Furniture maker Barry Newstat was walking from his hotel to Washington’s Smithsonian Craft Show on a beautiful April day when a reporter reached him by phone to talk about Morven in May.
Newstat, a skilled woodworker, doesn’t make a lot of time for craft shows, but he makes time for the prestigious Smithsonian show. Much of the year, he toils alone in his Chicago studio. He works for the most part on commission, although sometimes he indulges himself by making something beautiful, just because he can.
Traveling to and from craft shows is no joke for a professional artist like Newstat, who has been working with wood since before he was a teenager. For a show, he has to load heavy and often delicate pieces onto a truck, secure them, drive them to wherever the show may be, unload them for the duration of the show, then load them back up again when it’s all over — whatever he hasn’t sold — and drive back to the studio.
Because of the time and effort that craft shows require, Newstat plans to attend just two this year: the Smithsonian show, and Morven in May, the annual fundraiser for the Morven Museum and Gardens. Those are the two shows on the fine craft circuit that he feels are worth the long drive.
It’s a heady compliment for Morven in May, which just five years ago was not a craft show, only an heirloom plant sale. But since 2012, it has been both.
Newstat makes everything from spoons and breadboards to cabinets and grandfather clocks. He is set to make his third appearance at the former governor’s mansion, and even while he was exhibiting at the Smithsonian, he was looking forward to getting back to his studio to finish up a piece he hoped to exhibit at the Princeton show. He’s making a one-of-a-kind walnut sofa table, long and narrow. “It’s a sculptural, functional piece,” he said. “The advantage for me doing a show is I can do a piece I dream of making. I can push the envelope.”
The juried Smithsonian show, sponsored by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee each year, showcases the work of some 130 artists in the National Building Museum on F Street, four blocks from the National Mall. “They call themselves the best craft show in the country,” Newstat said. “The work here is really good. It’s hard to get in.”
It’s hard to get into Morven in May, too. What was once an invitational event is now a juried show attracting hundreds of applications from across the continent. This year 36 artists, including Newstat, basketmaker Mary Jackson and metal sculptor Laura Baring-Gould will set out their stalls in Morven’s 100-by-100-foot tent for three days, May 6-8. Alongside them will be ceramic artists, jewelrymakers, glass artists, decorative and wearable fiber artists, mixed-media artists and more.
Barbara Webb came up with the idea of combining Morven’s annual plant sale with a fine art event five years ago, soon after she was hired as Morven’s director of development. Before that, she had been director of development for the Historical Society of Princeton.
“Morven is known for its gardens. Morven in May is probably one of the best plant sales in New Jersey,” Webb said in a recent phone interview. “It was a great fundraiser for the museum, but it didn’t raise a lot of money.” She and Morven horticulturalist Pam Ruch discussed ways to make Morven in May much bigger. They decided that the answer was to add art, specifically fine craft, as a component of the event.
Webb’s husband Jim, a Hopewell-based ceramics artist, was a veteran of East Coast fine art craft shows, and through helping him at those events, she had gotten to know that world. To get things going for Morven in May, Webb contacted Brooklyn-based quiltmaker Erin Wilson, whom she knew, and asked her if she would come to Princeton and set up a booth featuring her work.
Wilson agreed to do it. That was in 2012. “I always credit Erin for us having a show, because when she said yes, I was able to get a lot of other artists to come,” Webb said.
Sixteen artists, all personally invited by Webb, participated the first year, 24 the second. To get into the show now, artists must apply through a website, Juried Art Services. Jurors for recent Morven shows include Princeton University Art Museum executive director James Steward and David Rago of Rago Auctions in Lambertville.
This year’s jurors were Mira Nakashima, a New Hope, Pennsylvania furnituremaker, and Judy Pote, a past president of the Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which runs the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show. Webb said the Philadelphia show is her favorite craft show to attend and served as an inspiration for what she hoped to do at Morven.
“It’s beautifully run, and they have a great committee,” she said. “It’s highly competitive. I wanted a small version of that. They have well over a hundred exhibitors, and we only have room for 36.”
The plant show is free to attend. Admission to the craft show is $10 ($8 for museum members) and includes access to the museum, where an exhibition about Charles and Anne Lindbergh, “Couple of an Age,” is on display.
Artists pay Morven to exhibit, hoping to make it back in sales of their work and commissions. Each gets a 10-by-10-foot booth meant to look like a mini-gallery. Over the course of the weekend, thousands of people will walk through the tent browsing the booths. Jammin’ Crepes, the Princeton Farmers Market and now Nassau Street staple, will have a pop-up café set up in the center of the tent, where they’ll serve food all day to patrons, artists and volunteers alike.
