Seeking a Place for Contemporary Tapestry in Museum Collections

This article was first published in the Friends of Fiberart International newsletter, Dear Friends, No. 18  July 1996

Contemporary tapestry artists are often frustrated by the feeling that their work is  lost in a space between art and craft. The fine art world often sees tapestry as too concerned with technique  and not concerned enough with either formal aesthetics or with intellectual content. Tapestry’s historical legacy weighs heavily both because of its association with the decorative and because of the art world’s continuing emphasis on innovation, especially with regard to materials and methods, but also with respect to content and subject matter.

Non tapestry fiber art is often seen as more experimental and more conceptual than flat tapestry.  Fiber art emphasizes materials and process and takes a more gestural and instinctive approach. Historically, it can be seen in a close relationship to Abstract Expressionism. Both fiber art and Abstract Expressionism raised the materials of art to the position of a motivating principle and placed a greater emphasis on the formal properties of art. Within this philosophy flat tapestry is seen as too dependent on image and too decorative.  

Tapestry also faces the suspicions that confront other second generation media (objects which are designed in one medium and ultimately produced in another – such as prints). The second step that is involved in translating a drawing or painting into tapestry fits uneasily with the image of an artist transmitting a direct and unpremeditated psychic force into his or her art work, an image that has been with us since Romanticism championed the vision of an artist as an emotionally expressive, imaginative and spontaneous individual.

apestry also fits uncomfortably within the craft world. It does not share the functional reference that most craft objects possess and, at least in its mural  format, it fits awkwardly within the display of a craft gallery. Large scale tapestry that is not sold by the artist is commonly handled by art consultants, who often sell it by the square foot, suggesting parallels to wall paper and floor coverings.

Surveying the Museums

Attitudes about the nature of fine art and craft and about the position of specific media within those worlds are reflected in the collection and exhibition practices of museums. Although tapestry artists often take great care to distinguish themselves from other textile art, museums, as a rule, do not have separate policies or institutional divisions for contemporary tapestry. It is usually part of a larger collection, often textile, but sometimes more broadly, craft or decorative arts.  The way in which tapestry is treated within the museum can shed light on many other institutional and private patterns of reception, understanding and collection.

 At the Renwick Gallery textiles are acquired as part of a broader mandate to collect, exhibit, research and interpret American crafts and decorative arts. The Renwick distinguishes itself in collecting craft as art. Of the museum’s entire collection fiber represents about 9.5%. None of these are tapestry. According to Ellen Myette, Operations Administrator, this omission is not deliberate.The museum’s collection criteria, as elaborated in the Statement of Purpose, include demonstrating “major aesthetic developments… and… significant historical movements.”  Within these parameters individual pieces are selected primarily for their “aesthetic quality, [although] issues of historical significance, technique, and style will be considered in determining the appropriateness of the object for the permanent collection. Generally the Gallery seeks to acquire works by established artists and figures recognized as significant for the development of twentieth-century American crafts. Works of unusual quality by less established artists may also be collected as opportunities arise.” The Renwick began collecting contemporary American craft in 1986. Should it be assumed  that, since tapestry is not represented, that no tapestry has been available that fits the above stated collection criteria?

Like the Renwick, the Charles A. Wustum Musuem of Fine Arts acquires textiles within the framework of a twentieth century crafts collection. The Wustum’s fiber collection numbers sixty seven pieces, four of which are tapestries, three by Cherry Barr Jerry and one by Thelma Xaba. The museum, however, considers its primary interest to lie among other fiber media. Baskets, in particular, are a major focus for the museum, both because of a significant donation, and because of their structural and functional relationship to the museum’s ceramic collection which is, for the most part, container inspired. Continuity between different parts of the museum’s crafts collection lends itself to cohesive mixed media exhibitions and thematic essays and is considered an important factor in collection practices at the Wustum. Image based tapestry is often related more closely to trends in drawing and painting. It might not fit as cohesively within a crafts collection, which more commonly relates to functional or sculptural concerns. An essay that accompanied a recent show of the Wustum’s textile collection characterizes the artists as “artists with regional, national and international reputations who have worked in the United States since 1968.” The museum has attempted to collect a diverse range of work (functional and sculptural) that is of museum quality. They consider their craft collection to be art and they display it in ways that highlight its aesthetic qualities, rather than its historical or cultural attributes. According to Caren Heft, Associate Curator, the Wustum collects “work for which the artist is best known, or early work which leads up to mature work. Sometimes imagery for which an artist is known is a prevalent part of the work, in which case we would like to have that imagery if possible.” The museum’s collection is noteworthy for containing more than one piece of several artists.

At the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum contemporary tapestry is collected as an extension of an historical tapestry collection. Melissa Leventon, Curator of Textiles, also sites the Bay area tapestry community as an important factor in influencing the continued collection of contemporary tapestry. The entire tapestry collection numbers one hundred nine pieces. There are seven contemporary works, including one tapestry designed by Albert Herter, three pieces designed by Jean Lurcat, two by Mark Adams and one by Lillian Elliot. It is interesting to note that all of the contemporary tapestries at the de Young except for Elliot’s are, like their historical companions, products of studios in which the designer and the weaver are separate people. Leventon describes the museum’s primary collecting criterion as aesthetic merit, with historical or sociological significance being less important. Although tapestry collecting is a continuing interest for the museum it is not as active as that of other textile genres.

The Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design sees its two tapestries, one by Thelma Becherer and one by Helena Hernmarck, as part of a larger collection of contemporary fiber art. Because the RISD Museum is part of a school, objects are available to the students for study. An attempt has been made to acquire a broad range of media and technique; thus no one media is focused on and concentrations do not occur. Pamela Parmal, Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles, describes RISD’s collecting criteria as “artistic merit, historical importance, technical virtuosity”. Acceptance of objects may  also be influenced by considerations of storage.

Even within the postmodern climate, which has questioned most preconceptions of what art and art making are, contemporary tapestry occupies a liminal position within the museum.  Compared to other fiber media, patterns of institutional and private collecting suggest that tapestry  has been overlooked. Whether this is due to collectors’ perceptions of contemporary tapestry as being not as innovative as other textile media or too decorative, or whether the tapestry community has been unsuccessful in promoting itself, is an answer worth seeking.