Paul J. Smith, Director Emeritus at the Museum of Arts and Design has passed away at the age of 88.
Smith is known as one of the most significant curators of the American Studio Craft movement. He began his career in the early 1950s and joined the staff of the American Craftsmen's Council (now the American Craft Council) in 1957. In 1963 he was appointed Director of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now known as the Museum of Art and Design) and served until September 1987. After 30 years with ACC, he assumed the position of Director Emeritus to provide independent consulting for museums, arts organizations, and collectors.
"It’s truly the end of an era. Paul’s legacy looms large over ACC and the craft world" said Sarah Schultz, Executive Director of the American Craft Council. "In many ways, he was a curator ahead of his time whose joyful and open approach to craft has found great resonance for a new generation of curators and scholars."
In 2008, Smith was interviewed for the "Process" episode of Craft in America. Below is his interview, where he remembers working closely with Aileen Osborn Webb.
In 2013, Smith was interview for the Bard Graduate Center Art & Design Oral History Project. In the interview, Colin E. Fanning covers Smith's education, interest in the arts, and experiences as an artist, craftsperson, educator, curator, and museum director. Smith gives a broad account of postwar studio craft movement in the United States, including the shift from the 'designer-craftsman' ethos of the 1950s to that of the 'artist-craftsman' during the 1960s; the cultural milieu of the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s; and the importance of university art departments. In this transcribed interview, they also include early photos of Smith with woodturning that he created early on in his career. (See photo below.)
It was here that Smith said "When I became director and was thinking, “Well, what is the role of this museum?” I felt very comfortable about it being an institution focused on reporting on the new."
Smith went on to organize many of the most influential craft shows, including “Creative Casting” (1963), which examined the tradition of castings artworks in metal; “Cookies and Breads: The Baker’s Art” (1965), a presentation of sculptural innovations in dessert-making (such as three-foot-high gingerbread house); and “Object in the Open Air” (1966), a look at the “enrichment of man-made space” through interactive public sculptures.
He was also the consulting curator for the famous exhibition Objects USA. The show was one of the most ambitious craft exhibitions to date when it debuted in DC in 1969. It featured more than 500 artworks by 308 artists and traveled to venues across the United States and Europe before the works found homes in permanent collections around the US. In one of his last presentations, Smith visited DC to speak at panel titled "Objects USA at 50" honoring 50 years since that exhibition had been on display.
An interview of Paul J. Smith was conducted 2010, by his contemporary Lloyd E. Herman, for the Archives of American Art's Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, at Smith's home, in New York, NY. Below is the full audio.
"Throughout his life and career, he was a source of inspiration to artists and curators. He never stopped working and supporting the way the field evolved.