Thursday, October 14, 2010

fine craft and crafters--is it "one craft"

Recently my friend Jeanne Heifetz posted a link to the Daily Art Muse a web site dedicated to showing some of the best in contemporary fine craft from around the world. Oh the images here are wonderful. The work on it is curated by Susan Lumoto and chosen to inspire students, artists and decorators alike. Trust me--it does. 3000 posts.  I am hooked. There is sculpture by Douglas J Fisher of Vancouver Island that seems to come out of the wood itself while also evoking memories of totem poles and ancient art.  Titles like Decay of Progress and Worthy of a Deep Silence. Amazing work that I want to come back to again and again. There is the Shoe Fetish of Gwen Murphy--you have to see the pictures to understand this, totems from South Africa. So much to see. Such fabulous new ways of thinking about the world around us. I want to come back to this site again and again. Do check it out.

On the other hand I read a post by Megan Auman One Craft:An Open Letter to the American Craft Council. To understand the context of her argument, you must first know a bit about the Baltimore Craft Show in February. This show--set in the Baltimore Convention Center--is one of the largest fine craft shows in the country. Indeed it could be said the show is HUGE!! Of course it is juried--a few of the exhibitors are at the level of the Daily Art Muse--though not all. And it is an expensive show to do--my booth for 2011 will cost me over $1400 for four days of retail plus the expense of being in Baltimore for almost a week. It would cost more if I also did two days of wholesale.

As a counterpart, the Craft Council has an "Alternative Craft" section to the show--set up more as a street market with  much smaller booths and a more "crafty" look to it. The DIY movement so to speak. The theory is that this will allow those who are just starting out to have a booth without paying the large fee for the booth. It is hoped that these exhibitors will attract a younger audience to the show.

Needless to say this section is not always popular with exhibitors--to put it mildly. Certainly I would be the first to agree that the craft movement needs to encourage newer talent. We also need to encourage a younger audience--after all many of those who previously purchased from us may soon be downsizing. New marketing methods and new ideas are always necessary.

But are we really "one craft"? Is there a difference between the fine craft represented by the Daily Art Muse and the "crafters" of the DIY movement? Should there be? Why does the very word "crafter" put me on edge? Should it? Megan argues that we should all be juried together--I can go for that. We should all pay the same fees--I can go for that also. And I do know that there are some new craftspeople who are very serious about their work--I am delighted that there is a younger generation--whether they are jurying with me or doing the Crafty Bastards show. (Yes, there is such a show.)

But and I still get back to the concept of "crafter". To my mind it seems that it does not imply a steadfastness of purpose. A seriousness to create the best possible work no matter whether it is a small item to be used or a wall hanging or sculpture to be treasured.

Now my large quilts can clearly hold their own against any work--insider or outsider. Fine craft or DIY. I may not be the absolute "best" quiltmaker but I have style and an audience. No one else works like I do. My heart goes into it.

The question for me focuses on my placemats.This is the crux of the issue.  Like a Mother Hen, I guard them carefully. I spend a lot of time selecting fabrics to create just the right color progression. I hand finish all the bindings and use a polyester batting designed for placemats so they actually can be washed easily. They are not cheap. Oh, how many times have I had this discussion:

                            "What is the price of the placemats?"

                            "Forty", I reply with a smile in my voice.

                            "For one?" they ask in amazement.

                             "Yes," I reply. And they walk away usually whispering to themselves that they    
                             they know where they can get four placemats for $40.

Now I sell enough placemats. Two placemats can make that special breakfast perfect. Others buy six, eight. An assortment of colors. A single one becomes a wall hanging. And they work. One craftsperson even "complained" that her mats were lasting too long.

What do you think of the DIY movement? Alternative craft?  Am I just a snob? After all, we all had to start somewhere. Are fine craft and the alternative craft movement just one craft? Are we part of the same continuum? What do you think?


  1. It's nice to know that I'm not the only one out there who takes issue with the "crafter" thing. Just Google images for "alt crafter" or "indie crafter" to see what this is all about. I'm thinkin there's a substantial quality gap between our 2 factions and wishing that we can "all just get along" isn't going to make things better for either side.

    If you've seen The Social Network, the movie about the founding of Facebook, there's an interesting scene where they argue about if allowing advertising is a good idea. Eduardo (the CFO) wants to start capitalizing of their new creation right away, but Mark (Facebook founder) says no because "they don't know yet just what it is they have"' but he does know that it's "too valuable to screw it up with cheap advertising".

    Do you see the correlation to the dilution of what the American Crafts Movement has strived for all these years with what the "crafters" can offer?

  2. Wow - this is a huge subject. I too take issue with the "crafter" label. Just look at all the websites, workshops, stores, etc that market to that label and all the people that think of themselves as crafters. It is NOT a label that I want to affiliate with. I consider myself a professional artist that creates fine craft.

    During my first years as a fine craft artist, I heard this statement over and over - "You've got to pay your dues." If you can't afford Baltimore, then you don't get to do it - period. It takes time to create a body of work that sells well and to find your clients. And there are lots of shows to test the water and learn the ropes. Personally I don't think that Baltimore is one of them.

    I agree with some of what Megan Auman wrote in her letter. Absolutely, everyone should be juried - by the same jury, and everyone pays the same price. To me, quality of work is the key. For a show to try to have "something for everyone" and treat artists differently is a disservice to all.

