What Do Craft Councils Think "Supporting Craft" Really Means?
This is an important question at a time when economies are in decline and government funds are becoming ever more scarce.
If I were an experienced artisan creating handmade, stained glass windows for example, and the government asked me, “how can we help you grow your business, what support do you need?” Would my answer be something like:
“Publish more glossy magazines about all kinds of art, from abstract fine art, to fun little bobbles, to fine quality craftsmanship”
“Hold more cocktail events for the wealthy artistic community, in government funded craft shops”
“Run more competitions where my products can be judged by academics, craft shop staff and a mix of other artists to see if I can win a prize”
I don’t think so.
I think the answers might be more like:
“Lower your commission on pieces sold in your shop”
“Stop charging me for membership”
“Offer more courses on marketing, selling my products, and business development ”
“Write about me on your website including pictures of my work and contact information”
“Enable me to sell my work on your website”
“Publish a monthly email newsletter for buyers, individual customers, and retailers containing regular updates on exhibitions & events where they will find my work”
“ Help me get my work into shops across Canada”
I think those are good examples of what artisans want the government to help them with.
What Do Craft Councils Actually Do?
For comparison, here are two examples of what craft councils in Canada are actually doing.
Craft Ontario is offering a seminar they’re calling:
“HAND MEETS MACHINE: SCALING PRODUCTION & PROFITS SUSTAINABLY”
….because replacing “hand work” with machines and “scaling up production” is what real craft is all about?
This seminar will provide a great marketing opportunity for a company called HotPopFactory that sells laser cutting, laser engraving and 3D printing services. A company that doesn’t offer any hand cutting, hand engraving or traditional printing. A company that I would not describe as an artisan business (other than the fact that they are a smallish size), and that I don't believe are paying membership fees to Craft Ontario. They even get their website listed on the Craft Ontario website with a blurb about their company.
Craft Ontario's own member artisans aren't getting this much marketing assistance and promotion.
Here is some of what HotPopFactory says about itself:
“We strongly believe that in the coming years a transition will occur in which the mass production of goods is supplemented and eventually supplanted by mass customization. We believe these technologies will facilitate a future where most of the physical goods we own, will be built, custom, one of a kind, just for you.”
When they say "the physical goods we own, will be built" - I think they mean - built by a machine.
When they say "custom, one of a kind" - I think they mean programming a machine to make something to your specifications.
I don't think they mean custom, made by hand to your specifications.
This is basically trying to convince you that one of the most important selling features of artisan products is now irrelevant, because if you want something made just for you, you don’t need a human being to custom-make it for you – you can use new technology and have a machine make it for you. So much more personalized. How is this good for artisans? This argument is really chipping away at one of the most important qualities, artisan products have to offer - they are MADE BY HAND.
Think about it.....mass customization.....sounds like a contradiction in terms to me!
What would Craft Ontario say to Sibylle Ruppert who builds handmade violins, violas and celllos ( http://artisanontario.ca/sibylle-ruppert/ )
- no worries – we can just program this machine to spit out a dozen of them by tomorrow!
Or Jack Dunbar’s family who have been making bagpipes for two generations ( http://artisanontario.ca/jack-dunbar/ )
Dunbar Bagpipes recently decided to go with hand engraving on the metal and imitation ivory mounts. With the help of David Davidse of Truehand Engraving, they have come up with several distinct patterns to offer on their mounts.
Handmade Versus Mass Produced - Pro's and Con's Of Mechanizing Too Much Of The Process. Craft Councils Just Don't Get It.
I am making a point – 3D printing is very cool and laser engraving has it place – but they are hardly of great importance to artisans and Craft Ontario has no business spending their government funding on promoting this business when they should be supporting and promoting artisans.
To add insult to injury – artisans have to pay a fee to attend – it’s not enough that they already pay a membership fee and sacrifice a hefty commission of anything they sell in the council craft shop!
I am not suggesting that artisans don’t make use of select tools and machines for their work, but they rarely farm-out important aspects of their craft to be done by others, on machines. They certainly don’t strive to turn their "handcrafted" process into a mass-production processes.
Artisans will fail if they attempt to “scale up production”, sacrificing quality to compete with big box store, mass-produced products. Artisans make better products, by hand, often bespoke, in smaller quantities – and hope to make a reasonable living doing so. That’s what craft councils are mandated to provide support for.
