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Curator of Carnegie's Aluminum Exhibition has designs on new projects

Sunday, November 26, 2000

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

SARAH NICHOLS, curator of the "Aluminum by Design" exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, where she also serves as curator of decorative arts and chief curator, exudes enthusiasm for her latest project.

Sarah Nichols has spent the past four years in aluminum as curator of the Carnegie Museum of Art's "Aluminum by Design" exhibition. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"Aluminum," running through Feb. 11, is by all accounts a massive undertaking. But Nichols, born in 1953 in Manchester, England, speaks with an energy that belies such a laborious investment. Basking in the afterglow of the launch of the project she's guided for four years, she sits for an interview in her modest office at the Carnegie, flanked by shelves of books and a wall pinned with images from the show. She's friendly and focused while discussing her subject in the finely articulated English that betrays her origin on the other side of the big pond.

Nichols came to the Decorative Arts Department of the Carnegie first in 1982 as an assistant curator, after completing a master's degree in Decorative Arts and Museum Studies as a Winterthur Program Fellow in Early American Culture at the University of Delaware, Newark. In 1986, she left to become the keeper of educational services and the keeper of Lotherton Hall at Leeds City Art Galleries, and director of York Art Studies, in Great Britain. In 1992, she returned to become the Carnegie's curator of Decorative Arts and has ushered in exhibitions ranging from historic silver to contemporary clay.

Following are highlights from a conversation that moved from "Aluminum" to her future plans:

Q. Judging from the subjects you've curated, you have a wide range of interests.

A. Well, in fact, my primary research that I did at Winterthur was on an 18th-century English furniture company. Well, that's long gone. I should say I love everything. But, I'm very much project-led. I really didn't know anything about aluminum before we started this project, very little. So I just sort of leapt in and found out about it, and then realized pretty quickly that there was certainly enough scope for a big exhibition, an interesting big exhibition, and then just sort of continued to research it.

Q. Do you find more people have been drawn to this exhibition because you've cast such a wide net?

A. Yes, definitely. It's been wonderful to go around the galleries [which are] full of people from all age ranges, men and women, because there are cars, there are motorbikes in the show. Little kids, with parents, seem to be entranced by it, too. Whereas something like the Carnegie International isn't quite necessarily what some people might take little children to. Not only is the show very accessible, but it has this broad range of stuff in it. I think you would be hard-pressed not to find something in the show that would capture your imagination. It's a very rich show. You can approach it on lots of different layers, really study it and look at everything. The response has been great.

Q. What were some of the things you liked about working on the exhibition?

A. This show was interesting because, obviously, I came across a lot of types of objects that we just don't collect. Which actually, I think, is a good thing because people who visit the exhibition are seeing different things [than] they would see in our permanent collection, like meat slicers. But that meat slicer is just such a gorgeous object, and it's a sculptural thing.

"Aluminum by Design:
Jewelry to Jets"

"Alumi-Nuts: Collectors' Confessions"

"Aluminum in Contemporary Architecture"

When: Through Feb. 11, except for "Architecture," which concludes Feb. 4.

Where: The Carnegie Museum of Art, Oakland.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays.

Admission: Adults $6, children/students $4, senior citizens $5, members free.

Information: 412-622-3131. Or www.aluminumby

Carnegie also displays collections of 8 'Alumi-Nuts'

Catalog illuminates exhibit at Carnegie

Q. That brings up the issue of design. This exhibition is important because it's the first global history of aluminum, but also because you tell its story through a contemporaneous history of design.

A. If you're a decorative arts department within an art museum -- not within a history museum -- it's quite well defined what you collect in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. But then it all breaks down in the 20th century. So I think it goes to how museums represent what's going on in the 20th century in terms of decorative arts, how to define that, and you have to do that through design. There are wonderful furniture makers who are making "one of" pieces of furniture that are sold as artworks and priced accordingly. But that's only one aspect of furniture, whereas top-notch designers is another aspect of it. It's all part of the diversity and eclecticism of the 20th century.

Q. Distinctions have been sliding all over the art world.

A. It raises lots of issues, and I don't know what the answer is. Whereas Paola Antonelli [who was part of the symposium] is at the Museum of Modern Art, [where] they are much more of a design department, we don't have "design" in my title. We're the department of decorative arts, and that does tend to imply hand-crafted, hand-made things, though actually in the 19th century we do collect mass-produced objects, but again at a very elite level.