Webb thinks the artists enjoy the relatively intimate setting. “It’s probably the smallest show of its kind in the country that has this level of quality. It has an intimate kind of boutique feel. We create a little village in there.”
Items on display typically range in price from $50 to many thousands of dollars. “This is high-end stuff, not just in quality, but also in cost,” Webb said matter-of-factly. “Some people, when they see what things cost, are a little taken aback.”
Cost is not an issue for all potential buyers, of course. But even for those who don’t have the wherewithal to make a purchase, the show can be as much about engaging in conversation with artists, talking about the pieces and the work, as it is about commerce. “That’s one of the reasons artists do this,” Webb said. “When you talk to them and learn how they work, you develop a respect and an understanding for the time and the effort and the skill it takes to work at this level.”
Newstat said in his visits the past two years, he’s found Morven in May attendees to be friendly and interesting.
“It’s an educated crowd. The show seems to bring out well-rounded people who understand the things we’re doing,” Newstat said. “I spend a lot of time alone in the studio. At a show, it’s fun to talk to people. It’s an unnaturally happy situation. Conversations flow because people are so happy to be there.”
While Erin Wilson won’t be back this year, many artists are returning, including MacArthur Fellow Mary Jackson, a well-known basketmaker from Charleston, South Carolina. Also returning is Laura Baring-Gould, a Boston-based metal sculptor who often does large-scale installation work, but is known on the craft show circuit for her cast bronze pears.
Baring-Gould said Princeton was one of her favorite stops in 2015. “I love the conversations I had with people,” she said. “Artists since the beginning of time have been making things that people wear, things people have in their homes and look at every day and still fall in love with. What Morven in May is doing is bringing in people who’ve spent their lives exploring materials. In this one very intimate environment, you can come and just share the wealth of what human beings have been exploring with their hands through time.”
Webb said the Morven staff, board and volunteers do whatever they can to make the artists feel welcome, including housing as many as possible in local homes for the duration of their stay. “We really try to take care of them while they’re here. There’s no guarantee they’re going to sell a lot of work, but at least when they leave they will have enjoyed themselves,” she said.
Newstat said the Morven in May committee does a good job of making things as easy as possible for the artists. He compared it favorably to urban shows, where artists have to navigate cities and find parking spaces for their trucks. “That can be overwhelming,” he said. “Morven is at the other end of the scale.”
The smaller scale also lends itself to the development of friendships and partnerships among artists, board members, volunteers and patrons. Sometimes artists end up selling work to or getting commissions from the people they are staying with while in town. Webb said that she often hears from visitors that they have come back to the show year after year to see artists they’ve bought from in the past so they can buy more of their work.
Baring-Gould said she is always thrilled when people return to her booth from years past to tell her stories about the things they’ve bought from her that she has made.
“People come the next year and say, ‘I live with your piece, I look at it every day,’ or ‘I gave it as a gift to someone,’” she said. “They’re relishing the opportunity to buy another one and give it to someone else. It’s such an honor.”
Perhaps one of the more unexpected features of Morven in May is the Art in the Garden scavenger hunt for children ages 6 to 12. Kids, accompanied by parents or guardians, are given thumbnail images of artwork that can be found throughout the tent to try and find. Those that find at least 12 of the items will receive a ticket good for one free plant.
“The artists think it’s brilliant,” Webb said. “After all, we’re a museum, an educational institution. Having kids looking for these pieces engages the artists with the kids. The artists also understand that when kids are in there, their parents are also there. It engages a younger buying audience. The bottom line is, we don’t want people not to come because they have children.”
Newstat said he enjoys the kids’ scavenger hunt. “It’s fun. The kids are really into it,” he said.
Baring-Gould said she loves seeing young people gain exposure to the kind of work that she and her fellow artists do.
“I am an artist. Someone comes, it could be a child, it could be someone very cultured in the world of objects, and they interact with what I make, and I watch them interact with it,” she said. “That’s so lovely for us as makers.”
Morven in May will kick off on Friday, May 6 with a preview plant sale for members of the museum from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Webb said some people become members (the cost of membership is $40 a year) just so they can go to the preview sale and get first pick of the plants.
That night, from 6:30 to 9 p.m., there will be a Preview Garden Party with buffet dinner catered by Max Hansen. Both plants and fine art will be on display for the garden party.
Tickets ($150 to $1,000) must be purchased in advance and are available online right up to the day of the event at morven.org. A portion of the tickets is tax deductible, and both crafts and plants will be available for purchase. There is an open bar, and artists will be on hand for the party.
Saturday and Sunday, May 7 and 8, the show opens to the public rain or shine at 10 a.m. Morven in May closes at 5 p.m. on Saturday and 4 p.m. on Sunday.