Paul J. Smith, the director emeritus of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design who championed American Craft throughout his curatorial career, died earlier this week. He was 88 years old.
In a statement shared on Twitter, the museum said, “Since his retirement from MAD he continued to be a pillar of the craft field, sharing his endless wisdom and historical memory. He dedicated himself to securing the legacy of the field while continuing his engagement with new ideas and directions. We will miss him deeply.”
Smith was educated at the Art Institute of Buffalo and the School of American Craftsmen in Rochester, later moving to New York in 1957 to join the staff of the American Craftsmen’s Council. In 1963, Smith was appointed director of the museum, then called the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, and remained in the position until 1987, when he was made director emeritus. Over his 24-year-long career as a curator and arts administrator at the museum, Smith tirelessly worked to validate the field’s institutional cachet through educational programming and exhibitions which introduced international audiences to American craft artists.
In a tweet, Glenn Adamson, a former director of MAD, praised Smith’s vision, writing that he “led a programme that still astonishes in its range, creativity and integrity.”
Smith organized many influential shows, including “Creative Casting” (1963), which examined the tradition of castings artworks in metal; “Cookies and Breads: The Baker’s Art” (1965), a presentation of sculptural innovations in dessert-making (such as three-foot-high gingerbread house); and “Object in the Open Air” (1966), a look at the “enrichment of man-made space” through interactive public sculptures.
“When I became director and was thinking, ‘Well, what is the role of this museum?’ I felt very comfortable about it being an institution focused on reporting on the new,” Smith said in a 2013 interview. “I felt our mission was very clear with a focus on new interpretations of craft and design at that time. There was so much going on.”