At the moment, Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum has a national reputation though it is less well known around town. In one respect it is a little like its founder, the late Marion “Kippy” Boulton Stroud, who was both bold (and bossy) but surprisingly self-effacing. Unlike the Rosenbach or the Barnes, to name two of the city’s other idiosyncratic museums, FWM is something of a high-wire act, an ongoing experiment in the very definition of what this institution is and can be.
That openness should help FWM survive the demise of Kippy Stroud. You see it everywhere, starting at the classy gift shop near the entrance, where Tracey Blackman, the shop’s director, draws you into conversation while dispatching employees to do repairs, checking on meetings, and describing the shop’s artist-designed ties, napkins, hand-bags, and ceramics. You get the sense that she might even hondle with you if you couldn’t come up with the necessary cash. Tracey is improvising. Everyone here is improvising. That is what artists both famous and unknown come for—to work with the staff exploring new materials and new mediums, to live with the process of experiment and collaboration.
Virtually everyone who is anyone nationally and internationally has been here for a residency, from Louise Bourgeois, Red Grooms, Carrie Mae Weems, and Ann Hamilton to musicians, architects, and visionary choreographers such as Anna Halprin, many of whom redefined their work during their stay. Plenty of unknown or emerging artists have passed through as well, all of them adding something to the more than fifty-six hundred objects in the permanent collection.
The other thing that will keep FWM going is the appointment of Susan Talbott as its interim director. After eight years spent restoring the glories of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, Talbott (below) seems poised for a leap into this aesthetic wonderland where flights of the imagination are tethered to the can-do spirit of an enthusiastic and committed staff. She is also the ideal person to carry on Fabric Workshop’s commitment to training (and paying) high school students of diverse backgrounds in design and printing while also giving them career guidance. As in Hartford, where she forged a strong connection between the city and the museum, she should be the person to make FWM a Philadelphia destination and a point of local pride.
It was an important experiment that Kippy Stroud initiated in Philadelphia almost forty years ago. Its ongoing vitality is a testament to that.