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Fortress Ceramica answered prayers.

FOR OVER A CENTURY CERAMISTS HAVE BEEN PRAYING WITH great fervour for the stature of ceramics to shift from that of craft to art. It would seem that the prayer is finally being answered. We have witnessed more progress on this journey during brief life of the 21st century than ever before and the momentum is growing. This is not just a few anomalies and exceptions. but appears to be the beginning of a major paradigm shift that will transform, within a decade, ceramics, its educational resources and its marketplace.

Some worry that the price for this progress will be too costly, the loss of the ceramics community as we know it today. They could be right. As Saint Teresa of Avila famously warned, "answered prayers cause the greatest pain". The current shift in the role of ceramics in art could result in a diaspora from the traditional home of clay that will leave Fortress Ceramica, our walled adobe city on the hill, semi-deserted, if not abandoned.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First let us test the premise that ceramics is crossing over into the fine arts. And bear in mind that 'crossing over' is not like the parting of the Red Sea. The entire tribe does not get to go together through to the other side. The process of acceptance into the upper echelons of high art is selective. It is no different for a painter, sculptor and photographer. Many try for entry, few are admitted. But the once rigid 'clay-is-always-craft' rule is beginning to soften. Museum and gallery doors have opened, ceramists are actually finding a welcome mat at major galleries, price ceilings of contemporary ceramics have been shattered and many of the old Modernist sanctions against clay have been lifted.

We see this most tellingly with museums, a good indicator because they are the most conservative members of the art world. Last year the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York held a high-profile retrospective of the potter Betty Woodman, not in their design gallery, as happened with Hans Coper and Lucie Rie, but in the Modern Art Galleries. MoMA, long resistant to ceramics (10 years ago they refused to accession work by Woodman into their collection), is slowly coming around. They devoted an entire room to the ceramics of Ken Price as part of their recent exhibition of the Ed Broida Collection. In other smaller ways they are indicating a liberalism on the subject.

In 2003, Grayson Perry, the cross-dressing potter (it is interesting how many more potters than ceramic sculptors have made it into the high arts or at least the higher price levels) received one of the art world's most prestigious award from the Tate Gallery, London, the Turner Prize. He beat the Chapman brothers (considered the odds-on favourites by London bookmakers) and their tableaux of upsetting prepubescent children with Perry's own sexually and socially perverse art. Upon receiving his award at the Tate, the artist made an observation; "I don't know what is going to cause the most fuss about getting this award, the fact that I wear frocks or that I make pots. My guess is the latter."

Then there is ceramics in the contemporary art galleries, once a contradiction in terms. I will take the example of the city I know best, New York. It is a a good indicator as it is still the nominal capital of the art world. During the 1950s the city's dealers coined a name for art in clay, 'terra worthless', be it by an unknown potter or a famous artist.

A recent biography about the New York dealer Pierre Matisse records correspondence between Joan Miro and Matisse in the late 1950s. Matisse was selling every painting by Miro he could get his hands on. Hungry for product, Matisse urged Miro. "Send me your ceramics; I will sell them all at $3000 a piece."

After they arrived the mood changed. Unable to sell them the dealer dropped the price at a rate of $500 per letter until they were down to $1000 and still not selling. That kind of experience was common and coloured the approach of dealers to ceramics for decades. Many of them personally enjoyed and even collected ceramics, but they did not consider it a commercially viable medium and consigned this worthless earth to the darkest corner of the store-room.

However, this had changed. In the mid-1990s we were admitted to the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA is the most exclusive club for fine art dealers in the US) and juried on to their annual fair, The Art Show, on Park Avenue. The first time around we were almost alone in showing ceramic art. The next year, encouraged by our success, other galleries began dragging out their 'terra worthless' and did well. We are not claiming sole credit for the shift in attitudes, many factors contributed, but ever since ceramics has increasingly been integrated into the fine art scene.

Now you find ceramics with dozens of the City's leading dealers from Matthew Marks who shows Ken Price to Kathy Butterly at Tibor de Nagy, Toshiko Takaezu at Charles Cowles, Andrew Lord at Paul Kasmin, Betty Woodman at Max Protetch, William King's ceramic figures at Alexandre Gallery, Fontana ceramics at CRG, Ann Agee's porcelain figurines at PPOW, Robert Arneson at George Adams, and Thomas Shutte's glazed mounds at Marian Goodman, to name just a few.


