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Crafts Curatorial Professional Development Visit to New York Spring 2009

The Scottish Arts Council supported a five-day Crafts Curators’ Professional Development Visit to New York in April.

My Back Pages, Paul Villinski 2008; Photo:Anna Beeke

Water Drop Series, Kiwon Wang; Photo: NY Times

Yurt at Fashioning Felt;Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design

Collections and collectors
Studio visits
Independent research


The Scottish Arts Council organises regular networking events and international research visits as part of its ongoing commitment to strengthening the knowledge and skills of Scottish curators with an interest and responsibility for presenting and developing the crafts sector.

Twelve curators visited New York in spring 2009 with the aim of immersing themselves in the crafts scene, challenging their perceptions, stimulating debate and gaining a greater understanding of the context of their work in an international scene.

The group ranged across ages and experience from contemporary craft, applied arts, retailing to education. Individuals came from across Scotland. 

The two focal visits for the trip were the 12th annual SOFA fair (Sculpture Objects and Functional Art) at the Park Avenue Armory and the recently re-located MAD (Museum of Arts and Design) at Columbus Circle.

My Back Pages, Paul Villinski 2008; Photo:Anna Beeke

Visits to private collections, artist studios and the opportunity for independent research time was also included as part of the trip. The programme reflected the highest quality contemporary crafts available in New York and offered an insight into current policies and ‘thinking’ in order to compare and contrast with craft in Scotland, and to inform critical debate.


SOFA brings together leading international galleries, presenting museum quality work from both established and emerging artists and bridges the boundaries between design, decorative and fine art.

The SOFA fair attracts up to 13 000 visitors during its four days with the audience representing collectors, supporters of the arts and curators, and is an opportunity to network and see outstanding new work. As a professional group the Scottish curators enjoyed many special events, visits to private collector’s homes, behind-the-scene tours and lectures. Curators visit to SOFA

"I met artists whose work features in our collection and had the opportunity to speak with them on a one-to-one basis. The knowledge gained from attending these talks and meeting the artists on a personal level is unparalleled."

The group attended an informal discussion on ‘Collecting Studio Jewellery’ led by Elisabeth Agro, Curator of Jewellery at Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Her presentation highlighted how American jewellery design often reflects a narrative approach and demonstrated the importance of the relationship between the private collector and the museum curator.

"I found the talk very pertinent to the visit, and hearing about how collectors in the U.S. play a large part in the careers of some artists and makers was an insight."

MAD (Museum of Art and Design)

Museum of Art and Design;Photo: Helene Binet

The Museum of Art and Design relocated to a brand new purpose-designed landmark building at Columbus Circle in September 2008. It has a permanent gallery space for its jewellery and applied arts collection alongside a temporary exhibition space, education room, auditorium and shop.

On the upper floor are two workshop spaces where visitors can meet current artists in residence, see and handle their work and learn more about their individual practice through conversation.

David McFadden and Ursula Ilse Neuman, the two curators responsible for collections and management of the building, could not have been more open and welcoming to the group. There was an evident pride in their new building which had been hard won and now offered three times the amount of space, with plenty of scope to explore their curatorial ambitions.

David expressed the fact that they were, like many of the visiting curators' own institutions, entering potentially rocky times due to the world financial climate and was aware of the many challenges that lay ahead.  Nonetheless, he exuded enthusiasm and joy at having this new custom-built space in which to present and explore contemporary craft and design.

"We were fortunate to see Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary during its last week on show, featuring 50 international artists making works from ordinary and everyday manufactured functional objects. It represented artists working beyond any distinction between craft, the visual arts and installation, with the focus on the quality and integrity of the work rather than the category."

The gallery showing their permanent jewellery collection was lovely. Display cases, showing selected works, was supported by drawers containing the rest of the collection.  Scotland was represented by Dorothy Hogg and Peter Chang, with David Watkins, another British jeweller, also on display.

"I found it particularly useful to see how the gallery had used new technology to inform visitors about works in the collection, together with details and videos of the makers."

