BEGINNINGS OF THE GUILD
by Sally Hoffman
Miniatures had reemerged in the early 1970's as a popular hobby with a fascinated audience. The interest in miniatures seemed to start off slowly, perhaps on the west coast, but soon it spread rather all at once, like stars in the night sky, blanketing our continent. Little shops appeared here and there encouraging home craftspeople to come forward and offer for sale their delightful and often inventive miniature creations. Miniature Shows began to appear. The Molly Brody show at Darien, Connecticut, and Tiny Treasures in Boston, were among the earliest of the fine collector quality shows, along with the N.A.M.E. House Parties.
If you made miniatures and were interested in selling them, there were only the obvious routes to be taken. You could sell your items to a store owner, who would require a generous portion of the sale price as his own; sell them yourself at a miniature show, or place an advertisement in Nutshell News, the only magazine on the scene that was truly devoted to miniatures.
If you had any ambition at all, you tried all three routes to sell your miniature creations. The shops were generally happy to take your work, normally on consignment. A few savvy shop owners like Jeanne Schramm of the Enchanted Doll House in Vermont realized that craftspeople were not generally good business people and as a rule needed to be paid on the spot when the merchandise was delivered. I remember George and I walking into Jeanne's shop with a small shoebox of Shaker chairs, tables, stoves, etc. and walking out not only with a check, but an order for a dozen more of everything. I don't know where the ground went, but it certainly wasn't under my feet at that moment!
All of this sounds rather romantic in a way, however, when it went from a hobby that provided extra income to a business that put food on the table, it meant that you had to be certain of the bottom line sales. That meant the shops, the shows, the publicity, and all marketing was on the shoulders of every craftsperson. This can overwhelm people who really just like designing and making small and beautiful things. And it could be really difficult to get into one of the few well-attended shows like the ones I mentioned above.
Overcoming these difficulties in marketing fine miniatures was the reason the Guild was formed. The original group of Artisans who founded the Guild felt they needed a special show that would have only the finest artisans currently working in the miniature field. They wanted a show in which they could be sure of being included. The only criteria were that your work be unique, outstanding, well crafted, in scale (1/12th), and that you honor your business commitments.
The original powerhouse in forming the Guild was Foster Tracy, known as "Tracy." As legend has it, it all began with an informal meeting of several artisans around a kitchen table in early 1978. I'm not sure whose kitchen as that was before our time or involvement. The next attempt at forming the Guild took place in an apartment in New York City. The third and more successful attempt was at Virginia Merrill's home in New Vernon, New Jersey, in the early autumn of 1978 and the participants, including Virginia, were Terry and Fred Rogal, Al Atkins, Don Buttfield, Deborah McKnight, Mary Lee and Tracy, and George and Sally Hoffman (that's us). We all agreed in principal that there was a need for an organization that would provide some sort of security for the artisans.
The initial public activity that launched The Guild was the first Guild Show held in April 1979 in the Mt. Airy Lodge Resort in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains. We weren't sure if anyone would come way out to the Poconos, but since all it took was a cup of coffee and a handshake by the Rogals and the Tracys to secure the deal, the die was set.
The Rogals and the Tracys handled all the show details, issuing the contracts, writing the publicity articles, the printing, etc., in fact creating interesting lives for us all. I was billed as a former showgirl. Alas, I must confess, not true, but a nursery school teacher didn't seem quite as enticing to our publicist, Fred Rogal. At least my name was spelled right. For all of us this was an exciting and nerve wracking time. It was important that the show be a success if we were to continue with the Guild. We had no brochure, no by-laws, just enthusiasm and hope. What we did have we found was the support of the artisan craftspeople and the collectors who followed us out to the Pennsylvania woods to a wonderful show.
The Saturday evening of that first show was our first Guild Auction. And what an event that was. The bidding competition was stiff and the tally overwhelmed us: $8,380. We now had our start-up seed money! Jack Bloomfield who was a friend of the Tracys had offered to be our cashier, and our success, the show admissions ($2,376) and the auction receipts, was making him a nervous wreck. He never expected to be walking around with that much cash in his little tin box.
Sunday morning we had another first, a Guild meeting open to all who were interested. This event found George and myself, the Rogals, and Mary Lee and Tracy seated up front at a table doing a presentation and a question and answer time. I truly can't remember the questions we fielded, but we must have done well enough as the Guild continued to grow from that point.
