A challenge for Indiana Jones

It’s Cicely & Colin Rigg award time. This recurrent prize exhibition is a significant opportunity to promote and recognise those artists specialising in particular craft media. Nurtured and hosted by the National Gallery of Victoria, it has previously featured the best of Victorian ceramics, metalwork, jewellery and textiles. Now the focus is on furniture, in particular seating.

Despite its positive impact, something irks about this award. Since the NGV move into Federation Square, the award has undergone a significant name change. Initially a craft award, it has been re-titled as an award in ‘contemporary design.’ This name change reflects the aspirational nature of the NGV, particularly its celebration of architecture as a creative practice. There’s nothing wrong with an overtly elitist institution, even it if only provides something to react against. And Melbourne’s thriving design culture is certainly to be celebrated (with two simultaneous international design festivals, two fashion festivals and a design-focused Melbourne International Festival, there’s certainly no lack of celebration).

But should design come at the expense of craft? Information about the award retrospectively categorises crafts like ceramics as ‘contemporary design disciplines’. While craft and design are certainly complementary, it is a serious mistake to think that one is simply a more updated version of the other. The focus of design is its utility in everyday life. The emphasis is less on how something is made, than what it is made for. By contrast, materials and processes are intrinsic to our apprehension of ceramics. As widely recognised in the many craft texts published recently, materials have their own powerful language of expression.

As our leading state institution, the NGV has a responsibility to teach audiences about the nature of craft, and how it informs and adds value to our appreciation of objects.

While ‘craft’ might be a dirty word at the NGV, its revival is being lead by designers themselves, such as the Dutch Maarten Baas. How does the NGV engage with the craft boutiques mushrooming around Melbourne?

The day will come when the NGV can show an appreciative audience the wonderful stories of craft that are housed in its vaults. Indiana Jones as curator?

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