Q. One had to laugh when Antonelli said during the symposium that she wanted to get a Boeing 747 for MOMA. But then where does MOMA leave off and the Smithsonian begin?

A. Yes, her idea is to have a Boeing 747 in the collection, [but] she would not be collecting it as an airplane, she would be collecting it as a piece of incredible design, and sort of immaterial that it's an airplane. As opposed to the Air and Space Museum that's collecting it because it's a great airplane.

So it's very fluid, and in a way we hope to hint at that in the last section in the exhibition, "Crossing Boundaries," that with all of this stuff melding together, it's very difficult to have these precise guidelines. And who knows, the Carnegie Museum of Art may indeed one day have a vacuum cleaner in its collection. Actually, that Lurelle Guild Electrolux that's in the show is just an amazing piece of design.

Q. You were instrumental in bringing in a traveling exhibition of work by New York ceramist Michael Lucero a couple of years ago. Where does something like a Lucero sculpture reconcile with a piece of aluminum houseware?

A. Oh, that's very difficult. Lucero feels that he should be in art museums as an artist, and that can be difficult for contemporary artists who work in media that is traditionally associated with decorative arts departments, like clay. It's very hard for them to break the mold and be considered real artists. And that was one reason why Lucero was so pleased that his show came to this museum, because the other museums that it had been in were craft museums.

Now -- and this is in a way the nice thing about this museum -- I brought the Lucero show in, and I was the curator of it here, and I'm the curator of decorative arts, but the public doesn't know that. It's just one more show in our changing exhibition galleries, and one day we might have a Brice Marden show and the next day we've got a Lucero show. And the public isn't going to necessarily register that Brice Marden was brought in by the curator of contemporary art and Lucero was brought in by the curator of decorative arts, therefore there's a difference between these two artists. They're just seeing a whole group of contemporary artists.

I think dealing with contemporary decorative arts, whatever you call that, the breakdown of the boundaries goes in two directions, one to design and the other to these contemporary artists who are working in traditional decorative arts media like clay, glass, metal. But they're artists.

Q. It's wide open.

A. It is, it's very wide open. So it's very difficult to make these divisions now. And then you have the people who are working in film and video who are now being dealt with by contemporary art curators rather than film and video curators. So it's a very fluid time period.

Q. Do you find that a positive thing?

A. I find it very stimulating, yes. And I think it leads to lots of discussions. There are sort of advantages and disadvantages. It can lead to things falling between the gaps, but it can also lead to exciting things happening that wouldn't have happened otherwise, in terms of what you might acquire for the collection or do as exhibitions. So in the main I think it is positive. I would hate if it was so rigid that you couldn't have the discussion. And now, people expect you to have the discussion, which is great.

Q. What sorts of things did you have to leave out of the exhibition because of time and space constraints?

A. The exhibition, and our publication, is the global overview, so we couldn't do anything in depth in [them], whereas it was possible to do that in the symposium. Particularly with the designers, and how contemporary designers work, and what their philosophy is individually. So it was wonderful to be able to invite the designers. Those were the four names we came up with, and we asked them, and they were prepared to come.

Q. What would you have liked to have researched more?

A. One is the Forecast Program, which deserves a real studious look. And some individuals whom I'd love to know more about, like the lighting guy, Jacques Le Chevallier. I'd love to have done more work on him, but if I did, it was never going to appear in the show. It was sometimes tough to not go down a road that you knew was just begging to be gone down. Or you knew it was a Ph.D. thesis in the offing, and you need to say no, can't do that, and you need to continue on. So that was sort of frustrating.

Something else that I would love to do at some point, Lurelle Guild, who was the design voice of Alcoa in the 1930s. He certainly deserves to be much better known. He's clearly a fascinating, fascinating character, who was very important in the modernization of aluminum in the 1930s. He's certainly not unknown now, but he's not as well known as Russel Wright and some of the other well-known designers of the '30s, and he deserves to be. The Guild papers are in Syracuse, and I would love to go and spend a month researching in those papers. There's a book waiting to be written on him, but this was not the opportunity to research that.

