Adam Welch takes a seat on the Arts Council of Princeton’s Graves Terrace.
A nationally known ceramicist — whose work will also be on view at the Trenton City Museum exhibition opening September 19 — and former executive director of Greenwich House in Brooklyn, Welch is ready to talk about assuming the position of executive director for the prominent arts center.
“My approach to arts administration is thinking as an artist first and foremost,” he says behind his social distancing-approved mask. “I essentially think about art, dream about art, talk about making art.”
The Hightstown resident adds, “I am mainly interested in contemporary art — where ceramic and other arts overlap — and artists looking at the material for expression.
“And even though I work and think about clay — I have a kinship with what (artists of other medium) are doing and what they are working on. So it is a natural fit to create a residency where I can help them achieve their vision in material.”
That said, he admits that filling a job that had been filled by an “acting” director for nearly two years and doing so during a health and economy-wrecking pandemic “is not a great time to start a new job and start a new business. And the Arts Council is no different.”
And while enrollment numbers for ACP classes and programs are going up, he says it isn’t where it had been.”
But, he says, “I love challenges, and I love art, so I find this to be a great opportunity — a time for reinvention that is unprecedented.”
The artist/administrator whose history includes leading an organization through an enrollment and budget problem then adds, “When things are running it is difficult to make change because of precedent and tradition. Moments like this give you a freedom to allow you to examine that precedent. It gives you a blank slate without the normal fear of change. The ‘if it is not broken, don’t fix it’ idea doesn’t exist with COVID. It gives us time to reevaluate.”
That includes looking at what the “ACP did well and where we think we can go on.”
Admitting that it is daunting to leave a secure job and start a new one in a new location, Welch says he already has a connection to the town of Princeton from being a once-a-week art instructor and lecturer at Princeton University.
“I have been working at the university for a decade. I admire and really like spending time here,” he says.
Then again he also says he liked working Greenwich House. “I have spent half of my artistic life at that job and was shaped by that community. And that shaped my thoughts about what it is to work in a community. It was a great learning experience.”
And while the 12 years of commuting four hours a day were enough to make him ready for a change, the father of two daughters says COVID-19 sealed his fate. “I spent the time at home for four months and realized while I was there that I needed to refocus on myself and the importance of community. I knew so much about working in a community in New York, but I didn’t know my own community. So in a sense I was living in two different worlds.”
He adds the ACP was the only job that interested him in the region and calls it “a real opportunity and game changer.”
Welch says what makes it attractive is the “great synergy happening with the municipality: creating graphics on sidewalks, signage in the Witherspoon district, and plantings in the Witherspoon area, more opportunity for temporary and permanent public art pieces.”
There is also the opportunity for a “reexamination of what we can do at this time. Try it and see what sticks. If the community embraces it, then that becomes some of the new programming of what we do when we reemerge.”
Welch is also interested in examining the various communities of artists and encourages “an atmosphere of dialogue in the larger artists’ community and building networks” that “engage one another outside our little communities.”
However, to do so requires facing some challenges.
He says the first is “obviously finances. It was an obstacle pre-COVID, and you want to keep your staff employed and engaged..”
The next challenge is COVID’s emotional and psychological impact on children and adults. “How do we use the arts to overcome anxiety and overcome these fears that are being created? How to develop relationships and bonds with people — to empathize with people? Art isn’t the only way. (But) it is one way to help us cope. I think that it’s one of the biggest.
“Our responsibilities and resources are people, and I think that is a priority. Our biggest goal and biggest challenge is reaching people. Right now it’s Zoom, but we have to figure out a hybrid of reaching people through Zoom and physical presence.
“We have to reinvent ourselves. Then hopefully the money will come. If you do all you can do, the money will be there. The support will be there.”
Welch says he approaches the administrative work as a creative process and a path he began when he was attending middle school in Burke, Virginia.
“I started in craft and woodworking. As early as seventh grade I was in a shop class and started producing. I also started ceramics and art.
“My family was hands-on. So I was used to it and thinking about materials. By the end of high school I wanted to do ceramics for a living. In college I focused solely on art.”
Although during college at Northern Arizona University he went to Alaska to work with a totem pole artist, Welch says he kept returning to ceramics. “It was very intuitive and very natural. Even with wood working, my interest and focus revolves around clay as a material. Anytime I have an idea for something. I think in clay.”
Welch believes the tactile experience of working with clay makes ceramics popular for students and artists.
