Fine craft organizations across the country are in the midst of a sea change. Actually, the tectonic shifts started several years ago, when professional institutions (like the Minnesota Craft Council, for example), whose ranks were filled with full-time artists and studio-based craftspeople, found both their membership numbers and influence in the arts marketplace dwindling. On the other hand, a growing network of narrowly targeted craft organizations — the Textile Center, the Center for Book Arts, Highpoint Center for Printmaking, and the Northern Clay Center — have cropped up in recent years and appear to be doing quite well.
And while it’s still a struggle to make one’s living as a full-time craftsperson, one could argue that public enthusiasm for handmade goods and traditional crafts has never been keener. With legions of cubicle-dwellers staring into computer screens all day, and given the trend toward buying eco-friendly goods and “conscious consumption,” it’s not really surprising that more and more people are attracted by the homespun lure of the handmade. In fact, young amateurs — self-described “crafters” or “makers” — working within the burgeoning do-it-yourself scene are positively thriving. Indie craft fairs regularly draw throngs of eager shoppers and media interest — here in Minnesota, you need only drop by events like the annual No-Coast Craft-O-Rama or St. Paul’s Craftstravaganza, to see what I mean.
This week in Minneapolis, the American Craft Council is tackling the issues raised by these transitions in the scene by hosting a national conference on the topic, “Creating a New Craft Culture.” Specifically, panel discussions, presentations, and conference dialogue will center on the “inherent tensions between craft as a lifestyle and craft as a livelihood.”
Sandra Alfoldy, a scholar of craft history and a speaker at this week’s conference, offers her take on the state of the scene now: “We have so many students who are graduating with university degrees in craft, but they’re very much a part of the DIY movement, too. The divide [between the “professional” maker and the self-taught crafter] is going to be most evident when DIY craftspeople, without the ‘proper training,’ begin applying for arts grants in greater numbers. The institutional response to that will be interesting and revealing.”
She goes on, “This raises the question of credentials in craft. What does ‘proper training’ in a craft mean? Should it be based on the traditional apprenticeship model, or through university programs of study, or is there room for the wholly self-taught? With the DIY success stories who will inevitably throw their hat in the ring for such arts funding in the near future, there’s bound to be some tension in craft organizations over whether or not to allow them into the fold.”
For now, though, the indie crafters invited to present at the ACC conference seem largely unconcerned with such institutional acceptance. Faythe Levine, the filmmaker behind the new documentary, “Handmade Nation,” says, “Aesthetic differences, generational differences — I think that sets the indie crafters apart from people working in the fine craft side of things. Younger crafters will often identify themselves as ‘makers’ rather than as artisans or artists; I think they’re resisting those labels. We look through fine-craft magazines or the work in national shows and, until recently, we just didn’t see anything we were interested in; it wasn’t really for us.”
Levine says, “I don’t know that I see what indie crafters are doing as an organized movement or anything; we are just making the things we like.” She adds, “I love the approachability of work presented at an indie craft fair — it is very democratic, really welcoming. There’s definitely a sense of pride among the artists showing their work, but there’s also an invitation for those who are interested in what they see to give it a try for themselves. I think that community sensibility is really wonderful.”
“Traditional crafts are still being passed on,” Levine says, “but in contemporary ways, with aesthetic choices and designs that appeal to a young generation of makers.” The combination of both making things and teaching others how to do the same is proving to be a viable business model, too.
Natalie Chanin, another presenter at this week’s conference, is a self-taught fashion designer who’s found success using the traditional quilting techniques of her Alabama upbringing to make high-end, contemporary clothing. She says, “The business I have now, Alabama Chanin, operates on a fairly small scale, but it’s profitable, too. I think that has to do with keeping the design part of the business small enough to manage — focusing on one-of-a-kind couture pieces made in small batches, rather than in larger-scale production of less expensive clothing. But also, I think our profitability has much to do with our educational efforts: the workshops we host, the how-to books and shared patterns. There’s been tremendous response to those teaching components of the business; people come from all over the country to learn our techniques, how to make these kinds of pieces. I think those outreach efforts further support the design side of what we do.”
When I ask craft historian Sandra Alfoldy what she thinks will come of the conversations at this week’s conference, she says, “It’s a cycle isn’t it? Much of what’s going on now is very similar to the shifts in the field that happened in the ’60s and ’70s. What I want to see is how territorial these groups are. Do fine-craft organizations and professional artisans see these DIY initiatives as a threat or as a positive development in the field?” She continues, “For myself, I see these developments as a good a thing. This young generation of makers and the businesses they’re creating are opening the marketplace in wonderful ways. It’s important to keep in mind that the field is seeing some genuinely new developments: The Internet is a huge factor here, and that new media increases markets for craft globally as well as locally.”
She says, “Thankfully, we don’t have those discussions about whether craft belongs in the same category as fine art, anymore. That divide has largely been overcome. I suspect we may be surprised to see a lot of common ground emerge as the two groups of makers talk this week. As DIY success stories emerge, I think they’ll find they have more and more in common with the successful studio craftspeople. There is a lot of room for dialogue.”
The American Craft Council conference “Creating a New Craft Culture” will take place today, Oct. 15, to Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. Members of the public may register on-site to attend the conference; day passes, as well as admission to related tours and parties, may also be purchased individually.