Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Rob Sidner of Mingei International Museum


In May 2006 Mr. Rob Sidner was appointed Director of the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park, San Diego, California. Jessica Hemmings spoke to him about the museum’s roots, its connection with the Mingei movement of Japan and plans for the future.

J: What are the Mingei International Museum’s beginnings?

R: We are twenty-seven years old. The museum developed out of Mingei International Incorporated, a non-profit public foundation that had been organized four years earlier in 1974. The organization was created so that Martha Longenecker, the founder, could carry on work she was already doing in bringing potters from India and Japan and other artists and craftsmen here to teach at San Diego State where she was on the faculty, leading the ceramics program, and involve them in other demonstrations in the community. The museum came about through a gift from Ernest Hahn and University Town Center Associates. They were organizing a large new shopping area that was intended to be more than just stores. A good friend of Martha’s told her of this and said it was time to start Mingei International Museum and Martha accepted the challenge. Funds were gathered over a six-month period. From the very beginning, as I understand it although I did not come to the museum until sixteen years later, donations began to come into the collection. By the time I arrived in 1993, the collection already stood at more than eight thousand objects from some seventy countries, almost entirely donations from friends and members who believed in what they saw. The collection today stands at 16,500 objects from one hundred countries and it ranges widely over the whole spectrum of arts of daily life, arts of the people. It is a highly diverse collection. Pottery is a particular focus because of Martha’s great knowledge of ceramics.

J: My understanding of the Japanese Mingei Movement is more restricted than this collection?

R: The Mingei in Japan, most specifically, would be defined as the arts of daily life. All objects handmade by an individual, most often anonymous, meaning anonymous to us, their names have not come down because so much of what was made in multiples for regular daily wear was never signed, of course. That is thought to be the essence of Mingei, these things that come out of the very heart of communities because of need and yet are being made out of such a strong tradition and with such care, that they are exquisitely beautiful as well as functional. Absolutely at the heart of Mingei is the idea that these things are not made as art objects. They are objects of use. We say daily use but certainly ritual objects, ceremonial objects – temple use even – are included. Interestingly, some of the most beautiful are the ones that were most used. The Yi Dynasty pottery of Korea were what really first excited and convinced Dr. Soetsu Yanagi, the man who coined the word Mingei, of the importance of preserving and encouraging this almost mindless – in the sense of not conceptual, not egocentric, work that is so full of life and spirit. He first become convinced of this in Korea studying Yi Dynasty pottery, which is an extremely long dynasty and ran up into the early twentieth century. These things were made by the hundred’s of thousands: kimchi pots, tea bowls, rice bowls. He turned on the Korean’s to their own traditions and opened their eyes to the simplicity and utter beauty of these things. Out of that, back in Japan, he turned the Japanese on to their legacy too and was highly successful. Today there are still many kilns throughout Japan where pottery is being made in an unbroken 7,000-year tradition. Lacquer is still being made, bought and used in daily life as well. Wood joinery, metalsmithing, weaving and dying. It is under constant threat as industrialisation has gone so full tilt in Japan, but it is alive and vibrant.

J: And was the threat of industrialization taking over all forms of production something that encouraged the beginnings of this collection? Because these are objects that otherwise do go unnoticed – around the world?

R: Absolutely. Martha met Dr. Yanagi along with Bernard Leach, the great English potter and Shoji Hamada, his colleague and close friend who is a Living National Treasure of Japan. They came to the United States and visited a week each in a number of cities. Shoji Hamada did demonstrations of pottery making; Dr. Yanagi lectured on Mingei; Bernard Leach translated as a colleague and friend. Martha attended as a young potter and was greatly taken by it – and they with her – so much so that they invited her to come to Japan right away. They wanted her to see how pottery was made in Japan and how the tradition of Mingei was carrying on. She could not take up the offer until ten years later, after she had accepted a position at San Diego State to head its ceramics department. She realized that she could get sabbatical time and finally accepted their offer and went to Japan. Martha was deeply moved by that week – it probably more directed Martha’s life than any other event in her life, from the way she talks about it. She was already a potter and had exhibited nationally but that week set her course. Her subsequent trips to Japan and around the world were really a carry through of what happened in that week. She had already been a collector and passionate about art, but that set her course.

J: And the role of function in this collection?