If Craft Ontario really wants to go there – why don’t they offer a seminar on how to outsource your whole production to China and be done with it! The only significant difference here is that the outsourcing is not to China. So I guess they believe it’s acceptable, indeed preferable, to support medium sized mass-production businesses at the expense of their member artisans. Because I can’t honestly believe that they think promoting mechanized production of what would otherwise be part of the handmade process is going to help artisans in Ontario.
In their own words, this seminar demonstrates :
“low cost digital fabrication equipment,...”
The antithesis of handmade.
Lets take a look at what a real artisan, who is a weaver and a Craft Ontario member, has to say about her work:
“With acute attention placed on each individual thread a product unparalleled to anything made by machine is crafted. Bringing precious back to the commodity of cloth.”
I’m not reading anything that would suggest that this artisan is looking to increase her production with machines.
The provincial craft councils have truly lost their way. They are now beginning to actually hurt artisans. If this is the best they can do, then they should close up shop and simply get out of the way. They are drawing consumer attention away from actual artisans and pointing it toward all sorts of things that have little to do with promoting craft, and now are even staring to hurt craft.
They promote their own organizations and like-minded friends, and they have the funds to do it with some flourish. Now artisans must compete with the craft councils in addition to competing with the Walmarts of the world, and they simply cannot afford the same degree of advertising, marketing and promotion. The craft councils have a much bigger slice of the mind-space out there.
The public sees the glossy magazines, the shop in Yorkville (in the case of Ontario), the ads for shows, events, competitions – so they don’t see the poster that the artisan has stapled to a post in their neighborhood, or the ad they placed in a local paper. The artisan already struggles to be heard or seen over the din of mass-produced, machine-made stuff showing up a “craft shows”, and the one organization they thought was there to help them is increasingly supporting all sorts of unrelated and sometimes competing interests.
Here is a second example of what your tax dollars are supporting under the guise of supporting craft.
CRAFTING SUSTAINABILITY CONFERENCE
A conference that will:
“interrogate the pairing of craft and sustainable practice”…. the conference offers a platform for assessing the role of craft in fostering new paradigms for production and consumption in the 21st century”
“…..debate will be framed by questions that address what it means to be a responsible maker in a contemporary context.…….what models exist for craft adopting these principles to advance the health of communities?
What models exist?! Take a look at your members!
I would argue that an artisan creating their product by hand IS THE MODEL for a healthy community with sustainable businesses!
If craft council staff would take the time to read artisan’s websites they would learn that they ARE implementing sustainable production methods – by definition.
For example, take a look at what Judy Blake has to say about her production methods at http://www.judyblake.ca/pottery-portfolio/naked-raku-pottery#!1.naked_raku_vessel_1
Or what Christan Lowe has to say about how he creates saddles by hand
or what Peter Forbes has to say about his traditional methods for barrel carving.
Craft Ontario should be hiring the many, talented, artisans we have in Canada to give talks and demonstrate their methods of creating handmade products at conferences and other events. This would provide opportunities for them to market themselves and at the same time help build public awareness about the quality of handmade products.
Instead, they are helping a business that might actually hurt craft, and they are charging a fee for artisans to attend.
The message for all the provincial craft councils is:
Support the artisans who make up your membership.
A “crafting sustainability conference” will benefit the academics who organized it, and the speakers who are given the platform to promote what they do, but it will do nothing for the craftsperson working everyday in their shop, creating handmade products, trying to sustain themselves, their families and their communities.
In part one of our look into the government funded, provincial craft councils we noted that all the craft councils in Canada charge artisans a fee of up to $130/yr for membership, and we also saw that individual craft councils maintain a staff of, in some cases, as many as 15 people.
In today’s post and upcoming posts, we will continue to explore what they are doing with the funds that are bestowed upon them by the public.
And to my point:
“Generous support for the Crafting Sustainability conference is provided by the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Ontario Arts Council.”
How about some “generous support” for the artisans you are mandated represent and support!
Let's hope Minister Michael Coteau and Premier Kathleen Wynne are paying attention to what the Provincial and Territorial Craft Councils are doing with their funding.