is the author, most recently, of "This Is the Story of You," a Jersey Shore storm novel
Elisabeth Agro, the Nancy M. McNeil associate curator of American Modern and Contemporary Crafts and Decorative Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is talking about joy.
Or that's what I hear, as I sit with her in her book-crammed office at the Perelman building. That's what I experience as she winds me through locked doors, past orderly offices, toward the doll-size replica of her gallery, where upcoming exhibitions are designed. That's what she yields as she stands in a sun-basked conservation room beside her latest acquisition - a Peter Voulkos ceramics triumph that is now the envy of crafts curators worldwide. Joy is what Agro evokes as she stands, now poses, now practically dances in Gallery 119, where fiber, metalwork, clay, glass, and wood dating from 1850 to the present are on rotating display.
I am tempted to write Agro's fiber, Agro's clay, Agro's metalwork to honor all the ways she inhabits these pieces, revels in them, asserts her effusive touch. But possession isn't Agro's mission. Passion is. She wants, she says, to help others feel what she herself unreservedly feels for the 759 objects under her care. We can't touch the pieces she has touched. We can't trace the fingerprints. We can't hear the artists speak.
But Agro can make us think that we have gotten whisper close. She can - by virtue of what she buys, rescues, hoists out of storage, asks for, and articulates - give us the idiosyncratic and not-yet-fully plumbed narrative of contemporary American crafts.
Since taking on this job - the first of its kind when she was named to the position in 2006 - Agro has emerged as a valued studio guest, a mentor encouraging both risk and meaning, a Philadelphia Craft Show judge, a world traveler, and an emissary for an art form that, she says, began to assume its international flavor in the wake of the two great wars. There were GIs, Rosie Riveters, detained Japanese Americans, refugees, and conscientious objectors who came to craft out of psychic necessity, she says, and out of respect for the newly seen. There were soldiers coming home to art classes.
There were those who explored, fashioned, achieved, made. There were, soon enough, collectors - individuals with an eye who amassed the important stuff. There were the McNeils themselves, who recognized the abundant talent in the Philadelphia region and who, at the same time, believed that craft deserved far more international attention than it had yet received. The Philadelphia Craft Show was born of this conviction. So was Agro's position.
Today, as craft collectors pass on and the work once showcased in private homes is auctioned to public galleries and museums, Agro has a felt responsibility to encourage the kind of scholarly thinking that will ensure the place of craft in the larger art world.
Why not turn this field of contemporary crafts into art-historical matter? she asks, emphatic.
Why not spend months, say, in the company of Olaf Skoogfors, a jeweler, metalsmith, and former chair of the crafts department of the Philadelphia College of Art, who died much too soon in 1975 and who might now be best understood by giving careful study, as Agro has, to his letters, account books, sketches, and plans?
Why not tell the story of these woven, glistening, funky, textured, lovely things that have been made by hand?
It is Agro's job, she says, to speak clearly of the "intersection of materials, process, personal expression, and aesthetics" that is "deeply rooted in tradition." It is her privilege to mount installations such as "At the Center: Masters of American Craft" that introduce, through pieces in the museum's collection and pieces on loan, artists such as the currently exhibited fiber artist Ted Hallman and ceramist Robert Winokur, who met as students at Temple University's Tyler School of Art six decades ago and have each gone on to national acclaim.
It takes a year for Agro to declare, design, and create an installation. It takes more than a week for her and her team to finally install one. It requires trust from the artists whose work she has selected. Her art, she says, is curation and display. She asks the artists to let her love them, to make the choices that will keep their pieces safe while inspiring those who wander through her beloved Gallery 119.
"Objects are the portal between the artists' own dynamism and those who come to see the work," Agro says. "If I find the right objects, if I install them the right way, if I craft the words to help tell the story, then the objects can send viewers on a journey, all the way back to the artists' process and the universal messages found in their work."
This week, Philadelphia welcomes the Democratic conventioneers-delegates and politicians who have, as Agro says, extraordinary decisions to make at an important time. They will need, she continues, a respite. They will need a place to think, some remove from the noise, the banners, the politicking. Perhaps, Agro says, they will choose to come here, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where, in room upon room, collection after collection, her own Gallery 119, the work suggests the power of artists who have chosen to speak through their hearts and their hands. Artists who tell stories that endure.