R: Still very, very important; but not exclusive. The name and the purpose of the museum is absolutely around Mingei, but we keep it a little loose for the sake of building audience. There was concern that if it were too narrow it would not be accessible enough. So we decided to do a range of things that would build the audience and help people to understand what the Mingei is about. It is still almost entirely based in objects of daily use, but we say also folk art and craft, as well, which is a little different from Mingei in a way. Mingei is a very rich and broad term, very deep spiritually. Folk art comes out of that same tradition of creative instinct. This is why we even show something like Niki de Saint Phalle. Though some of her things are certainly objects of use – lamps and chairs and benches – it is more that her instinct is inborn. Niki was completely self-taught, but not everybody who comes to the Mingei International Museum may automatically catch that. They might sense it. So we do some things on the edge. Certainly we are not hesitant to show some things that may even be made by machine if they have been beautifully designed in a way that is in touch with the hand and the whole person. That, we think, remains very important. That designers, that the people we show have not lost touch with what is made by hand and have an instinct for it.  Rather than get too intellectual, it remains a whole expression of the human person: head, heart and hands. That is essential.

J: Does the collection have a specific emphasis on American craft?

R: Yes, we have from very early on. In fact, the first show that I was part of when I came in 1993 was “Heirlooms of the Future: Masterworks of West Coast American Designer/Craftsmen”. It covered twenty-one people who were doing quite a range of things from textiles to baskets, wonderful pottery and jewellery. And our own collection of contemporary American craft has grown considerably over the years from George Nakashima and Sam Maloof furniture, of which we have a significant collection, through Bob Stocksdale, a wood turner and a lot of contemporary American pottery. Martha’s own collection of her work does not yet belong to us, but we hope to show it in the next year along with a retrospective of Sam Maloof furniture. They are colleagues of some fifty-five years and have known each other before Sam was a furniture maker. And he is self-taught too as a furniture maker, absolutely comes out of that tradition. We have Laura Andreson, who was Martha’s teacher and taught at UCLA for more than thirty years. And then there is Eve Gulick a local weaver who really was one of the great forces in the renewal of the tradition of weaving in this country that happened in the sixties and seventies.

J: The last couple of years there seem to have been a real move away from the word “craft” in the States. The American Craft Museum is now the Museum of Arts and Design, the California College of Arts and Crafts is now the California College of the Arts. Do you feel that this museum’s relationship to the Mingei movement as an alternative description for the collection has in some ways avoided the prejudice surrounding the crafts?

R: Yes, I think so. The museum has always felt very strongly about trying to avoid labels. We are about showing great artwork, beautiful objects and things that come whole out of the human person and are not fragmented. We are trying not to show what is exclusively aristocratic art or what is made specifically for the nobility or elite. But apart from that we are open to beautiful things. We say folk art, craft, design; those are simply labels that help some people have an entrée to what we are about. We generally don’t show paintings or sculpture but we did recently show Kazuo Kadonaga, a contemporary Japanese abstract sculptor, because his work is so focused on the materials themselves – wood, bamboo, paper, glass. It seemed so close to what Mingei is about that it seemed a very correct kind of show to do. A little on the edge, but also right there. So that is more what we are trying to do, not get caught in labels or niches that mean everything has to be nailed down. But hope that things stay true to a basic instinct and belief about how beautiful things are made and why they are beautiful. The work we collect and exhibit comes from this inborn drive to create that isn’t so much taught in art school as caught and then developed, often through solid traditions of making that are taught and handed on by people in a more natural way rather than in an intellectual or art school environment. Again it is not that Mingei or Mingei International is anti-intellectual. Dr. Yanagi himself was one of the great philosophers and aestheticians of this age, one of the great thinkers of the century. But it is a conviction about where beauty really arises from and it is from the un-fragmented personality. That is what we are most trying to be true to.

J: What types of textiles are included in the collection?

R: The permanent collection is particularly strong in textiles. Highlights include embroidered textiles from Guizhou, China and hundreds of examples from minority cultures, especially the Miao (and many clans among them). The collection is a mixture of quite a few old examples as well as fairly contemporary work, which makes it richly diverse. From Japan we have Ainu coats, Indigo-dyed workers’ garments including firemen’s coats and Keisuke Serizawa kimono and noren. Our textiles from the Indian subcontinent include saris and mirrored cloth. From Indonesia we have mainly sarongs and other garments in batik and embroidery. We also house an excellent collection of kira form Bhutan, 500 huilpils from Guatemala, rugs and wall hangings from Morocco, kuba cloth from the Republic of Congo, kente cloth from Ghana. From North America our strangest collection includes of sixty fine examples of Navajo Indian rugs and blankets from the late 1800s through 1930 as well as fourteen contemporary rugs from the Isaac Vasquez Family of Teotitlan del Valle in Oaxaca, Mexico.