What has this done to prices? When we began 25 years ago, $5000 dollars could buy almost any ceramic artwork whether by a ceramist or even a famous visitor. A million dollars could buy a substantial collection of a few 100 masterpieces. Now that same million is just a down payment on a single multimillion dollar piece, or, lower down the line, it buys only three to six works. If you were a buyer at the recent Sotheby's auction of the David Whitney collection (he was a freelance curator and Philip Johnson's life-partner) that million would have bought you four of his Kenneth Price cups. The market is so volatile that three months later the value of these cups had grown and the million would buy only three.

A Peter Voulkos stack pot is worth between $90,000-$150,000, large Hans Coper pots sell for up to $150,000, and Robert Arneson's self-portraits get $350,000-$450,000. When we first pioneered the Lucio Fontana's ceramic market here, $30,000 was the top price. Now less than a decade later his prices range from $100,000 to $400,000. Marcel Duchamp's Fountain remakes from 1964 made $1.76 million on auction giving the eight pieces in the edition a combined value of over $12 million. If the 1917 original were to turn up on the market today it would fetch well in excess of $100 million. It is after all, the most revered object in the modernist's canon albeit via the men's room.

But the record price for a contemporary ceramic work on auction was set (twice) by Jeff Koons, first when his Pink Panther (from a late 1980s series entitled Banality) sold for $2.7 million and then superseded when his porcelain masterpiece, Michael Jackson with Bubbles, from the same series, sold later for $5.6 million. Cumulatively that gives the full Jackson edition (three works plus two artist proofs) a value of $28 million. Ceramics is terra worthless no more.

When this Fortress first began to grow and prosper in the early 20th century, it was essential for our survival. Ceramics was on shaky ground, vulnerable, with few friends and some powerful enemies (such as Modernism). Without the Fortress's sturdy walls, its relative safety and welcoming supportive community we might not still be here today. But useful as it has been in the past, today it is becoming a shelter from reality, an independent art-world-in-miniature, with its own journals, historians, museums, schools and institutions, biennales, invitationals and galleries. It allows us to safely bemoan our marginalisation while at the same time it shields us from having to do anything more about it.

But the fortress mentality is not viable in the long term as ceramics is discovering. It is starving ceramics of the creative oxygen it needs to remain relevant. The effect of this can be felt in functional pottery, the Fortress's equivalent of the canary in the mine. Once a thriving activity, functional pottery is now on life-support, struggling valiantly to survive. In a poor market this would make sense. But we are going through the biggest bull market for domestic design ever. Why is the potter not a player in this billion-dollar party? The answer is complex but what it boils down to is this; pottery has lost touch with contemporary life. The edgy contemporary work of Pru Venables could be shown on the design fairs today but she is a rare bird. Most functional pots today look much the same as they did 20 to 30 years ago.

Potters seem to be working more to impress other potters than to connect with life. If one speaks to functional potters and mentions names of the designers who are setting the pace today--Ron Arad, Marcel Wanders, Marc Newson and others --many have never even heard of them. Ignorance of the contemporary landscape is not a virtue. Unless something changes dramatically, handmade functional pottery will be gone within a decade, a clunky old relic of the past.

Then there is the slow but relentless implosion of the retail market. By 1990 the middle market, that hybrid, the craft shop/art gallery, had begun to disappear. Ceramic art galleries held on for a while longer, but they too are now an endangered species. Aside from a few galleries specialising in Asian ceramics, before we closed this year we were the only all-clay gallery left in New York. Several of the survivors around the U.S. are poised to close or go multi-media. This trend is painful in the short term but healthful in the long term because, as I have demonstrated, a good artist working in ceramics can now find a gallery outside the pot shop.

Marketing is more challenging today because of tough, new competition. Ceramics was once for ceramists only. It was our own protected market. In part it was because it was not profitable and so we were left alone to make our pennies. Now we are facing vigorous competition both from artists and designers. The design world is trouncing us on the functional pottery front. Aside from attractive mass-produced work (some that mimic studio craft and so rub salt in the wound) designers are also selling high-priced and carefully crafted limited edition designs (six to 20 in an edition) in various media from $4000 to $400,000 each thereby impinging on the high-craft market.


