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Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change on view exclusively at Toledo Museum of Art beginning this fall

A patchwork quilt made up of various strips of fabric in many colors
Quiltmaker unidentified, initialed J.F.R., Cleveland-Hendricks Crazy Quilt, 1885-1890. Lithographed silk ribbons, silk, and wool, with cotton fringe and silk and metallic embroidery, 75 x 77 in. The American Folk Art Museum, Gift of Margaret Cavigga, 1985.23.3.

American quilts have long been connected with notions of tradition, with patterns and techniques passed down for generations in communities throughout the country. As nostalgic symbols of the American past, quilts have also been viewed as antidotes to upheaval during times of change. Disrupting our expectations of quilts as objects that provide warmth and comfort, Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change will explore the complicated and often overlooked stories quilts tell about the American experience. Featuring more than 30 quilts that reflect historical and regional diversity, this exhibition will consider how quilts have been used to voice opinions, raise awareness and enact social reform from the mid-19th century to the present.

Radical Tradition will be on view at the Toledo Museum of Art from Nov. 21, 2020-Feb. 14, 2021. The works are drawn from TMA’s collection as well as private and public loans.

“Bringing historical and contemporary works together in critical dialogue, Radical Tradition will show that quilts have always engaged the pressing social and political issues of their time,” said Lauren Applebaum, Ph.D, the Brian P. Kennedy leadership fellow at TMA and curator of the exhibition. “With works responding to abolition, women’s suffrage, the Vietnam War and mass incarceration, this show emphasizes how quiltmaking has been deployed throughout history to confront instances of violence, oppression and exclusion,” said Applebaum.

Radical Tradition will offer new perspectives on themes including military action and protest, civil rights, gender equality, queer aesthetics, and relationships with land and the environment. Among the artists represented are Sanford Biggers, Bisa Butler, Kathryn Clark, Jeffrey Gibson, Sabrina Gschwandtner, Aaron McIntosh, Diana N'Diaye, Faith Ringgold, LJ Roberts, Aminah Robinson, Hank Willis Thomas and Anna Von Mertens, with works including an abolition quilt (about 1850), a Red Cross fundraising quilt (1917), Judy Chicago’s communal International Honor Quilt (1980) and a panel from the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

While addressing these powerful themes, Radical Tradition will highlight how, over nearly two centuries, the strategies and materials of quiltmaking have called into question long-established power structures. Earlier quilts in the exhibition represent one of the few available outlets that women and other marginalized groups had to express their views and connect with larger social and political networks of their time. Building upon this history, some quiltmakers from more recent decades have chosen to work within this craft-based medium – typically associated with “the domestic” – in order to subvert hierarchies both within the art world and in society at large. Incorporating a wide range of media – from cotton and wool to salvaged wood, paint and celluloid film – the objects on view will challenge traditional definitions of what a quilt is and the form it can take.

A 100-page fully illustrated publication accompanies the exhibition, with an introduction by the curator.

Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change will be complemented by an array of public programs, including a quiltmaking workshop led by one of the contemporary artists featured in the exhibition, a curator talk and other programs to be announced.

The exhibition is supported in part by 2020 Exhibition Program Sponsor ProMedica, Checker Distributors and the Ohio Arts Council.

COVID-19 Virtual Quilting Bee Project

Inspired by Radical Tradition, TMA is organizing a COVID-19 Virtual Quilting Bee in advance of the exhibition opening. Art and museums offer a space for many to reflect, process and respond during difficult times, and quilting bees have long been an activity for community building, shared labor and intergenerational engagement. Community members near and far are encouraged to submit quilt blocks that address aspects of life amid the current global pandemic, which marks a moment of change and uncertainty on a global scale. Individuals will submit photos of their quilt blocks for inclusion. Due to social distancing measures, these blocks will be “stitched together” in an online photo gallery and through TMA’s social media platforms. Submission guidelines are available at Photos of finished quilt blocks should be submitted by 11:59 p.m. EDT, June 1, 2020.