J: With such a diverse collection, what guides your collection policy?

R: The Museum’s tradition until now has been to respond to special opportunities that come our way in making purchases for the collection rather than in setting particular purchase goals.  This is the result, perhaps, of its dependence largely on donations to the collection for its first twenty years. Donations have been serendipitous and often wonderful, and so have purchase opportunities.

J: The museum has recently expanded considerably and now has a second location in North San Diego County in December of 2003.

R: Yes, we were bursting at the seams and wanted very much to expand our travelling exhibition program. We learned from a trustee of space available in Escondido. Even though that was thirty-five minutes north of here we decided to go and look at it. We discovered that a building was in the heart of the downtown and we realized that this could be our first satellite museum that would act as an outreach facility for another audience. We spent two years raising funds to renovate and it has now been open two years. The audience has come slowly, which has been something of a surprise to us, but it is developing in part because the whole downtown is going through a renaissance that Mingei International’s opening there has helped to spur. We also bought the building to the east, which has a leasehold restaurant and a donation gallery for things that are similar to the collection, not of museum calibre, but things of interest for decorators. There is potential for other leaseholds. We intend to build-out two luxury apartments, which will bring in income to help fund the satellite as well.

J: The Museum has produced a significant number of publications in connection with your exhibitions.

R: Yes, the museum has published thirty-three books. For a museum of our size that is a significant program. We have also produced nineteen professionally made videotapes documenting exhibitions as well. They not only document exhibitions, they really carry on the mission of the museum even after exhibitions have closed. That is an important program for us.

J: An enormous aspect of these books and videos must be about public education. Is the museum itself a resource that you feel is used enough by local schools in the area?

R: Schools do come, not nearly in the number that we would like. Partly because of funding cut backs, but also the new requirements of revised curricula are keeping students in the classroom focusing on basics much more. The ease of classrooms going out to museums that once existed is not there and along with the loss of music and art from the curricula, it is a terrific loss to students’ education. We hope in time that this is going to be seen as a very narrow decision in the long-term education of young people. We now have funds that are given to us from various sources to pay for student’s transportation and admissions fees. We are trying to do more for classes that want to come and can find time to come. In the last few years have seen about 3,000 students a year, of mainly elementary and middle school children.

J: Favourites from the collection?

R: The Nakashima furniture is very popular. There is some of it always on view, including the board’s table. So people see it again and again and it sinks in. I suspect the new Dale Chihuly nine-foot glass chandelier at the satellite location will quickly become a favourite. Niki de Saint Phalle’s “NikiGator” in front of the museum is seen by millions of people in the park, not just visitors to the museum. There are children, young people and adults climbing on it most of the time. Its there twenty-four hours a day.

J: Future plans?

R: One of the exciting shows in the next year is called “Art of the People” and it will be a survey of the collection across a group of cultures; quite rich and diverse. Our exhibitions often have a geographic emphasis, sometimes also thematic. But only once or twice before have we done a big range from the museum collection. And we want to do a book that will show how the collection has grown over the past twelve years. We did a book in 1993 that was a survey of the collection across cultures and mediums and now it is time to do it again because the collection has grown so amazingly. Certainly one area we have been buying rather deliberately in Bhutan because there are wonderful things available that are not exorbitant in price and it is an area that our world doesn’t know well. They are making stupendous textiles, in particular. So we are building that collection and hope to do a show in the future. The Museum is also talking with renowned British designer Zandra Rhodes (who lives in La Jolla as well as London) about an exhibition from her London Museum: ZANDRA RHODES — A life-long Love Affair with Textiles, along with textiles of various cultures from Mingei International’s collection that have been sources of inspiration to Ms. Rhodes. Also of textile interest is an exhibition planned for 2008 of Ainu Coats and Serizawa Kimono in conjunction with an exhibition at San Diego Museum of Art and the Timken Museum of Art of Kubota Kimono.

J: Thank you and best of luck with your new position.

HALI (issue 149: 144)