The Big Picture: Crafts Council (UK)

No surprises here: we adore contemporary craft. We want to see more of it out there, want to see it evolve, and yes, want the people make a living (a good one, even) from doing what they love.

But it ain’t easy.

“Craft,” the Rodney Dangerfield of the arts world, suffers from a bit of an image problem. Many understand (well, kind of) the “value” of art, and “get” lowest common denominator mass goods, but have no clue what value to ascribe to craft. Plus, the economy hasn’t exactly done us any favors.

And then there’s the strong independent tradition among makers that makes collective action — like the promotion of craft — just a little difficult: “like cat herding,” said a person who’d know.

So it got us thinking: how do you move the needle on a whole category of art or culture such as craft? Can you? In the US there’s the American Craft Council and magazines and conferences, galleries and museums, and shows and fairs and Etsy. OK, but we all know it’s not quite cutting it, not really. So what else is there?

I got a hint that there just might be another way when I was looking at the site of the Crafts Council (UK) to find UK makers for our profiles. Immediately, I was impressed (okay, blown away) with an enormous, searchable database of makers, arts organizations and agencies, and employment/award opportunities. (This was the hub that I’d been looking for the in US but hadn’t — still haven’t — found. Or am I missing something?)

But I didn’t really have a handle on what they were up to until I had a long chat with Jill Read of the Crafts Council in London.

Yes, there too, crafts have traditionally suffered from an image problem. The conversations about “is craft really art” have been going on for decades, though craft is also a more integral part of the culture of the UK. (In fact, there are at least three major craft organizations in the greater UK: the Crafts Council, which promotes contemporary craft, and the Heritage Crafts Association, which promotes more traditional craft forms. AND there’s also the vibrant CraftScotland, showcasing contemporary craft beyond whiskey and woolens.)

And despite a more traditionally activist role in the arts, UK government funding of the arts is facing unprecedented reductions as part of their fiscal emergency surgery. In the US, some of the arts funding slack is taken up by the philanthropic sector, which isn’t quite as developed in the UK (because it didn’t have to be.) According to Jeremy Hunt, the UK Culture Secretary, those in the US who earn more than £150,000 [approximately $250,000] give eight times more than those in the UK.

Despite all this, the Crafts Council is finding a way to get people talking about, caring about, making and buying high quality contemporary craft in the UK. It is about money, but it’s also about smarts, and about having the right building blocks in place:

  • big thinking (my more wonky business and social change friends would call this “systems” thinking);
  • a clear, sophisticated vision;
  • smart, targeted programs;
  • a collaborative, pragmatic approach, and;
  • periodic refreshes of strategy and focus, not just to meet budget constraints but to meet real, on-the-ground needs.

The overall approach seems to be making things happen, even in times of austerity and constraint. It’s incredibly inspiring. And very thought-provoking.

Jill and I sat down to unravel how the Crafts Council does this and some of the tough realities the world of craft faces.

How would you characterize the state of contemporary craft in the UK today? It is in a healthy state. We estimate there are over 30,000 contemporary craft makers working in the UK today. The craft industry contributes £3 billion Gross Value Added to the UK economy each year — greater than the visual arts, cultural heritage or literature sectors.

Your mandate is clear: “To make the UK the best place to make, see, collect and learn about contemporary craft.” Talk about each of those components. Let’s start with MAKE. We have a programme of maker development called Collective that works to ensure that we support makers at every stage of their career from makers straight out of college through Hothouse to those who are mid-career through Artistic License.

(These programs are a combination of grants, mentoring, and coaching in business and similar skills. Throughout the Crafts Council programs, there’s a strong pragmatic streak based on the understanding that without strong business and management skills, craft won’t survive. We also like their Portfolio program that recognizes that makers often have to support themselves by having a portfolio of jobs… like teaching. One program helps makers learn how to become better teachers. Smart, that — it’s about the whole crafts person/maker and not just about what goes on in the studio.

We also appreciate that they do market development and trade promotion in the UK, US and throughout Europe.)

Under the SEE theme, we work with partner venues to develop exciting touring exhibitions of contemporary craft (in order to help change peoples’ perceptions of craft and expand interest in it, from makers to collectors, especially outside of London). Some of these include Lab Craft (digital meets craft), Breath Taking (pushing the boundaries of glass) and Craft Cubes (rentable, traveling trade show-like booths that feature edgy contemporary craft exhibits).

We also have one of the largest collections of contemporary craft in the UK. We’ve acquired over 1,300 objects since the early 70s, and maintain many schemes to encourage museums to loan these objects for both long and short term.

Through our COLLECT program, we’re helping build the market for contemporary craft and find the collectors of the future through our two flagship selling events COLLECT: the international art fair for contemporary objects and Origin: the London Craft Fair.

We believe that the future of craft lies in nurturing talent and we put this to work in our LEARN programs. One of our key tasks is to help children and young adults learn about craft at school. It’s been taken off many curriculums and we need to get craft back onto them. Our current Participation and Learning initiatives include Firing Up! and Craft Club to help community members teach craft skills to kids.

Craft Council is also an advocacy organization, isn’t it? Yes. We’re effectively the voice of craft whether it’s in media or government. We want to make sure that people are thinking about us, and are continuing to value what we do. (To help spread the word, they also have a beautifully produced magazine called Crafts.)

Craft in the UK (and Europe in general) seems fresher and more conscious of design (and therefore more likely to fit into people’s lives) than it is in the US… to what would you attribute that? I think that there is crossover between craft and design and many craft makers work with industry in a way that benefits both.

So how does the Craft Council relate to the DIY craft movement? In the UK here, we call them crafting, and it’s all still evolving. At this point, our organization is focused on supporting people who are professional makers, people making a living off of craft. We love the energy of crafters, though, and hope that our programs inspire and help them as well.