“Ceramics is at the forefront of the art world,” says Welch, who also writes about ceramics for Ceramics Art and Perception, the Log Book, Ceramics Monthly, and Clay Times.
“About 14 years ago clay was shown in New York and considered seriously. I see the rise of ceramics is connecting with the actual world,” he says.
Calling it an opposite of conceptual art and a reaction to the removal of the traditional aesthetics of art making, Welch says the cyclical reinterest in ceramics and clay “is a return to the primordial. I see it as a reaction. Students working all day on the computer and on a level so far removed from every day involvement. A return to painting, a return to drawing, and a return to object and mark making is a basic return to the world — but not basic in a non-sophisticated way. People work all day and then come to places like the ACP to re-immerse themselves into something meaningful.
“This goes back to — there is a large disconnect of seeing something accomplished (in a factory). You start out with a lump of clay or blank canvas and you end up having a work of art. And you express your time. It goes back to the Abstract Expressionism, an existential statement, ‘I am here.’ ”
According to his Greenwich House Pottery biography, Welch’s own expression “incorporates design, documentation, and intervention to reference history and material culture.”
Welch explains that he became engaged with documenting the use of bricks and building. And “found out there was a large history. It basically dealt with a window tax. The poor had to do without light and air.”
That resulted in a body of work called “Bricked Up” on view at Princeton Day School in 2013. “I started bricking up and repairing walls and did a photo documenting bricked up historic places by PhotoShop.”
He says the “intervention” involved repairing or replacing bricks in different ways, including painting them with contemporary “Martha Stuart” colors.
For Welch, the appeal of working with bricks is that “it is very art related. It is steeped in art world practice.”
He continues to say while perusing his graduate studies at Virginia Commonwealth University he was also looking to navigate through the current academic dogma and got interested in art history.
“I got inspired by minimalism,” he says, “and tried to pare down what was essential. The brick came to become the quintessential ceramic object, historically functioning, manufactory, and with a relationship to the body — to the hand. As a building material it hit all the criteria, and it was necessary and permanent and had a relationship with the body. I am still interested in it as an object — it is a bottomless well of exploration.”
He sums up his approach to creating his brick and more traditional work with “I do it for me. I do it for my own interest. If people like it, great. If they buy it, fantastic.
“I want people to see it and love it when I have the opportunity to show — like with this show coming up. It is another way to express myself and an expression of the time.”
Thinking of the art form in general, he says, “I love how ceramics has such a long history and love how it is everywhere. It is in everything — hair products, the space shuttle, toilets, gravestones, teeth, medicine. It’s everywhere and everything. And all of its powers haven’t been discovered yet. It is humble and not humble — look at the history — pomp and circumstance to everyday drinking of tea and whiskey. I don’t think anything has more power to bring people together. Classes filled in the city and here. It is gaining in popularity.”
Although Welch brings the past into his criticism, he has other concerns. “A lot of stuff I had written about in the field has been critical about where people are lacking” and asks “why are all the famous people and tenured faculty being celebrated and not others who are exploring, including the non-ceramic artists working in clay?”
“I use the (critic) platform to advance work that I like. And I write about ideas and things that interest me. I would approach a work and say ‘think about this and these ideas,’” he says.
A Virginia native and son of a civil engineer and day care provider, Welch’s move to New Jersey started in 2002 when his wife, Rachel, a fellow VCU graduate, moved to New York to work as a fashion designer, and the couple settled in Brooklyn.
They eventually had a child and decided to find a place of their own. The challenge was to find a place close to New York and allowed easy trips to Virginia to visit family.
Welch says during one trip south they had a diaper problem and took the next exit on the New Jersey Turnpike to address it. “We pulled into Hightstown, and I said this is where we’re moving and we looked at houses. That was 12 years ago.”
The house they eventually purchased also had a garage that Welch transformed into a studio. But he readily admits that space really got running after the pandemic forced him to focus and refocus on his socially engaged practices — such as the Empty Bowls hunger project, serving on the town’s Cultural Arts Commission, and other activities that involve relational aesthetics — and artists who engage the community.
“I’ve learned over the past 17 years the importance of community,” he says, as it has become noticeably darker on the terrace and it is time to wrap up. “The term isn’t one monolithic thing. It involves smaller communities that need to be engaged and use art to give common ground to the human experience — art to expand our world view and bring us together.”
Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Paul Robeson Place, Princeton. 609-924-8777. www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.