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Craft Show Opens Thursday

22nd Annual Event Benefits Smithsonian

Mary Ripley, wife of the eighth Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, felt that there should be a group solely dedicated to advancing the interests of the Smithsonian Institution. So in 1966 she organized such a group — the Women’s Committee of the Smithsonian Associates (currently the Smithsonian Women’s Committee) — to enrich and improve necessary aspects of the institution through fundraising activities.

The group hosted an annual Holiday Soirée and then in 1983 added a craft show to its fundraising activities. The craft show consisted of five artistic mediums: ceramics, fiber, glass, wood and metal, and cost a short Metro trip to attend. As the 22nd Annual Smithsonian Craft Show gets under way Thursday, one wonders if Mary Ripley ever anticipated that her fundraising project would have the impressive impact that it has on the art world.

The Smithsonian Craft Show, which runs April 22-25 at the National Building Museum, is considered by some to be the most prestigious and pre-eminent craft event in the country, drawing exhibitors and art connoisseurs from all over the country. Rob Williams, owner of the contemporary art gallery Wdo, in Charlotte, N.C., is one of the people who hold the event in such esteem. “The [Smithsonian] show has definitely established itself with sophisticated art collectors all across the country, not just craft-show-goers,” Williams remarked.

This year’s 133 exhibitors will be showcased at 120 booths. The 15,000 expected visitors will be awarded with art from the 12 categories of basketry, ceramics, decorative fiber, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art and wood. The craft show demonstrates the crafters’ ability to redefine any medium of art, and is meant to please a number of artistic tastes.

Williams, along with Jo Ann Brown, former director of the American Craft Council, and Lloyd Herman, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, acted as jurors for this year’s show. Although the exhibition makes its debut this weekend, the jurors work began back in October. With the use of SWC’s innovative e-Jury system the jurors completed their task of narrowing down the 1,200 exhibit applications to the show’s final 133 artists in due time.

Now in its third year of use, the e-Jury system is praised by both the jurors and the artists themselves for being much more efficient, thorough and fair. The conventional slide-show method had become increasingly outdated and time-consuming. Therefore, in 2002 with spirits akin to Mary Ripley, the SWC unveiled its innovative system.

Williams, a first-time user of the avant-garde e-Jury system deemed it “fantastic” because it allowed each juror to “work at our own pace and refer back to exhibits as needed.” Williams felt that not only did the jurors benefit from SWC’s system, but so too did the artist. “We were able to thoroughly examine each piece and pay more attention to the artists’ intention,” Williams said.

The Smithsonian Craft Show is unique in that it requires every applicant to apply every year, regardless of his or her status or previous attendance. Williams praises the show for this element because it “showcases artists that people have never seen before. Whereas the tendency at these craft shows is to let the same people in over and over again … we [the jurors] spent time looking for creative material regardless of anyone’s establishment.” Consequently, 30 first time talents will come to the National Building Museum with the hope of making names for themselves among art-amassers.

Deborah Muhl, a five-time show veteran and winner of the Best in Show award at the revered Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, remembers the first time she exhibited at Smithsonian. “I was brand new, no one had ever seen my work before … then people started coming back and were able to recognize my work.”

Muhl, a basketry artist, largely credits the show’s reputation for furthering her career. “The Smithsonian is like the stamp of approval in the craft world. People take it seriously, it has longevity.” Muhl’s sweet grass and gourd basket is one of three prizes in this year’s raffle, which she donated without hesitation because “the [Smithsonian] Women’s Committee always presents the art in such a refined manner, and the show brings in an amazing group of collectors.”

A gala tonight will allow attendees to view the exhibits a day before the hoi-polli strolls through today. The $12 general admission ticket price, as well as proceeds from the gala, still benefit the same cause Mary Ripley strove to achieve.

The event Mary Ripley devised as a simple fundraising activity has grown in exhibition applications, artistic categories and number of visitors, but most notably in its revered reputation as one of the nation’s most prestigious juried exhibition and sale of contemporary American crafts.

For more information on the show, visit

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