The Art of Mutable Mergers: Collaborations Between Designers, Artists, Curators, and the Plastics Industry, 1960 – 74

Grace Converse
Adjunct Instructor of Art History
Purchase College, SUNY
St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn

In the years leading up to the 1968 exhibition PLASTIC as Plastic at the Museum ofContemporary Crafts, curator Paul J. Smith and the MCC staff asked: “Can industry andthe arts join forces?” In the context of PLASTIC as Plastic, the question refers to Smith’s efforts to find a corporate partner from the plastics industry, but asking “can?” invokes variations on the question: “How and why can industry and the arts join forces?” And going deeper still, “Why would industry and the arts join forces, and what could be gained?”

These questions were asked of the many instances when major chemical companies “joined forces” with the arts in the 1960s and early 1970s: numerous partnerships were forged between designers, artist, curators, and architects and specific companies including Eastman Chemical Products Inc., Hastings Plastics Company, Hooker Chemical Company, Owens-Corning Fiberglas, Inc., Philip Morris and its subsidiaries, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, and Rohm and Haas Company. Researching these collaborations has illuminated a historic rise in support for the arts from the plastics industry. A brief discussion of these examples will illustrate how, despite clear benefits to industry and the arts collaborating, the definition of “benefit” was subjective and open to dispute. Companies were resistant to give support because
exhibitions and projects could not guarantee a financial return, while critics were apt to spurn exhibitions and works of art that too readily announced their affiliations with industry and corporations. Artists, architects, and designers chose plastic for reasons
specific to their work, and rarely were these creators’ positions in perfect accord with critical opinion or a company’s public image. The quality for which plastic is named—its mutability—was echoed in the manifold conflicting views on its use in art and design.