Coffee with Phyllis “Fifi” Fleming

Artist and painter Phyllis “Fifi” Fleming was a co-chair of The Women’s Committee for the first Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show in 1977.

You were one of the first co-chairs of The Women’s Committee; how did the idea for the first Craft Show come about?  

When I joined, The Women’s Committee consisted of a network of women who worked in sub-committees, all of which benefited the Museum in some way. At the time, I was a painter who recently moved to Philadelphia from New York City. My first role was to work with the Committee's rental program which took art from the galleries in town and leased it to local offices. When it came time to think up a fundraiser for the Museum, we thought we could use our relationship with the galleries, as well as the rise of craft in the Philadelphia, to put on a Craft Show.

What is your favorite part of the Craft Show?

The part I like best is meeting the artists and getting to know their work. For the first three years, artists mailed in their artwork, which meant not only were we physically familiar with the art but we became close with the participating artists as well. It also helped that the Show’s original venue was at Memorial Hall, which was the perfect setting at the time.

In the beginning, how did you set up and prepare for the Craft Show?

My friend, Mary Lee Lowry, and I were leading the charge of the committee during the start of the Craft Show. We had a secretary and a tiny office in the Museum for the first year or two. Eventually we did get someone who was more like a manager than a secretary, but for the first few years we did all the finances on my dining room table!

How was working on The Women’s Committee? Are you amazed by how the Craft Show has grown over the years?

The Women’s Committee is the most effective working committee that I have ever encountered. Everybody contributes. The committee is really a great group and that has made all the difference. As years went on the event took off! It was a very good idea and I am delighted to have been involved from the beginning.

The Vice President’s wife came to the first Craft Show in 1977. Did you get a chance to meet her?

Oh, yes, Joan Mondale! She was the Second Lady of the United States to Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s Vice President. She was very interested in craft and spent a lot of time advocating for the arts. I think her nickname was ‘Joan of Art’. She was more than willing to help out and promote craft. It worked very nicely with timing of our first Show.

How did this experience shape you?  

The first year we were putting tape on the floor, the roof was leaking, our husbands were serving drinks, and we had the Vice President’s wife on the way. Afterwards, we were all thinking, “How did we pull this off?” We settled in after the first year. We knew what we had to do.

From my point of view, it was a great experience. We all grew up a lot during this time; we really learned how to run something in the world.

How has craft changed from 1977?

I think the first year was auspicious. The timing was excellent; in the late 70s people were trying to get craft considered as an art. We had the first craft exhibition with top craft artists of their time in the art world. Originally, it was very hard for the Museum to show Craft as an art form worthy of collection. Nowadays it’s a whole different story.  As a result of our efforts and an evolved thinking towards craft, there are a lot of folks specifically interested in craft arts and collecting of craft.  

To learn more about the history of The Women’s Committee and the Craft Show please visit http://bit.ly/2n7yDbe 

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