In the first few months there was so very much to do. We needed a brochure to explain the Guild, to state its objectives and membership benefits. We needed officers, we needed to be international in character, we needed by-laws, we needed to be incorporated, we needed to publicize what we were doing, we needed to begin work on our second show, we needed to add to our membership, we needed an office, and we needed a logo. We needed help! Somewhere I've heard it said, "ask..." and ask we did. People who collect miniatures are not only people who love miniatures, but love the artists and craftspeople who make them and are willing to support their growth in many ways.
Jack and Shirley Bloomfield joined our small group and offered their business address on Madison Avenue, New York City for our use. Fred Halpern, an attorney, drew up the papers and brought them to the Molly Brody Show in Connecticut where six or seven of us reviewed them. Fred also incorporated us in the state of Delaware. Our first by-laws stated that "all meetings of the members for the election of directors shall be held in the City of New York." Thus, the New York Show was born. Even though it had been successful, no more Pennsylvania woods -- on to the big city!
You have to realize that with all of the needs we as a small group were trying to meet there had to be a lot of pressure on the one individual who was the leader, Foster Tracy. Tracy was a gifted artist who was trying to make a living for himself and Mary Lee through his own artistic work and representing others who were among the top in the field in the early '70s. And would you believe that included a very young Bill Robertson? Bill declined actual membership in the Guild at that time, but we eventually won him into the fold some years later. The pressure of doing many shows a year, keeping his own business in order, and trying to get a fledgling organization off the ground was more than Tracy expected or wanted to handle. On his resignation George Hoffman stepped in and kept the Guild together as President through the first two New York City Shows.
The Rogals contracted for the first New York City Show at the Statler Hotel of Glen Miller fame. We all worked hard on the publicity and to make the show extra special we arranged for an exhibit area with glass cases showing the major pieces of Virginia Merrill's private collection. We made the network television news broadcast on the Saturday of the show and were elated. Prior to our second auction we had John Darcy Noble of the Museum of the City of New York speak about the Museum's collection and make the presentations of the first Fellow Awards. As of 1980 we had 61 members and were working hard at spreading the news about the good things the Guild was doing.
As the Guild grew, so too did the Board and our activities. We mounted a number of museum exhibits, applied for our non-profit status, started a Guild school in a far away place in Maine called Castine. We didn't even call it the Guild School --its first name was the Castine Workshops, and you were invited to "take a vacation in the world of miniatures."
As was stated in our first brochure, one of the central goals of the Guild was and continues to be the promotion of miniatures as an art form. In order to do this we established a board position of Museum Exhibit Coordinator. Quite frankly, the title terrified me. However, that was my job so I set about doing it from 1980 - 83.
It was at this point that I realized just how many people loved miniatures when so very many offered to provide us the opportunity to showcase our Guild members' work. With the help of Al Atkins' son, Chris, employed by a public relations firm in New York City, we made our first contact with the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City. We set up our first five-week lecture and demonstration series, a series that proved so popular it was repeated in 1982. Also in 1981 over the spring months, the Guild had an exhibit in the main rotunda of the Museum of the City of New York.
Following the New York events, the Guild participated in an exhibit at the Allentown Art Museum. Guild Fellow Jane Coneen and her daughter Mimi (Mimi was on the curatorial staff of the museum) were of invaluable help in designing this exhibit. Attracting between 30,000 and 40,000 visitors, this was a six-week long exhibit held during the 1981 Christmas season featuring decorative arts in full size from the museum's collection and a series of displays and roomboxes by Guild Artisans, workshops, demonstrations and a lecture by Flora Gill Jacobs.
It seemed that people everywhere were eager to have miniature exhibits and demonstrations. Bob Freeman asked us to supply roomboxes for an October 1981 exhibit in Pennsbury Manor. Nic Nichols worked with us and the Trenton State Museum in New Jersey for another exhibit. Exhibits were everywhere and the artisans were elated and excited to be asked to show their work in such wonderful settings.
This momentum carried through my entire term as Museum Exhibit Coordinator. In 1982 Virginia Merrill helped us mount an exhibit at the Morris Museum of Arts and Sciences in New Jersey. In 1983 Ham and Cyrena Gouge introduced me to the head of the Delaware Historical Society and so another exhibit was born. Also in 1983 Linda Jamison helped the Guild establish our first major gallery exhibit at the Pittsburgh Plan for Art. This was truly an exciting time for the Guild. We made promises to our membership in our first brochure and through the response of our membership we were able to keep those promises.