You put a lot of emphasis on working with other arts organizations and universities to deliver programs. I like that it’s not just about you, but about craft in general. Thanks. We do think we play the role of facilitators and finding the best resources to help with whatever the need is. There are many great organizations out there, and we both work with them and help them as we can.

Talking to Jill you get the sense that while not all is perfect in the world of contemporary craft in the UK, there’s a ton of energy and goodwill that’s been established.  And the thoughtfulness, breadth and organization of the ideas was impressive. Most important, though, was their humility and willingness to admit that what they do evolves and will continue to evolve in response to what works for both collectors and makers, new directions in contemporary craft, and the broader culture of culture. Well done.

So, maybe there is another way for craft to get its day in the sun. Granted, government support works differently in the US, but I’d say that Crafts Council’s success is only partially about money. It’s just as much about good ideas, focus, and smart execution.

All images courtesy of the Crafts Council.

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7 Responses to The Big Picture: Crafts Council (UK)

  1. Joe Miller says:

    Excellent article, and a great interview. It’s encouraging to see the UK doing something right that gets noticed from across the pond!
    The Craft Council is doing excellent work, but I still feel that the perception of craft in the UK is still mired in ‘traditional’ craft skills, and, outside the big cities, there is still a lack of appreciation of contemporary crafts, both from a materials and skills perspective.
    I think the discussion about ‘value’ of crafts is a good one. I suspect that for many people, the difference between something hand-made by a skilled craftsman and something mass produced in a factory is a moot point; all many people see is the end product; a bowl, and see no difference between the two except the price tag. The Crafts Council still has a long way to go!
    Just my two pence worth, anyway.

  2. Regina says:

    Hey thanks, Joe. Completely agreed there IS a long way to go, wherever you live. And agreed that all people tend to focus on is the end product…that’s why we’re so focused on telling the stories of the makers themselves. What else do you think we could do to raise the profile of crafts? (Beautiful gallery, by the way.)

  3. Joe Miller says:

    Thanks for the vote of confidence in our gallery 🙂 It’s heartening.
    I think education and learning is the key. Discussing my partner’s teenage daughter once, I said ‘She knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing’ and I think it’s that mindset we’re up against. Our shops are full of stack-it-high-sell-it-cheap products, and the work that has gone into creating an object is irrelevant. I think the Arts Council is right that getting crafts back into the school curriculum is crucial; how can people value what other people have made, if they’ve never actually made anything themselves? To this end I think classes, taster sessions, anything which actually gets people making things is good. Ultimately though it’s a society thing; owning good quality, individually made products is not high on most people’s list of must-dos.

  4. robin says:

    Always interesting to see what the UK craft scene looks like from the outside.

    One point which was not made is that the Crafts Council is publicly funded and runs on an annual budget of around £5,000,000. It supports professional contemporary innovative makers which is a small proportion of UK craftspeople. The Heritage Crafts Association by contrast runs on a budget of £5000 from personal donations, it was set up by craftspeople for craftspeople.

    Traditional crafts people have had no strategic lead body to support and promote their work. I am saddened by Joe’s comment about the UK being “mired in traditional craft skills” it is an emotive phrase. Craft is a continuum ranging from the point where it merges with modern art at one end through traditional practice to the point at which it merges with design for industrial production. It is always sad when one part of that continuum runs down another, we should be supportive of each other. HCA are very careful never to criticise the contemporary end of the spectrum.

    Mark Jones director of the V&A suggests that innovative is an overused and meaningless word and that we should instead be supporting and promoting excellent work wherever we find it. One of the great craft writers David Pye who exhibited in numerous Crafts Council shows described himself as an amateur since he did not make for a living. Excellence appears in many places. One final viewpoint on the UK craft scene from the only person working in a craft medium to win the UKs most prestigious art award Grayson Perry http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2005/mar/05/art

  5. Regina says:

    Robin, great comments as well–it’s so great to hear a broader perspective and it’s exactly what we were looking for! Thanks for the insight into the Heritage Crafts Association, the differing cultures, and what you’re up against. An interesting question is, would people in the heritage Crafts Association want more promotion? What would that look like? I think that’s a real issue that the US Craft Council is struggling with as well. Let’s talk!

  6. Joe Miller says:

    Excellent points Robin. I’m surprised to hear that the Craft Council doesn’t support or fund heritage crafts in this country. Shows how much I know! I think that the Crafts Council should broaden it’s remit to include heritage crafts, which are an important part of our culture and need to be promoted.
    I completely accept your point about there being a continuum from heritage crafts to industrial production, and I had in no way intended to denigrate heritage crafts. One of the reasons my partner and I decided to open a gallery was our enormous respect and admiration for the skills and imagination of people using traditional craft skills. My comment was more aimed at the buying public. We live in the Lake District in England, and it is very hard to persuade people of the value of any craft which is NOT traditional! I think that outside of the cities, it is harder for contemporary crafts and design to get recognised. Maybe that’s just because people visit and live in the countryside now to get in touch with traditional values, and crafts comes as a part of that package.

  7. Jill Read says:

    As Robin Wood of HCA says, we must never forget that craft is a continuum. The Crafts Council’s programmes for professional makers are, indeed, focussed on those using materials and techniques in new ways. This stems from the founders’ intentions of providing a public platform for craft of this nature, which was subsequently defined as contemporary craft. However, at the heart of both heritage and contemporary craft is the understanding and knowledge of material and mastery of eye, mind and hand to produce well made objects. We positively encourage everyone to engage with craft of all types. We need to work together to increase the perceived value of all craft in our society and Robin is absolutely right that all aspects of the “craft continuum” have an important role in this.