Years ago I was dismissed as an alarmist when I predicted that ceramics will be co-opted by the fine arts leaving us (the Fortress residents) sidelined. But we are at the edge of that precipice right now. Non-ceramic artists by the score have 'discovered' the medium and many are staying, making it a permanent part of their material vocabulary. So we are no longer the only source of ceramic art. This was inevitable and foreseeable.

Established fine artists are better equipped than most ceramists to succeed commercially, given their sturdy marketing machines. This can be resisted. Firstly, do not see these visitors fearfully as the 'other.' Embrace their work as a rich contribution both to the history and the credibility of our medium. Secondly, view them as a resource. If they are going to swim in our pond, then they must contribute to its upkeep. They can also be our Trojan horses, carrying us into the art market by taking down the taboos and thereby making the medium more broadly accepted.

But it is the shrinking of education's role that will have the most drastic impact on the fortunes of the Fortress. Education is not just where we learn our craft but it has been ceramics major patron for over a century, producing much of the field's documentation, hosting at least half of its public exhibitions, and through teaching positions, supporting artists who might have difficulty keeping their studio open without a salary cheque at the end of each month. But ceramic departments are closing. The Netherlands, once an active ceramic player, is down to one ceramic department for the entire country. New Zealand's only university pottery program is run by correspondence.

Moreover, teachers in the surviving departments complain that by the time their ceramic students graduate most are now working in media other than clay, but not in the forms of craft traditions, and so they bypass the Fortress going straight to the art world. Internationally, art schools are dropping the specialisation model (for reasons both good and bad). This is true not just for ceramics and other craft media but also in the fine arts where painting and sculpture departments are being phased out. Artists are now trained to be free agents working in any medium that captures their imagination.

So what is the ultimate fate of the Fortress Ceramica? Acoma (also known as Sky City) the 1000 years old Indian Pueblo in New Mexico offers us a perfect metaphor. It is essentially a ceramic city, built high atop the Enchanted Mesa from adobe (a mixture of straw and the same clay the Acoma Indians use to make their handsome pots). It is one of the longest continuously occupied cities in the US although now it is barely occupied. Only five families live there to care for what is largely a symbolic town, occupied only during religious festivals. Most of the Acoma Indians prefer to live at the bottom of the mesa in contemporary trailer homes where they are more connected to the present. It is an interesting parallel. Is this the future of our fortress? Will it too become a historic memorial to a grand past, a potter's theme park for tourists rather than a vibrant living town?

Yet the paradox is that as the Fortress gets smaller, ceramics as an art medium is actually growing bigger. So ceramics itself is not shrinking, far from it. What is threatened is the cosy community that once sustained the field and its insularity that for some, was its charm. The new era that is unfolding may be discomforting and unfamiliar but is throbbing with energy and innovation, something rather missing from our own world of late. It will not be easy for some in ceramics to accept this fast-moving flood of change because ceramics, at heart, is a cautious medium, more evolutionary than revolutionary. The answer is to resist your inner Luddite. To survive we are going to have to reinvent ourselves. The culture industry is ferociously Darwinian. It keeps that which is relevant to its moment in time, and consigns the rest to the trash bins of history.

Ceramics return to the now is long overdue. It has operated in the sheltered misty hills of 11th century Song Dynasty China for too long. Let us leave behind Renaissance craft guilds and rural potters of the 19th century and meet the 21st century head-on with the same vigour, intelligence and sensitivity that we once embraced our past. As to the chance that the Fortress will not survive the transition, I have to admit to mixed feelings. I have benefited from the largesse of the Fortress. So there is a sentimental inclination to want it to survive. But that may be counter-intuitive. Some doors need to close.

The Acoma Indians will never return to the Sky Mesa because their life today is different to the past. The threats they face today cannot be countered simply by retreating to a rocky plateau. Their cultural fight has to be engaged differently in the mainstream of contemporary life. The greatest sign of health might well be to eventually find our Fortress in ruins, still visited, remembered and respected for its once pivotal role in our history. But before one is overcome with nostalgia, one should remember why it existed in the first place, and why we did not use the existing infrastructure of the arts; the fortress was built because of aesthetic apartheid and some unfathomable Modernist fear of clay. With this in mind its demise may not be that sad. Death does feed life.

Garth Clark is an author of numerous books and is a lecturer and critic. This article has been adapted by Garth Clark from his talk of the same title given at the National Australian Ceramics Conference Brisbane, 2006.
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Author:Clark, Garth
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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