and research at Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian's National Design Museum.

From an early age, McFadden had many interests, presaging his interdisciplinary approach to curating. While growing up in Minnesota, he planned to be a biologist but developed an interest in theater. At age 16, he attended a seminar at the University of Minnesota, which further ignited a passion for the dramatic arts. At this time, he was asked to design and make props for a local theater company (now known as the nationally acclaimed Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis) and props came to his notice as essential elements in people's lives. Since decorative arts study courses were not available then, he enrolled in art history classes. While the lecturers focused solely on painting, McFadden's attention was riveted to the objects inside the works, the details revealing human lives. In fact, a fascination with what McFadden calls the 'theater of daily life' has figured in much of his work.

In 1970, an opportunity to work in the arts came for him while still an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. He had volunteered at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and, after six weeks, was named assistant curator, a role he held until 1978. That year, another passion - New York - drew McFadden to the city and Cooper-Hewitt. (At age 12, McFadden had begun reading the New Yorker, somehow knowing that the city's never-ending swirl of activity suited his temperament and aspirations.) Working under Lisa Taylor, an innovative manager and the first woman director of a Smithsonian museum, McFadden says, freed him to access works incorporating a much broader range of materials and styles. At Cooper-Hewitt, McFadden presented a series of shows that brought crowds to the museum: 'Hair' (1980) and 'Button, Button' (1982), for example. Other shows on view during those years showcased canes and walking sticks, puppets, cast-iron toy banks, theater designs and tea services. Such objects reflect two themes that McFadden says are important to him as a curator: accessibility and the storytelling element in craft.

Working with director Holly Hotchner at MAD, McFadden continues to range far beyond the boundaries of traditional materials and methods with such shows as 'Origamic Architecture' (2001), 'Corporal Identity - Body Language' (2003-2004), 'Beyond Fringe' (2005) and, currently, 'Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting' (2007). The extensive list of programmes associated with 'Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting' includes art-making workshops for children and adults; a 'Knit-in,' in which participants knit for charity and an 'Edible Lace High Tea', at which visitors sampled lacy chocolate, nougat and sugar confections made by Dutch artist Katja Gruijters.

A visit to McFadden's office on the museum's basement level offers insight into his eclectic approach to exhibitions and programming, along with a mini-exhibit of some remarkably-made art works reproduced in the catalogues and gallery brochures piled on every surface; beautiful objects formed from paper clips, sneakers, termite wings and an array of unusual fibers. McFadden talks animatedly about these works, the most recent discoveries he has made on trips to galleries and artists’ studios. Clearly, a spirit of adventure connects the works, McFadden's interests and the shows and programs offered at MAD.

In June 2002, the New York Economic Development Corporation (EDC) chose MAD to develop Two Columbus Circle as its new home, a crossroads for midtown Manhattan, the upper West Side and Central Park. Scheduled to open in 2008, the museum's new site more than triples its space to 54,000 square feet. For the first time since the museum's founding in 1956, visitors will have access to the entire permanent collection of ceramics, fiber, glass, metal, paper, wood, mixed media and design. A Center for the Study of Arts and Design, filling one floor, will include classrooms and studios for school children, families, adults and seniors. Visitors will have access to artists at work, and artists will be able to participate in master classes, Artists in Residence programs and Open Studios. In this interview, McFadden discusses defying preconceptions of 'art', 'design' and 'craft'; developing programs for visitors to interact with artists and experience art-making; discovering art in daily life and moving next year to Columbus Circle.

Cindi di Marzo: Exhibits at MAD challenge fixed boundaries on many levels. For example, in your current exhibit, 'Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting', Edward Mayer's 'Drawing Over' could be defined as sculpture, architecture, collage and/or an example of modern craft. One might also call it furniture or a piece of playground equipment!* Admirers of design and craft have long battled distinctions between them and 'fine art.' You seem to have moved the argument beyond its original context, changing the terms and turning any such notions upside down.

David Revere McFadden: I think one of the important roles of any museum is to create situations that encourage people to look at the world around them with fresh eyes. To make that happen in an engaging, and not pedantic, manner is the challenge. In 'Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting', works are sometimes provocative, sometimes whimsical or satirical, but mostly surprising, taking the visitors' preconceived notions of harmless and old-fashioned knitting and lace and confronting them with work that is timely and significant today.

CDM: Currently, MAD is located across from the Museum of Modern Art, visited weekly by hundreds of visitors. Although quite a bit smaller, MAD's galleries, educational facilities and gift shop receive steady streams of visitors but retain an intimacy and accessibility that is difficult to find in other major New York City museums. How do you cultivate and maintain a sense of community?

DRM: It is always a challenge for any museum to build a community of support. Most museum visitors in New York city are tourists, which generally means it is a one-time visit. We do have a broad membership, but it is located primarily in the tri-state area. What we do believe is that the quality of the museum visit - exhibition interest, friendliness of security guards, good shop - makes a return visit more likely.

CDM: Art education, the making of art and the viewing of art, are primary to your programming. Many events bring together people of different ages and backgrounds. Can you speak about the intergenerational aspect of your events and their success?

DRM: Our Education Department staff have focused considerable attention on creating intergenerational programs. We want our visitors to know that we have great programs for kids, but also programs that engage older visitors. Particularly on the weekends, an outing to a museum may be one of the most important family events, and we want parents, grandparents and children to know that they can do something together at our museum.

