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MFA’s Emily Zilber discusses Boston’s craft community

Emily Zilber has two MFA exhibitions opening in 2015.

Emily Zilber was brought on as the Museum of Fine Arts’ first Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts in 2010. Her focus is on decorative arts, crafts, and design from 1955 to the present and how such pieces can be thoughtfully incorporated into the MFA. Zilber will speak on her work at the North Bennet Street School’s Windgate Gallery Thursday at 6 p.m.

Q. For someone who is not that familiar with contemporary craft, what would be your recommendation for the way to view pieces at the MFA?

A. We’re lucky. We have in some ways the best of both worlds in that you can come and go to the Daphne Farago Gallery with decorative arts. You can see lots of contemporary work in traditional craft material. We’re talking about fiber, metal, wood, furniture, jewelry, baskets, ceramics. You can see that work within the context of other artists or designers who are also working with those materials. Then you can take a shift and step into our larger contemporary galleries in which objects are organized schematically but there are also contemporary works and crafts materials incorporated into these schematic spaces.

Q. Since moving here for the MFA position, what have you learned about being in Boston?


A. Boston is an incredibly rich environment for craft. There’s a wonderful legacy of craft throughout the city’s history. I’m thrilled that we get to showcase much of those historical materials here at the museum but it’s also an active and thriving community, whether that is through schools like the North Bennet School or MassArt to media-focused programs to galleries. There’s wonderful craft galleries here and lots of artists make Boston and New England their home. There’s a very vibrant conversation that happens between organizations. It’s an incredibly exciting place to be because there are lots of people who are engaged with craft and are interested in exploring it. 2015 will be quite a big year for craft in the city of Boston when we have both NCECA (National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts), which is the large ceramics conference, and SNAG (Society of North American Goldsmiths), which is the large metals and jewelry conference, in the area.


Q. You have two MFA exhibitions opening in 2015.

A. I do indeed.

Q. And you’ve already started the prep work?

A. Always. One exhibition really focused on ceramics materials in concert with that ceramics conference, NCECA. That one I’m co-curating with two colleagues here at the museum. That will really look at wonderful materials that are in our collection. That’s again yet another way to engage people with contemporary craft. That’s an exhibition that will be on view in the American wing because it’s all American material. After you’ve looked at Paul Revere and you’ve looked at John Singer Sargent, you get to encounter contemporary craft, contemporary American ceramics in a longer historical context. Again, one of the things that we can do as an encyclopedic museum that other contemporary institutions may not be able to do is to put contemporary practice in a longer kind of conversation, a longer context.

Q. Tell us about your talk at the North Bennet Street School.

A. That will be a talk that really focuses on what we’ve been doing here over the last three and a half years, how we are thinking about and displaying contemporary crafts, the kind of engagement that we are interested in providing our visitors with.


Q. Is there any one piece in the collection that you hope visitors absolutely see and should be on the lookout for?

A. There are quite a few. . . . We’ve just recently done a new commission for our Please Be Seated program, which was the first museum program in the country that commissioned artists to make furniture to produce gallery seating for our visitors. We’ve just done a new commission that was unveiled in October with a young furniture maker based in New Hampshire named Vivian Beer. It’s really the only piece of contemporary furniture we have out right now made within the last couple of years that people can physically engage with and have a tactile experience with.

Q. That’s a very cool program.

A. Yes, it is. I would love to see it have a greater presence at the museum. It’s one of the things that people don’t stop and realize that there are wonderful, Please Be Seated works throughout the museum by all sorts of masters of studio craft. Visitors can come and engage with the artwork in a different way.

Q. They can take a seat.

A. Exactly.

Interview has been edited and condensed. For details on the North Bennet Street talk, visit . Rachel Raczka can be reached at