At our third Guild Show in 1981, we coordinated the event with a month long exhibit of our artisans work at the Museum of the City of New York. We also arranged for a five week program prior to the show at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. This program included presentations by Ms. Dana Little, associate editor of Smithsonian Magazine, John Noble, curator of dolls and toys of the Museum of the City of New York, authors Flora Gill Jacobs, Virginia Merrill and her daughter, Susan, and on the final Monday evening session, demonstrations by Guild artisans Al Atkins, Don Buttfield, Marty Saunders, Deborah McKnight, Jean Tag, George Hoffman, and Rosemary Dyke.
It was right about this time, two weeks prior to the Guild Show, that near disaster struck in the form of a fire at the Hotel Statler. As I watched this drama at the Statler unfold before my eyes from our television screen I truly wanted not to believe what I had heard and seen. When Jack Bloomfield called, George and I were certain this was going to be a "show to remember". Many of our callers thought we should cancel the show, but how at the last minute do you ensure that everyone is notified of the cancellation? And what about the artisans who had worked so hard and whom you knew were depending upon this show for income? To cancel would have surely hurt them. But where, oh where, in the City of New York were we going to find a suitable space on such short notice? The Statler assured us they would help us relocate, and in truth did find us a comparable space (I never liked the word comparable). It was in a walk-up ballroom on 42nd street over some peep shows. Not exactly what we had in mind thank you.
The two-week clock was ticking down. Jack had been desperately trying to find some place large enough to accommodate us all, 85 artisans and dealers and our anticipated show patrons. Ignoring the obvious, that this was next to impossible, we, George and I, Shirley and Jack, held firm in our determination to continue on.
George and I were due to be in New York at the Cooper-Hewitt the Monday prior to the Show. Jack and Shirley were there and brought with them Steffanie and Bob Tardell. The Tardells had a relative who worked at the Biltmore Hotel and there was space, not one large room, but two connected by a long hall, that would allow us to fit everyone in. We all agreed on the spot!
Within 24 hours Linda Wexler met with Jack and Shirley and had re-drawn the show floor plan and each artisan or dealer had been assigned a new location. So, there was only one more hurdle to cross. We still had to deal with all the people who thought we were going to be at the Statler. Jack arranged for large placards to be out in front of the Statler and a bus to shuttle our show patrons over to the Biltmore. The rest, as they say, is history. The Guild of today owes the Bloomfields and the Tardells many thanks for sparing us what would surely have been a devastating blow. Instead we had a successful show and auction --including George doing a radio talk-show interview and live TV coverage by Randall Pinkston.
I'd like to note that William and Frances Bowen were among the artists in this show which makes it particularly appropriate that it is their lovely miniature drawing room box that is being used as a fund raiser to support our 20th anniversary celebration.
Remember the Castine Workshops I spoke of earlier? It was in the midst of all this show chaos that Don and Nancy Buttfield, George and I were talking about the possibility of these taking place. Don was in communication with the Maine Maritine academy. Victor Romming and Nic Nichols were sent up by the board to look over possible classroom areas, the dorms, etc. Another dream would soon be realized. The Guild would be able to pass along the skills of the current artists to those of the future. When Donald Buttfield took over as president, the first School Committee was created and at a meeting at his home in Fairhaven, the first school instructors were chosen.
In case you have forgotten, those workshops were to run 20 hours -- four hours each day. A cocktail reception, boat rides, a Down East Lobster bake, and lectures from the Castine historical society were offered. Because of the four-hour per day class schedule, students had time during the day to visit the area craftspeople and antique shops.
We promised a unique experience and I think you will agree that it was and continued to be so under the leadership of various school committees and Guild School Directors, Nic and Linda Nichols, Bob Freeman, Ralph Coles, Betty Burkey, and now Barbara Davis.
Each of the school directors brought their own special feeling to the Guild School, but Betty Burkey served the longest and made the most lasting impact with her special brand of sensitivity to the needs of students and faculty. She kept her enthusiasm and energy and it was contagious throughout the school. Betty developed a team of volunteer "stars" who made it a point to arrive early and stay late to help Betty keep things functioning smoothly.
As Barbara Davis begins her tenure as school director we are assured of the continuing of excellence in the administration of the Guild School. Barbara comes to us as a popular past instructor, very familiar with the best of the Castine experience.
(This article reprinted from Our First Twenty Years: 1979-1999, Edited by Bill Fifer)
Al Atkins (F)
1979 - Foster Tracy
Guild School Directors
1982 - Nic & Linda Nichols
Guild Show Chairmen