Clare Twomey Forever at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Kansas City, MO – A specially commissioned installation, Forever, by the acclaimed British artist Clare Twomey will focus on ceramics as an ephemeral and temporary medium.

The exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will feature 1,345 vessels, authored by Twomey, interpretations of a noted 18th-century salt-glazed stoneware caudle cup from the Museum’s Burnap Collection of English Pottery. Forever which opens to the public Oct. 9 and runs through Jan. 2, 2011–is the artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States.

The exhibition adds an interactive dimension by allowing visitors to apply to be the owner of one of the objects on view.

Twomey has gained an international reputation with her ephemeral installations. In her 2007 installation Trophy, Twomey placed 4,000 Wedgwood jasperware bluebirds in the Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The exhibition activated historically significant galleries with thousands of objects made from clay from the most important and innovative English ceramic manufacturer. Without being prompted or invited, visitors took the birds, scattering them throughout the world.

Considering the museum’s draw, it meant not only that the installation gave visitors a new appreciation for the gallery and the museum’s history, but also that the birds flew around the globe. In June 2010, Twomey placed 3,000 black ceramic butterflies throughout the public and private rooms of the renowned Brighton Pavilion, the magnificent palace built for King George IV. Twomey’s installation, A Dark Day in Paradise, added provocative levels of interpretation to one of the early-19th century’s most opulent and fantastic interiors. Twomey’s ceramic insects, depending on one’s point of view, were seen to invade disturb, delight or be trapped in the spaces.

Catherine Futter, the Helen Jane and R. Hugh “Pat” Uhlmann Curator of Decorative Arts, met Twomey when she visited a ceramics class at the Kansas City Art Institute in the spring of 2008. That led to a visit to the Museum’s Burnap collection, considered the best collection of a British pottery outside England. The collection is also important to the Nelson-Atkins as it was the first collection of art donated to the Museum in 1941, seven years after the founding of the institution. It was the result of decades of collecting by Harriet and Frank Burnap.

In discussing the development of a project between Twomey and the Museum, Futter said, “Clare was not only interested in particular works in the Burnap collection that are seen as defining objects in the history of British pottery, but also the motivations, responsibilities and trust of donating an entire collection or a single work of art to a museum.”

In giving the collection, the Burnaps entrusted the Museum with the care, accessibility and display of 1,345 works—from 12th-century earthenwares to early 19th-century works by Wedgwood. The Deed of Gift stipulated that the Museum could not sell the collection or any works, that the collection must be accessible to scholars and lovers of art and that no other ceramics may be displayed with the collection. The Deed of Gift frequently employs the phrase “in trust forever,” signifying the weight and importance that this gift meant to the Burnaps and the level of trust that they put in the Museum.

Twomey was drawn to one of the most significant objects in the Burnap collection: a salt-glazed stoneware two-handled cup used for drinking caudle, a beverage made of spiced wine or ale and thickened with bread or oatmeal, originally given to invalids but which became increasingly fashionable in the early 18th century. The cup, which is inscribed “Mrs. Mary Sandbach her Cup anno dom 1720,” is noted for being the earliest-known dated piece of English salt-glazed stoneware, and as such serves as a benchmark for similar wares. Although the technology for using salt as a glaze for stoneware came from Germany, English manufacturers sought to compete with the clarity, translucence and pure white color of Chinese porcelains, unable to make their own porcelains until later in the 18th century. The flaring form, defined ridges, bold inscription and slightly off-white color give the Cup a very modern appearance.

Working with Hartley Greens Leeds Pottery, a ceramics factory in northern England that has produced functional earthenware since the 18th century, Twomey authored a reduced scale model of the Sandbach Cup. This cup was reproduced 1,345 times, honoring the number of works in the Burnap donation. Each Cup will be identified with the mark of the artist, the ceramics factory, the Museum and an individual number, indicating its sequence in the edition.

Visitors will not only be able to view cups, they also will have the opportunity to become owners. To own a specific cup they must complete and sign a Deed that asks them to consider why they want the work of art. Owner names will be added to the object’s label while in the exhibition, indicating that the work is now on loan to the Museum. Why and how will the owners value their Cup? Can they sign a Deed committing to the care of a Cup forever—just as the Burnaps required the Nelson-Atkins to sign their Deed of Gift nearly 70 years ago? Those wanting to be an owner will enter a weekly lottery.

Futter said that the reasons given for wanting to own a Cup will be fascinating, as visitors must specify which Cup they want to own. Although the bowls of each Cup are mold-made, the handles are individually applied and the surface will vary. Will visitors pick the beginning or end of the edition, or their favorite number? Once they have become owners, will visitors return to see their Cup on display with their name added to the credit line on the object label?

Futter notes that when the exhibition closes on January 2 and each Cup goes to its owner, issues of trust, ownership, responsibility and value will come into play. Perhaps the Cup will go on display on the mantelpiece or in a cabinet or be given to family member or friend. The Museum website will serve as a repository for images and stories for the works after the close of the exhibition, giving Twomey’s work a resonance that lasts far longer than the length of the exhibition. The possibilities for Forever are endless.

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