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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

La-Di-Da: Teapots stir up a tempest!

Sunday, August 28, 2005

By Tom Patterson
The General Assembly's decision to appropriate $400,000 for a teapot museum in Sparta has stirred up a lively debate over public priorities. The project has been criticized as a waste of tax dollars and a flagrant example of pork-barrel spending.
As often happens with controversies about culture, the more outspoken critics appear to be basing their opinions on minimal information. But in this case, it's not hard to understand their concerns. After all, teapots haven't played any significant role in the state's history, and they probably aren't on too many Top 10 lists.
How many people, then, would get excited about looking at a bunch of teapots in a museum?
That's what I casually wondered about a year and a half ago, when I learned that the Mint Museum of Craft + Design in Charlotte was exhibiting a traveling show of teapots.
But I went anyway, and to my great surprise, I was knocked out by what I saw - a wildly diverse selection of highly imaginative, thought-provoking contemporary sculpture with a few complementary historical pieces tossed into the mix.
There were about 250 works in all, and every one was at least loosely based on a standard teapot form. But a number of them could never function as teapots because they were too large to be picked up for pouring.
Titled "The Artful Teapot: 20th Century Expressions from the Kamm Collection," the show represented the work of more than 100 individuals, among them widely known artists and designers, including Raymon Elozua, Michael Graves, Walter Gropius, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein, Michael Lucero, George Ohr and Cindy Sherman.
More than anything else, it was about the teapot as a point of formal departure for contemporary sculpture commenting on a wide range of personal, social, aesthetic and historic issues.
A few days later, I learned that the show I had seen was from a private collection that some influential arts patrons and community leaders were planning to put on permanent display in Sparta. The collection was assembled over a period of about 25 years by Sonny Kamm, a Los Angeles attorney, and his wife, Gloria.
In its entirety, it is reported to consist of more than 10,000 distinctive teapots, teapot-shaped sculptures and related objects. Valued at more than $5 million, it's reputed to be the largest such collection in the world.
Why do the Kamms want to house it in Sparta?
In a phone interview, Sonny Kamm said that he and his wife had been talking for a while about donating their collection to a museum, but that the tenor of those discussions changed after they received a phone call from Phil Hanes, a Winston-Salem arts patron, in early in 2003.
Hanes owns property in Roaring Gap, near Sparta, and mutual acquaintances had told him about the Kamms' collection and their plans for it. It was Hanes who suggested that they consider sending it to Sparta.
They were skeptical, Kamm said, especially when Hanes told them that Sparta's population was only about 1,800. But he also told them of the town's proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway, on a "crafts corridor" connecting several existing craft and folk-culture centers in North Carolina and Virginia. Hanes predicted that a Sparta museum housing the Kamms' collection would attract tens of thousands of visitors each year.
Hanes persuaded them to come and see Sparta for themselves. During their visit, in the spring of 2003, Kamm said that they were struck by the beauty of the surrounding mountains. They also saw the vacant storefronts and learned of the area's high unemployment rate. Sparta is the seat of Alleghany County, which has a total population of about 10,000. Sparta has lost more than 1,400 manufacturing jobs in recent years.
Kamm said that he and his wife had hoped to put their collection in a place where it might have a positive social impact, and the prospect that it might help enliven Alleghany County's economy appealed to them. Within a few months, they cosigned an agreement with Sparta officials that committed the Kamms to donate their collection and endow the salaries of a museum staff if Sparta could raise the money to build the museum.
Sparta's town council designated New River Community Partners, a local nonprofit organization, to raise $10 million to pay for a 30,000-square-foot museum on a 5.2-acre site in downtown Sparta that has been designated for the project. The fundraising effort is being overseen by Jonathan Halsey, the project manager. Last week, Halsey said that $2 million has been committed toward the project to date, including the recent legislative appropriation.
Last spring, the museum's board of directors hired Jenkins Peer Architects of Charlotte to design the museum. Halsey said that construction is expected to begin in August 2006, and that the museum - to be called the Sparta Museum: Home of the Kamm Teapot Collection - is scheduled to open in 2008.
In citing the potential economic benefits of the proposed museum, Halsey said that it would create 123 new jobs in the community with salaries totaling $2.7 million, and he cited the conclusions of a national research firm's feasibility study of the project. The study concluded that the museum could be reasonably expected to attract about 60,000 visitors to Sparta each year, and that they could be expected to spend about $7.5 million. He said that $537,000 of that amount would go to Alleghany County as tax revenue.
Halsey said he thinks that the decision to put $400,000 in state funds into the museum has been unfairly singled out for criticism. "This is really an economic-development project that we've been carefully planning for over two years," he said. "I think it (the General Assembly) will see a significant return on their investment within the first six months of the museum's opening, in terms of increased visitors and increased visitor expenditures."
Having had a taste of what's in store for visitors to the proposed museum, I share Halsey's enthusiasm, and I'm glad that a small portion of my tax dollars have been designated to help build it.
It's worth emphasizing that this will be more than just a teapot museum. What I've seen of the Kamm Collection shows me that it will be an art museum, with the teapot serving as a kind of quirky, unifying theme. It's art, but it's also exciting and fun.
If that key fact can be adequately conveyed in advertising for the museum, then it might indeed prove successful in all of the ways predicted by its supporters.
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