"There's a maker in your backyard and we're going to introduce you to them." So said Glenn Adamson, director of New York's Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), at a press preview last week for "NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial" (through Oct. 12), the museum's inaugural showcase of artists, designers and artisans. While this year's Biennial gathers artists from the city's five boroughs, subsequent incarnations will showcase the creative culture of other U.S. cities. The eclectic disciplines on display range from stonemasonry and costume design to instrument making and neon signage, among many others. Participants include Laurie Anderson, Ei Arakawa, CONFETTISYSTEM, Faye Driscoll, Hood by Air, Misha Kahn, Lower East Side Printshop and the Metropolitan Opera.
Amid installation at the press preview, Jake Yuzna, director of public programs and curator of the biennial, likened himself to a community organizer, bringing together a diverse group of craftspeople. Although the show enjoys its share of big names—Yoko Ono, for example, whom Adamson and Yuzna referred to as the biennial's patron saint—the spotlight is mostly on those whose work may not traditionally be considered fine art. "One of the things we're really interested in are all those behind-the-scenes people," Yuzna said. "We are recognizing the large teams of skilled individuals who allow ambitious projects like these to happen."
The approximately 100 producers represented were chosen using a crowd-sourced curatorial strategy, Adamson said. A committee of over 300 New York-based cultural leaders from many disciplines nominated artists. A 10-person panel chaired by design entrepreneur Murray selected participants.
A series of "immersive tableaus" organize the works on view. Traditional display cases are replaced with artisan-made display cases, so that makers have produced everything from the wallpaper to the flooring. "What we're really trying to do is create an egalitarian structure for celebrating skill, whether or not it's usually prioritized," Adamson explained. This biennial eschews classifications of high or low. "We're trying to bring all of that into a kind of equal sphere of focus," he said.
The show emphasizes the technical skills essential to the making of visual artworks. Marilyn Minter's photorealistic paintings and painterly photographs of chic and disturbing excess are included, as well as Donald Moffett's delicate and ominous mixed-medium work, Lot 040414 (graphite quad), 2014, crafted with thousands of spindly paint drips. Leslie Wayne's Paint/Rag #24 (2013)—in which a splattered canvas panel hangs limply from nails in the wall—pokes fun at the prestige traditionally accorded to the medium. "I hope you can feel how dynamic the result of this is spatially," Adamson said at the preview. "We're re-thinking how an exhibition gallery can be designed and executed. Because [this is] much more integrated and much more of a complete sculptural experience."
The eccentric variety of disciplines integrated in the galleries transforms the museum into a kind of wunderkammer. Scratch-and-sniff wallpaper in the stairwell was produced for the exhibition as a collaboration between perfumer Carlos Benaim and Brooklyn-based company Flavor Paper. Each landing of the museum's four floors presents a single element of an original scent commissioned for the exhibition. Gem artist John Hatleberg's exact replica of the Koor-i-Noor diamond in an altered gem material, stands beside his ornate and crowded workstation.
The exhibition's audio guide is also unusual: Aisen Caro Chacin's device allows users to listen to audio on their iPhones or other MP3 player and conveys the sound through their teeth and jawbone instead of their ears. Additionally, the galleries will host live programming throughout the biennial's run, including fashion shows, demonstrations, performances, social practice and culinary projects. In an effort to foster cultural production within the museum, spectators will be able to view several participating makers at work in the galleries.
A large wall of vinyl in one of the galleries mimics the end credits of a film, listing every person who worked on the biennial, from the people who cut and assembled the stairs to those who made the carpet. "This to me captures what the show is all about," Adamson said. "You have these relational networks of craftsmanship, some of which are recognized, some of which are less authorized but all of which are worthy of respect and which have a kind of potential for sculptural, aesthetic appreciation."