How did art quilts establish themselves as an art form and move into mainstream gallery showings, exhibitions, and more? How did art quilters band together and become the driving force behind textile art all over the world? Quilting Arts contributor Sandra Sider works to help answer all of these questions as she explores the history of the art quilt from 1980–1999. Read the full article in the December/January issue of Quilting Arts!
The Origin of “Art Quilts”
You may be surprised to learn that the term “art quilt” did not exist until 1983. As Robert Shaw explained in his 1997 book The Art Quilt, “Soon after launching The Quilt Digest, [Michael] Kile teamed with curator and writer Penny McMorris to organize The Art Quilt, a  traveling exhibition of brand new works by sixteen artists they considered trailblazers in the field . . . the catalogue declared, ‘The art quilt has emerged, and it heralds a dramatic and fundamental change in the history of quilts. It is art for walls, not beds, created by artists abandoning media like painting, printmaking, and ceramics to express themselves in original designs of cloth and thread.’”
New venues for art quilt exhibitions and workshops
Several institutions promoting art quilts were founded in the latter 1970s and mid-1980s, including the American Museum of Quilts and Related Arts (today’s San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles) in 1977, Quilt San Diego (today’s Quilt Visions) in 1985, and New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1987.
The following decade saw five quilt institutions founded across the county, beginning with the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden, Colorado, in 1990. The following year, the National Quilt Museum was founded in Paducah, Kentucky, and in 1995 the Virginia Quilt Museum was established in Harrisonburg. The La Conner Quilt Museum in La Conner, Washington (now the Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum), opened its doors in 1997, the same year in which philanthropists and quilt collectors Robert and Ardis James were instrumental in founding the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
These venues, which exhibit quilts of all types, provided quilt artists with refreshing new avenues to explore as well as venues where their work could be collected and appreciated.
Quilt artists Nancy Crow and Linda Fowler founded the Quilt Surface Design Symposium (QSDS) in Ohio in 1990, offering a broad variety of educational opportunities. During the first decade of QSDS, hundreds of students experimented with new techniques and processes in studio workshops.
By the 1990s, Quilting By the Lake (founded in 1981) in upstate New York had also become a popular destination for quilters in general, with many classes focusing on art quilts by the end of the decade. Other inspirational studio classes expanding the creativity of quilt artists were being taught at Empty Spools Seminars in Asilomar, California (founded 1986) and at Art Quilt Tahoe (1998).
Several nonprofit professional organizations helped bring momentum and innovation to the Art Quilt Movement during the 1980s and 1990s. Founded in 1977, the Surface Design Association provides a platform for the exchange of ideas, methods, and materials in an expansive community working in textile media and fiber arts.
In 1985, Dr. Carolyn L. Mazloomi founded The Women of Color Quilters Network, a non-profit group intended to foster and preserve the art of quilt making among women of color (today a few men are members). The organization offers quilts and fiber art to museums for exhibition, and researches and documents African-American quilt making.
In 1989, Yvonne Porcella invited 50 quilt artists to join with her to found Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA), organizing conferences and exhibitions as well as developing a database of artwork by its members that SAQA promoted to galleries and museums. SAQA, now grown to 3,500 members in 39 countries, continues to support the art quilt through education, numerous exhibitions, professional development, documentation, and publications.
In contrast with the chaotic Art World of the 1980s and 1990s, art quilts were thriving as makers focused their energy and imagination on this relatively new medium, supported by museums and publishers catering to their talents. Artists began to travel, teaching workshops internationally, and many of them networked with students and colleagues as they shared new techniques and exhibitions. They formed a flourishing community of quilt artists that would grow astronomically in the 21st century.
Part two of a three-part series on the history of the Art Quilt Movement. All images here are from SAQA’s new book, Art Quilts Unfolding: 50 Years of Innovation, from Schiffer Publishing. Sandra Sider is editor and co-author of the book.
About the Author
Sandra Sider, a studio quilt artist, has published articles and books concerning fiber and art for four decades. She has a Masters in Art History from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University; is a past president of SAQA; and has been the curator for the Texas Quilt Museum since 2012. Visit her website here.
Don’t miss reading the full article and seeing more amazing images of art quilts in the December/January issue of Quilting Arts! Check out the birth of the art quilt movement here. Read the final installment of this series, “Art Quilts in the 21st Century” in the February/March issue of Quilting Arts!