Q. Designer's names are not as well known as artists'; often they don't appear in the textbooks.

A. Yes, and the problem is that if they don't make the first textbook, they then don't make the next six textbooks, they've then dropped off the face of the earth in terms of people finding out about them. There's a lot of great designers out there who deserve to be better known, both historically and contemporarily, I think.

Q. Do you think design translates more quickly and more easily, perhaps, than fine art?

A. Probably. I certainly think design translates globally very quickly. For any number of reasons. Many of these designers have lived in various countries. Particularly for mass-produced design, the companies basically sell internationally. There are international fairs. And now with web sites, and the magazines, there is certainly a globalization of design. And because a lot of [the designers] are not drawing on local experiences, necessarily, it sort of transcends country boundaries. Whereas I think many fine artists, their work is so personal, and that can be tied into a location and experiences, and perhaps that makes it more difficult to be global. And, too, perhaps it's more difficult to be global if you're only producing a few things a year, and say -- particularly if you're successful -- they're all being bought up in New York. Whereas, if you're mass-producing a piece of design, you can sell it in London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Sidney, sort of all at the same time.

Q. Being utilitarian makes it more accessible, too.

A. Yes.

Q. So it really is a time for designers?

A. Oh yes, they are having a field day at the moment, and quite rightly so. There's a real interest in design at the moment.

Q. What do you attribute that to?

A. I think some of it's due to the economy, because people are prepared to pay for it. Because quite often a well-designed piece is more expensive than a not-well-designed piece. So I'm certain the economy helps. I think you're into a generational thing. I think it all started with people like Philippe Starck where you have the sort of gurus, the superstars, who have taken on a life like an artist. They've become famous and they get photographed and there are profiles of them and things like that. And actually, having said that, design's expensive. ... You can have a great piece of design that's going to cost you far less than a painting. And again, I think it's cyclical. In the 1930s, though I don't think it was as broad as it is now, there was some great design going on. So I think that comes into play.

Q. What is it that you do in your curatorial roles?

A. Chief curator tends to be more of an administrative role ... and spokesperson for the curatorial department. You have to have one person to be the curatorial voice, and that's me. My curatorial expertise is decorative arts.

Q. Are there directions you'd like to lead the museum in? One would guess the Lucero show was one of them?

A. Yes, I was thrilled that we were able to have the Lucero show. I think that was a very exciting exhibition.

My last few years have been so given over to aluminum I've hardly had time to think about the department and the direction of the department. But we are going to have to rethink quite what we focus on, because we've actively collected aluminum for the last four years. Well, we're probably not going to continue to do that, or at least not at the same level that we've done in the past. Because we have collected so much aluminum in the 20th century, I think there's going to be more of a focus than perhaps there has been in the past on 20th-century design in terms of what the department collects.

And then, too, a long-range project -- I mean, this isn't going to happen tomorrow -- I would love to renovate the Bruce Galleries, and that could really change what we do. We may start thinking about that and collect with that in mind, because often collecting for a museum is influenced by what projects we're doing. So projects often dictate ... well, not dictate, but certainly influence what we collect.

Q. What about exhibitions?

A. We're scheduled through 2002, and then things are a little in flux because of the capital campaign. Actually, one exhibition I am hoping to start working on is an exhibition of the collection of Mr. and Mrs. [William] Block's glass. [William Block Sr. is chairman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.] Actually, it will be in conjunction with the curator of glass from Toledo -- Davira Taragin -- and the show would be here and in Toledo. But this is still on the drawing board. That's the next show I would be doing.

Q. Toledo is an important glass venue, isn't it?

A. Yes, Toledo has a great glass collection.

Q. You've invited Marc Newson here to speak. What's he like?

A. He's the sort of next generation of hot designers, called "spoon to city" designers, which means they basically do everything from plugs in sinks to major architectural projects. So, he's just the hottest thing out at the moment. You cannot pick up a design magazine without seeing something about him. And he's young, in his 30s. Basically the first thing that he designed out of college was the Lockheed Lounge, and he's been on the way up ever since. So he's doing pretty amazingly. He's the latest superstar designer. He designed the T-shirt that we have in the shop, which has a Lockheed Lounge on it. He's speaking on the first of February, and the show closes on the 11th, so he's a nice finale to the show -- a big blockbuster finale.

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