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Coming out of COVID, the American Craft Council ramps up Emerging Artist Cohort

While ACC worked to have online shows during pandemic shutdowns, that format wasn’t ideal for showcasing one of the appeals of craft art: how an object feels in one’s hand.

“Sky Woman, Turtle Island and the Three Sisters” by Loriene Pearson, an embroidery artist and a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.
“Sky Woman, Turtle Island and the Three Sisters” by Loriene Pearson, an embroidery artist and a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.
Courtesy of the American Craft Council

The American Craft Council, a national organization headquartered in Northeast Minneapolis, is heading out of the pandemic running — with a new executive director, new programs, a continued legacy of supporting craft artists and a renewed investment in diversifying the field for the 21st century. 

ACC publishes American Craft magazine, distributes awards biannually to craft artists, scholars and advocates at the top of their field, and supports artists through marketplace events, dialogues and talks, and a library focused on craft art. It also recently launched a podcast series and is kicking its pilot Emerging Artist Cohort into high gear. 

The Emerging Artist Cohort began in 2021, drawing in a diverse group of craft artists from around the country, with each receiving $1,000 and 12 weeks of training. At the end of the 12 weeks, each artist created a project plan. 

“The learning from that — and this is why pilot projects are very good — is that it wasn’t enough money,” says Judy Hawkinson, ACC’s director of development who was the interim executive director from September up until early May of this year. “They may have developed a plan to show in galleries, and then they realized that packaging up their craft art and shipping it to the galleries cost more than $1,000.” 

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This year, with support from the Windgate Foundation, ACC is increasing the stipend amount for each artist as they develop their craft and learn business skills. The 2022 Cohort will run in much the same way as last year, with 12 weeks of training, ongoing mentorship and support creating a business plan. This year, however, artists will receive $10,000 stipends. ACC’s $556,000 grant from Windgate, to be distributed over three years, is the largest grant the organization has received in its 78-year history. 

Judy Hawkinson
Photo by Atiim Jones
Judy Hawkinson
According to Hawkinson, the Emerging Artist Cohort was a project in some ways born out of the pandemic. While ACC worked to have online shows, that format wasn’t ideal for selling beautiful objects when part of the appeal of craft art is how an object feels in one’s hand. “We know that craft artists suffered a great deal during the pandemic, as do a lot of funders,” Hawkinson says. “If funders have a goal of supporting artists, we are a great organization to realize that goal, because we have the connections and the infrastructure to be able to do that and to do that well.” 

The cohort is one tool ACC is using to broaden its reach to underrepresented artists. For Hawkinson, craft has the ability to connect people from very different backgrounds and life experiences. “Some might learn something from their mom, some might get an MFA in craft, but it’s about the grain in the wood, it’s about the pottery, it’s the joy that can connect us and connect us in conversation.”

Last year’s pilot program included 13 artists. “We were originally going to accept 12, and in the selection process, we just really couldn’t whittle it down to 12,” says Gwynne Rukenbrod Smith, director of community and creative work at ACC, who co-facilitates through program. “So we rearranged the budget and made it so that we could accommodate 13 artists.” 

The first year, the artists came from a variety of paths. Some were on their second career, others were just coming out of a college art program, and others were self-taught artists. “We really made a huge emphasis on connecting throughout the United States with influencers in the craft world,” Rukenbrod Smith says. They picked a diverse group — with 86% identifying as Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC) or LGBTQ+. 

After the 12-week intensive was complete, the cohort members have continued to meet monthly with check-in calls, plus additional workshops and phone calls quarterly. In April, for example, ACC connected the 2021 cohort with editors of a print magazine to discuss steps to take to approach a magazine about being highlighted. “They’re really getting this opportunity to be exposed and ask questions,” Rukenbrod Smith says. “There’s not typically that opportunity in the craft or art world.”

“California Poppies” by Daphne Lee
Courtesy of the American Craft Council
“California Poppies” by Daphne Lee
Artists from the 2021 pilot have already seen successes. Loriene Pearson, an embroidery artist and a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, is about to open a solo show at the Sioux Indian Museum in Rapid City, South Dakota. Other artists have participated in group shows, as well as art fairs and festivals. Some artists, including paper artist Daphne Lee, have participated in ACC’s marketplace, which connects craft artists with buyers. 

The 2021 cohort will continue to participate in ongoing support, according to Rukenbrod Smith. Meanwhile, the application deadline for next year’s cohort is May 31, 2022. Jurors include Osa Atoe, a studio potter living in Sarasota, Florida; Brian Fleetwood, an interdisciplinary and collaborative jewelry artist and an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, and curator/writer Angelik Vizcarrondo-Laboy, based in Los Angeles. 

As ACC continues to look to the future, its new executive director, Andrea Specht, is ready to lead. Trained as an artist herself, Specht ran Artistry, based in Bloomington, for nearly 10 years. She also has a varied background in law, higher ed and nonprofits. In her role, Specht says she’s in a learning period, but is thinking about questions like how ACC can add value to society. “My favorite thing to do is to really dream with and for the stakeholders and an organization,” she says.