  3. Thanks for your comments. Haven't seen the movie yet--but I do think there is a correlation with the concept of the "fast buck" and the "crafters" label. Whether this caused the downfall of the American Craft Movement or resulted from it--a large question that I am not sure I can address. I do feel that ACC expanded too rapidly and then wanted to keep the expansion at any cost--OUCH!!!!

    I agree with Libby that much of what Megan wrote is sound. I question whether I want the "crafters" or DIY to do the jurying. I worked hard to get the knowledge necessary to jury the Baltimore show. I do feel that this knowledge is essential. Yes, the show can be repetitive--if the jury likes "dogs" then dogs get juried in. But still I want a respect for the process.

    I could be one of the old fogies. Who knows.

  4. ACC expanded due to a little something called "supply and demand" and to stay competitive. Rosen is really the one who cashed in on the supply and demand issue initially. There were others (one in particular), but Wendy became the real "competition". ACE was keeping the size of their shows manageable and inadvertently created a real sense of exclusivity. Some may refer to it as elitism, but personally, I have no problem with that term (we can hash that out more another time). There were about 2500 applicants vying for about 500 booths at Rhinebeck and then Baltimore. This left over 2000 rejected Artists (per show) looking for a similar venue. Had Wendy not stepped in when she did, someone else would have (kind-a wish I'd have had the forethought & wherewithal at the time).

    As the word spread to the Galleries hungry for innovative and high quality American made Crafts, the demand for more and diverse Artisans grew. The Galleries were stepping over themselves trying to get the same 500 exhibitors to sign exclusivity agreements. As Rosen was meeting this demand head on, slowly ACE/ACC realized that they must take on the competition or be left in Wendy's dust.

    This was also a time when public demand and awareness for Fine Craft was at an all time high. Things all came together there for a while & most (not all) of the Craft Artists participating in the ride generally did pretty well.

    That was then & this is now. What we now have is exactly what we started with - a supply and demand issue. Just as greater demand spurs greater supply, the opposite is true. The question becomes - how to continue making an innovative, creative & well designed product that meets the new demand level - and stay in business?

    What I'm about to suggest may fly in the face of reason for the times we're in, but way back in the beginning (my beginning), a professor of mine (one Harvey Littleton) told his young & naive students that "if you're at a show & your work isn't selling, NEVER LOWER YOUR PRICES. You should always DOUBLE YOUR PRICES!"

    He didn't really tell us why at the time, and if he did, I don't think any of us really understood the principals behind what he was saying. He really wanted us to discover for ourselves by actually doing it. The lesson then, as it is now..., is that - while everyone else takes on an air of desperation and a lower perceived value, YOU DO JUST THE OPPOSITE.

    By catering to the current market conditions (either real, or perceived), ACC is in effect lowering their prices, or losing credibility and doing a disservice to their efforts over the past 30 years to advance American Crafts Movement to where it is today (or maybe up to 3-years ago prior to their taking on the "altcrafters").
    We, and ACC, need to maintain our perceived Value!

    The only way there will ever be "one craft" is if we all make the exact same thing at the exact same skill level and ability (and sell it for the same price). So much for supply and demand...

  5. Lots of good points there. IMHO people want to attend the ACC Baltimore Show because there is work there that "Wows" them. I think it is important that this continue.

    I will gladly be considered "one craft" with all who have a seriousness of purpose and commitment to their craft. I don't feel the alternative craft section as currently set up in Baltimore promotes this.

  6. The whole "one craft" idea is a utopian pipe dream. There will alway be someone making something better, or more creative, or more economical (regardless of it being original, or "derivitive" work) than someone else, and there will always be those who are jealous of them because of it.

  7. I think there was one comment in there that really sparked the difference for me. That was where you said that one woman was upset that her product was lasing too long. That's your difference.

    You are quilting fine art pieces, and yet, you want to make money. However, I suspect that money is not the be all end all issue for you. Expressing yourself, and pride in your work is what is probably a main focus for you.

    I do not like to be called a "crafter" as it has an entirely different connotation than "craftsman" or "craftsperson" which at one time in history was a perfectly respectful term for an artist.

    The crafter to me, speaks of something that is quick, easy and affordable (usually) to make, that can be sold a prices that most people could afford if they wanted the item.

    The quilts that you or I do, are NOT going to be affordable to all audiences generally. Though there are plenty of fiber artists that offer "affordable art" pieces - which I am giving serious consideration too. They are generally smaller and less complicated works that can be sold for lower prices.

    As for whether we are all part of the same continuum, I'm not sure how I feel about that. Part of me wants to say, "Yes", but at the same time, I put my heart and soul into my pieces. I am trying to SAY something with my work, to express something I feel strongly about.

    I do not necessarily think the true "crafter" who is just making "something" in their spare time, is in the category of artist. (Think hobby versus lifetime commitment.)

    That said, I think a lot of people might be lumped into "crafters" really are more than that. Those are the ones that at the local craft sale, catch your eye amongst the multitude of "cozies".

  8. Lots of good point Stephanie. I wonder if the distinguishing element is how much the person is putting their true self into the work--trying to express something. Not sure. Certainly there are hobbyists who are also artists. And some who are "professional" craftspeople who are not.