RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES —
Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2016
Art Is Everywhere You Look
On Saturday, February 4, 2017, the Grand Rapids (MI) Art Museum [GRAM] opened “Finder Keepers: West Michigan Collects,” an exhibit celebrating the art of collecting and the individuals and institutions who are committed to preserving the past and present for future generations. Five institutions – Herman Miller Archives, Gilmore Car Museum, Grand Rapids African-American Museum and Archives, Grand Rapids Museum of Art, and Grand Rapids Public Museum – and 15 individuals loaned objects from their collections for the exhibit. Only one collector had more than one collection featured. Guess who? Ron Platt, Chief Curator of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and his staff spent a year visiting collectors, selecting objects for the exhibit, and assembling the final display.
From the beginning, Platt and his team focused on finding objects that reflected the diversity in terms of age, ethnicity, and approach within the collecting community. Traditional collectors found comfort in the collections of print advertisements for Herman Miller’s modernist furniture, nineteenth century embroidered samplers, late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Valentine and Easter decorations, jewelry from the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s Jansma Family, and Mabel Perkins collections and prints.
Traditionalists still begrudgingly accept mid- and late twentieth century collectibles as part of the antiques marketplace. More recent antiques, such as the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Bissel sweeper collection, jigsaw puzzles, pedal cars from the Gilmore Museum, pinball machines, post-1945 German Retro ceramics, sheet music with cat-themed covers, shotguns with Damascus engraved barrels, vinyl record sleeves, and vintage women’s coats, are examples. Traditionalists should find comfort that you have to be well over 50 to identify with them.
Collections featuring hockey jerseys, “Grandma’s Voices” oral history tapes from the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, Pokemon cards and game guides, rocks and minerals, sneakers, and Star Wars action figures raised many an eyebrow. The most controversial was an art installation of found objects categorized by color. My first reaction was: “I threw away better stuff than this.”
On opening day, Curator Ron Platt presented a “Members Only” lecture exploring the methodology of creating and assembling the exhibit. During his presentation, he stressed the role of collectors as custodians of the past and curators of private museums. “Rinker on Collectibles” readers are familiar with this theme. I have visited it multiple times during the past 30 years.
During the question and answer session following Platt’s presentation, a member of the audience questioned why the Grand Rapids Art Museum decided to mount such an exhibition, the implication being that many, if not most, of the exhibited objects had no right to dwell in such hallowed halls. Ron took a diplomatic approach in his answer, explaining that most museums would not undertake such an exhibition but the GRAM felt it was well within its purview.
I sat silently until there were no additional questions from the audience and then raised my hand. Although there was no soap box handy, I did a soap box rant without one. First, I noted that appreciation of aesthetics and design are a basic part of the mission statement of art museums. Fine and decorative arts are defined by form, not time. Historically, the definition of what forms qualified as fine and decorative arts was narrow. In the twenty-first century, the definition has broadened.
The difficulty lies in the commonly held belief, especially among those individuals who consider themselves connoisseurs and/or arbiters of taste, that mass-produced objects are functional and not aesthetic. This is not true. It is true that there are some horrendous functional objects. There also are some horrendous objects passed off as art whose resting place is more appropriately the landfill than a museum gallery.
It is all a matter of perspective. Design and aesthetics are everywhere—from the artwork for the cover of a book or magazine advertisement to the proportion, image, and color selection of a Star War’s action figure or the surface image on a sneaker. Wherever I look, I see art. I marvel at the creative abilities of individuals, most unidentifiable, who bring a smile to my face and allow me to live in a world of wonder and delight.
As I write this column, I have two monitors open, allowing me to write on one and do research on the other. Each screen has different dimensions. The length and width of each was selected by someone who understood proportion and strove to develop a product that is aesthetically pleasing and also functional. Steve Jobs’ use of aesthetic principles made Apple one of the leading manufacturers of computer and smart phones. What is most profound is that Jobs placed simplistic functionality and minimalism at the heart of Apple’s aesthetic philosophy. The Apple computer case is a work of art.
Although not openly stated, the exhibit “Finders Keepers: West Michigan Collects” is a tribute to the millions of unrecognized designers and illustrators whose work impacts everyday life. “Sexy” was my first impression of the wall display of Herman Miller advertising tear sheets. Great design is sensual. It creates an instant love affair between the viewer and the object. When I shared my feelings about Herman Miller advertising with Ron Platt, I was delighted to discover a single person was responsible for all the advertisements – Irving Harper with Art Direction by George Nelson. Immediately upon returning home, I did an internet search to learn more about this remarkable man.
Objects are inanimate only if the viewer fails to ask questions about them. These questions and the answers are what makes an object come alive. One of those questions is: “who created the artwork or design?” Although often impossible to answer, it is a question well worth asking. A hockey shirt is a plain piece of fabric until a logo, color, and shapes are added. When the combination is aesthetically pleasing a work of art is created.
Mother/Father Nature or whatever creator in which one believes has produced some of the most aesthetic works of art known to humankind. The Grand Canyon is a work of art, even more so because its beauty continues to evolve. The rock and mineral specimens in the exhibit show the magnificence and magnitude of Nature’s ability to create aesthetically pleasing natural works of art. Mother/Father Nature as artists are equal to the best humankind has to offer.
To suggest that “Finders Keepers: West Michigan Collects” does not belong in the GRAM is an example of the narrow-minded elitism far too prevalent within the art museum crowd. These individuals have no desire to have their views challenged nor their horizons broadened. They know what they like and look down their noses at those who do not conform.
Art Prize, a community wide celebration of artistic endeavors held each year in late September and early October in Grand Rapids, initially began as an experiment to allow the public to define what art is. Much to the surprise of the art establishment, works submitted by their favorites did not win. Subsequent rule changes soothed the hurt feelings of the art establishment. Tradition reared its ugly head and won. Art Prize is a shadow of its earlier self. Rather than encourage new artists based on public appeal, Art Prize now relies heavily on the opinions of academically trained art critics. Shame on Art Prize.
Art Prize’s failure is exactly the reason why the GRAM should be applauded for mounting “Finders Keepers: West Michigan Collects.” Art museums should be among the leaders in continually raising the question: “What is art?” The current exhibit is loaded with art, a fact easily witnessed if visitors cast aside their art prejudices and allow their minds to expand and feel The Force.
“Finders Keepers: West Michigan Collects” closes on April 30, 2017. To learn more about the exhibit, visit http://www.artmuseumgr.org/art/exhibitions/. If you are in Grand Rapids on March 30 at 7:00 PM, stop by the GRAM and attend my lecture “How to Think Like a Collector.” I promise it will be a doozy .
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Selected letters will be answered in this column. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You also can e-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.
You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.