Anne Wilson, though she was speaking about the fibers field as a whole, articulated quite accurately the nature of the challenge we face in tapestry:
Some artists are advocates of maintaining a strict separation between the discrete “field” of fiber and other disciplines of art, thinking that without this clear distinction, based on the past, fiber will be lost…Can we not broaden our context to include a much larger picture, a broader picture in terms of cultural issues and positions within the art world? In the language of multiculturalism: How does one maintain the strengths and uniqueness of difference and still be part of the whole? How do we maintain the strengths and uniqueness of the materials, methods, historical precedents, and attitudes of fiber and also be a contributing participant within a larger contemporary art dialogue and/or a larger cultural dialogue? (Wilson, 56)
Since the 1980s ATA has been a strong force in presenting juried survey exhibitions of its members. The ATA Biennials, and the ITNET Exhibitions, both material and virtual, followed the path established by the Lausanne Tapestry Biennials, in presenting a showcase of juried tapestries every two years. The catalogs for these exhibitions document the history of the medium during the last two decades.
It is time, however, to build upon the success of the last twenty years and expand the types of exhibitions sponsored by ATA. The survey exhibition format, though providing the possibility for a relatively large number of individuals to be represented, is not the best format if in depth reviews are hoped for, since one tapestry per artist, in a non-thematic show is difficult to review in depth. Reviews of such surveys tend to be more of a cataloging of work present, than a critical analysis, which places the work within a larger context.
Alternate the survey exhibitions, such as the Biennial, with thematic group shows. Themes could be chosen from the ideas evolving out of the on-line seminars and study groups. Tapestries for exhibitions such as these, would best be chosen by a single curator with a strong sense of the theme and how it could best be represented. Theme shows including more than one piece per artist could result in a very unified exhibition, thus capturing sustained attention from good writers and the general public. Provide prizes or awards which reflect both the diversity of the membership and a decision to reward innovation, as well as tradition.
Outside the umbrella of ATA it is also quite possible for groups or individuals to put together thematic exhibitions which are not necessarily restricted to people working in tapestry. Mix it up, and pair tapestry with other media. Such a practice would also broaden the audience beyond the tapestry world. Depending upon financial resources available, organizers of such exhibitions could self-publish brochures or catalogs, commission writers to produce essays, and do the necessary footwork to attract potential reviewers. The more that tapestry is seen as a contemporary medium engaged with ideas, and in the company of other crafts work, the more credibility it will have.
In terms of attracting writers’ attention to the exhibitions, it is important to become familiar with good ones and try to interest them in the concept for the show. If appropriate, writers from outside the usual art/craft milieu could be chosen. Those who really look at the work and provide an intelligent analysis are important for the credibility of the field. Mediocre writing that merely paraphrases the press release or bestows compliments, does nothing to advance the cause of educating the public about tapestry, nor does it qualify as the kind of scholarly discourse which is taken seriously by the art world.