New York’s Museum of Arts and Design announced via social media yesterday that curator Paul J. Smith died earlier this week. Smith was director of the museum from 1963 until 1987, and he served as director emeritus until his death.
“Since his retirement from MAD he continued to be a pillar of the craft field, sharing his endless wisdom and historical memory. [Smith] dedicated himself to securing the legacy of the field, while simultaneously continuing his engagement with new ideas and directions,” MAD stated on Instagram. “He came frequently to the museum’s openings and events over the years and we at MAD will miss him deeply.”
Smith was born in Batavia, New York, in 1931 and raised in various upstate New York communities. In a 2010 oral history, Smith recalled first earning recognition for his artistic talents in high school, after which he attended the Art Institute of Buffalo and Rochester’s School for American Craftsmen. He moved to New York City in 1957 to join the staff of the American Craftsmen’s Council (now the American Craft Council), where he organized traveling exhibitions and provided support to Museum of Contemporary Crafts directors Thomas Tibbs and David Campbell. He was appointed head of MCC in 1963, and he oversaw the museum’s rebranding as the American Craft Museum in 1979. The museum and council became separate entities shortly after Smith’s tenure. MAD gained its current name in 2002.
In addition to updating the image of MAD, Smith pioneered new thinking about its subject matter, according the museum’s website. The exhibits of Smith’s era “broke down hierarchies in the arts with the celebration of popular culture and mundane materials” and often invited audience participation.
Of his democratic outlook, Smith explained in part, “One of the first exhibitions I did was ‘Amusements Is…,’ which was a focus on objects that reflected, fun, humor, and fantasy,” he said in a 2013 interview. “I heard that Charles Eames had designed a ‘musical tower’ that was made for a World’s Fair exhibit, so I contacted him and included it in our exhibit. We placed it in our 20-foot atrium space. It was a vertical xylophone. So if you dropped a ball in the top, it would play a tune as it descended to the main floor. We had other artworks where the public could activate an object, so that was a beginning of a break from ‘do not touch’ to ‘touch.’” A year after “Amusements Is…,” Smith put on the exhibition “Cookies and Breads: The Baker’s Art,” which equated dough and clay as mediums of self-expression and craftsmanship. “[T]he environment of the sixties nurtured exploration of new ideas along with the freedom to explore new concepts for exhibitions,” he said.
In his late career, Smith continued research and advocacy of American craft as an independent curator and private art consultant. In 2001, for example, he simultaneously organized the American Craft Museum show “Objects for Use: Handmade by Design” and participated in the transfer of 245 American artworks to U.S. embassies through the Gift to the Nation initiative.
Smith was a 2011 recipient of a Legends award from the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts. Today, the publication Fiber Art Now organizes the Paul J. Smith Award for Excellence in Fibers in his name.