CDM: The New York City public school system does not have arts education in its core curriculum. You invite public school children to the museum for a range of programs in which they view and make art. How have your educational programs developed, and how will they be expanded at your location in Columbus Circle?

DRM: The education programs have been developed by a very talented group of professional educators, who work with curators and artists to create a diverse menu of programs for each exhibition. In our new building, education programs will grow dramatically; for the first time in our 50-year history, we will have a real auditorium, rooms for seminars, a children’s art classroom and three working studios for visiting artists. All of these amenities, combined with dedicated galleries for our own permanent collection, will make our education programs into models for other institutions.

CDM: When we first met, you mentioned the role of mentoring in your life, and in the lives of the people with whom you work. How have you been mentored, and what do you hope to share with your colleagues?

DRM: There have been three major mentors in my life - one university art history professor and two museum directors. I cannot begin to tell you how much it meant to have respected experts in their own fields take the time to teach me some of what they knew. Primarily, they mentored by example more than by lecture, and this is what I hope to return to younger people who wish to work in the museum.

CDM: After leaving the Cooper-Hewitt, you moved to Taos to become executive director of the Millicent Rogers Museum. Living in Taos must have been quite different from being in New York. What drew you to Taos, and what drew you back to the city?

DRM: I was drawn to New Mexico by the diverse glories of the landscape. I was drawn back to New York by the diverse glories of its denizens and its culture.

CDM: Your interest in the decorative arts came about somewhat circuitously, sort of like following a trail to something unique and special that you hadn't realised existed. To me, viewing an exhibit at MAD has seemed like such a process. Often, I am drawn to a show at MAD by a provocative exhibition title ('Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting') or an unconventional event. Can you speak about actively engaging the public in a city with so many options?

DRM: When there are more than 75 museums in one city competing for the same audiences, it means that you have to offer something that cannot be found somewhere else. It means that you have to seek out the unexpected and find clever ways to lure people in your direction.

CDM: You have said that the objects in paintings attracted you to the decorative arts, and that theater props interested you because they reflect what is meaningful in people's daily lives. What have you learned about the 'theatre of daily life' and the storytelling function of craft?

DRM: Our personal worlds are inhabited by objects that we have chosen to live with. I like to ask people what could be learned about them and their lives if their apartment were buried for five hundred years and then suddenly uncovered, like Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy. It comes as somewhat of a surprise that one could, probably, write a fairly accurate narrative of what was important in someone’s life based only on the objects left behind. Craft objects - both functionally practical and contemplative/aesthetic - are significant 'fingerprints' of personal choice and underscore our belief in the meaning of objects made by one human being for the enjoyment of another.

CDM: For your 'Changing Hands' exhibits, featuring contemporary and emerging Native American artists,1 you included artists who have rarely or never exhibited outside their own communities. Was the process of finding them also a circuitous trail?

DRM: Very circuitous, to say the least. It was several years of searching on my part and that of my co-curator for the exhibition, EllenTaubman. The second exhibition, done about five years after the first, was much easier because nearly every artist now has some kind of a profile on the Internet. What used to take weeks and months can now be done in seconds. Across the board, the Internet is changing the way that curators curate.

CDM: You have a small staff at MAD. How are you able to accomplish everything you do, and make time for those all-important gallery and studio visits?

DRM: I don’t know, and probably avoid thinking about it!

CDM: When we first spoke, you mentioned a number of pursuits that feed the well of inspiration, from cooking, green markets and hardware stores to cemeteries. Can you explain the connections between these passions and how they fit in the larger scheme of living an artful life?

DRM: I seem to learn a lot by looking at the activities of people's lives that are, often, taken for granted. Green markets talk about what is grown and consumed locally; hardware stores are the treasure troves of the ordinary; and cemeteries give some idea of how we remember ourselves.

CDM: Thank you for speaking with Studio International, David. And now for what many readers, I am sure, would like to know: At the moment, which artists and works have ignited a passion in you?

DRM: 'Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting' has made it clear that fiber, in its many manifestations, is today a mainstream medium for sculpture. Ceramics are also strong, especially in the US, England, Japan and Scandinavia. In terms of specific works that have moved me, I cannot help but think of the dazzlingly beautiful installations of Tara Donovan. Who else could take a couple thousand Styrofoam cups and transform them into a light-filled cloud? It is sheer magic. And, as artist Chris Wilmarth once said, 'If it's not magic, it's merchandise.' I stay on the trail of magic.

Footnotes

* Mayer, professor and Sculpture Area chair at the State University of New York at Albany, formed 'Drawing Over' (2007) from steel shelving, found objects, vinyl tape, wood and plastic zip ties. 'Drawing Over' begins on the museum's second level and travels over a spiraling staircase that leads down to the first level, following viewers as they move down the stairs.

1. 'Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation' (May–September 2002), 'Changing Hands 2' (September 2005-January 2006). For more information, go to www.madmuseum.org

Reviews of the following exhibitions at the Museum of Arts and Design can be found on www.studio-international.co.uk
Contemporary Artists Embrace a 'Radical' Tradition
('Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting', 25 January–17 June, 2007)
Simply Artful, Simply Functional, Simply Droog
('Simply Droog', 21 September 2006-14 January 2007)
Changing Hands and Building Bridges
('Changing Hands 2: Art Without Reservation', 22 September 2005–22 January 2006)



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