A veteran of the nonprofit arts world who writes poetry and makes electronic music videos has been selected at the new chief curator of New York’s venerable Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). Shannon Stratton, 39, will assume the position from Lowery Stokes Sims. Sims had stepped up when curator David McFadden retired in 2013 after a 16-year tenure.
Stratton arrives at MAD following 12 years in the nonprofit sector and wants to rekindle the institution’s love affair with all things handmade. Raised in Calgary, she earned a masters degree and an MFA from Art Institute of Chicago and founded Threewalls, a nonprofit that began as an artists’ residency program, bringing contemporary artists to Chicago and where Stratton curated several exhibitions. When she’s not running her nonprofit and curating, she writes poetry and creative nonfiction, and makes live video to play during her partner’s electronic music performances. We talked to Stratton about her plans for the museum and what she’s excited about in design right now.
What were you doing before this position?
For the last 12 years I’ve been the executive director of the arts organization I founded called Threewalls. I also teach at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Threewalls has gone through several different cycles in its life. When we first opened it was a residency program, bringing contemporary artists to Chicago. Later, we began to focus more on the kinds of resources we could offer artists in the immediate region. Chicago lost a lot of spaces for artists in the ’90s. We tried to created a new support system for them using a variety of resources and grants. As for what I bring: I have a background in contemporary conceptual crafts. I bring my interest and passion in that field, and perspective on building an arts organization as a nonprofit.
Starting a not-for-profit arts organization from scratch forces you to think creatively from the get-go to survive. You have to challenge your thinking about mission and programs so you are relevant and exciting to an audience.
What is the importance of craft today?
For a long time it seemed like craft was just a word that labeled certain disciplines that had a functionality, like ceramics, but people are also working in those disciplines conceptually. I think people are attached to craft today because there a sense of urgency around refocusing on the subjectivity behind objects, as a response to a consumer culture that has felt increasingly alienated from the site of production. This has been building steam for some time.
Speaking from a completely American point of view, and in reference to American culture, it is interesting to see how this trend has migrated from the artist studio, to the corporation, where the subjectivity of the maker is now part of the consumer experience. At Whole Foods they now write on the chalkboard who prepared the hot bar. At Pret-a-Manger, part of their branding is to talk about the “craft” of their food and incorporate (likely fictional) narratives about the maker. Levi’s has their “made and crafted” line. All of this is to say, that a desire for things handmade with a sense of immediate history, has permeated culture quite a bit, so much so that that desire is being exploited by corporations.
What’s happening in design now? What excites you?
I’m interested in how design has invaded personal life and how we represent ourselves in social media. I’m very curious about how much deeper design will go into the intimate spaces that people interact in, what shifts we’re going to see in interfaces. I’m also really interested in branding in the corporate sense, how companies fully design themselves from their graphic identity through the experiences they create.