Curators viewing the Jewellery Collection at MAD 

Unique interactive touch screens were positioned in each public gallery and offered a photographic and textual record of the entire MAD collection.

Collections and collectors

The recognised credentials of a research tour certainly helped to open doors and facilitate personal introductions and meetings, which greatly enhanced the experience.

It was a privilege to be able to visit the collection and home of Nanette Laitman. It was a glimpse of how the wealthy live in New York but also interesting to see how she chose to spend her wealth. As both President of Trustees for SOFA and on the board of Directors for MAD she is very committed to the continued development of craft. Having agreed to show her collection, she was open about her objects and obviously an enthusiastic collector.
Within the SOFA special programme was a group visit to the Taft Paulsen home in Tribeca district – a two-storey loft apartment in a converted industrial building with spectacular rooftop views of the Manhattan skyline and Hudson River. This was a marvellous opportunity to experience personal, private purchasing and to see how large sculpture, glass, ceramics and other craft objects are selected, displayed and enjoyed within a home. The host, Laura, is a Board member of the Penland School of Crafts and she gave a short presentation of its work and introduced several of the artists from the cohort.  Penland is an educational establishment in North Carolina where craft is kept vital by preserving its traditions and constantly expanding its boundaries.

Studio visits

The group made visits to three independent artists located in loft workshops within the Chelsea district. Since the mid-1990s Chelsea has evolved as a centre for much of New York’s contemporary art scene. Each of the three women artists visited had a different ethnic background – Kiwon Wang, a Korean jeweller, Mina Norton an Iranian knitwear designer and Reiko Ishiyama, a Japanese jeweller.

Each had lived in the city for many years and all expressed the view that New York was a unique place where they felt they could truly express their individuality. The cultural diversity of the city allowed them to live and work freely, which was very liberating to their creativity, practice and sense of ‘self’.  It was refreshing to meet three very different makers, each one open to presenting and sharing the ideas and driving force behind their work.

Water Drop Series, Kiwon Wang; Photo: NY Times

Independent research

Yurt at Fashioning Felt;Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design  

Each of the Scottish curators had free time to explore their individual areas of research and updated each other and exchanged information at the end of each day.

"I visited the Fashioning Felt exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum - a useful visit and interesting source of names and work.  The yurt based on a conservatory was totally incredible.

My visits to other museums and galleries included MoMA, The Guggenheim, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, including time spent in each respective shop. I also visited Chelsea’s commercial gallery spaces and others on the Lower East Side."

Informal networking

The Gugginheim Museum

The Scottish curators hosted an informal dinner on one evening, with guests from the American Craft Council, journalists, freelance arts consultants, artists and curators from major institutions.  Excellent contacts were established in this relaxed setting.

Not only did the visit offer an opportunity for familiar colleagues to spend quality time together, but for participants to get to know a whole spectrum of new professional acquaintances. Sharing, discussing and comparing a very intense and focused experience was inevitably a uniquely bonding experience which is extremely valuable, in the longer term, to developing potential collaborations within crafts development in Scotland.


Overall this was a constructive and highly stimulating research visit where participants had time to benefit from the structured programme and the freedom to explore their own interests. Contacts made were open and receptive to ideas and keen to pursue proposals for future collaboration.  The Scottish curators returned with many ideas and the drive to take them forward.

Our world is very different today.  We still look to America for new trends and developments and new technologies make it simple to stay in touch.  This means it is easier to develop collaborations and exchange ideas, often without meeting, but for curators, as for buyers, the physical experience is essential and irreplaceable.

Future events

If you are a curator based in Scotland working with crafts or visual arts and would like to know more about future professional development opportunities in relation to crafts please email Katy West, Crafts Officer for the Scottish Arts Council.

related internet links
* American Folk Art Museum
* Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum
* Guggenheim Museum
* The Museum of Art and Design
* Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue
* MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art)
* Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue
* The New Museum of Contemporary Art
* Urban Glass, Brooklyn
* Whitney Museum of American Art
* The Frick Collection
* Penland School of Craft
* Philadelphia Museum of Art
* Kiwon Wang
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