America has, for many years, had a lively appreciation for craft shows. For many American ceramists this has been the main source of income and they might do six shows in a year in different towns/areas. Such shows have not been for high-end artists working in one-offs or small series with white cube galleries but makers of what we call ‘domestic wares’ – tableware, cookware and decorative pieces for the home or gift markets. While when one goes to the USA it can be hard to find a gallery that sells contemporary ceramics, maybe that is because these craft fairs could be found all over and filled those gaps for the majority. Now it seems that is also changing and here are extracts from one younger ceramist’s thoughts that may have relevance here…..
In my short time participating in craft shows as a studio artist the starkness of the current state of the market and the uncertain future of the craft world has prompted me to ask myself over and over: “How will I be able to make a living doing this now and into the future?” My doubt was not something that I had manifested on my own, there was plenty of that, but there were also other signs that things were not what I thought they would be.
It never took long for a veteran crafter to talk about “how things used to be.” Usually referencing the 1980’s and 90’s, they would paint a picture of incredibly crowded venues with knowledgeable buyers who had the money to support a large number of artists. Things were great, and then it seemed like they weren’t. The Internet bubble burst in the early aughts, The American Craft Council shuttered several of its shows, and the high number of craft shows diluted the importance of the older established shows as well as what the word “craft” meant. The crowds have thinned considerably and there is a lot of down time during shows. But what caught me off guard was the lack of accountability and flexibility that the larger, higher end craft shows were willing to put forward. I could simply be projecting here. Don’t get me wrong, there are always those who make great work and are able to sell that work to the kind of people we would all like to have as collectors. The problem here, keeping in mind that building an audience takes time and effort, is that for a young crafter showing a profit after computing the costs of doing a show is difficult. The model of the large fine craft show has become stale and is at huge risk of simply not existing in the near future. To make an analogy, craft shows are prepared for an outdated style of business, like the military is situated for a two-theater war with the Soviet Union. What was built up during the 60’s and 70’s, capitalized upon in the 1980’s and then seemingly maximized by 2000 has floundered under its lack of attracting a younger audience. For those who began their careers in the 1970’s and 80’s, their audience came up with them, slowly buying work year after year on a consistent basis, as both artists and their audience made money together. With that generation getting older, retiring, and no longer having any room to collect more objects we are left to try and make sense of a model that has run its course. Potential buyers of a younger generation don’t want to go to a convention center to make their purchases. Their attention is elsewhere and moves at a pace faster than we have been able to keep up with.
The 2008 economic crisis has brought new issues of sustainability, evolution and flexibility into the market and the lives of makers who rely on that market to survive. The crisis has also helped to reveal individual artists’ ability to evolve with technology and use it to broaden the reach of their work.
Successful artists now use tools like the Internet and digital media, but their approaches vary significantly. There are also some ideas on business models that could be undertaken now to help build a new audience for ceramics and fine craft in general. While “the future” is a large, ambiguous, and worrisome notion that many of us share I see the solution as taking control of one’s career and not be beholden to a single way of making a living or by what has already been established. The handmade object, as we know, can easily become an important part of its owner’s life. Underestimating that importance in the long-term will render our field helpless in the face of more change.
I want to return to the beginning – the part about how older craft artists who I’ve come into contact with would wax nostalgically about the way that things used to be. Life is mostly showing up and hoping for the best, but an approach as artists engaged in business should be transformed into something more resilient, more involved, more political. But I wonder, in the midst of digital technology and the ability to connect with an audience and with other makers, if we can’t start to organize ourselves for a long-term vision of what we think craft should be. We need to take a lesson from Republicans, who, over the past 30 years, have been able to turn the tide of how politics, lawmaking, and debate are viewed and how citizens decide to vote. While I do not agree with the Republican platform I do admire their commitment to the long view and changing things slowly over a long period of time. There is no reason why we cannot be canny and shrewd in regards to redefining the importance of art and craft for future generations. Most would say that the economy is something that happens to us or at us, depending on where you are in your career and life. We should make the attempt to help swing the odds in our favor as an entity focused on educating the public and supporting artists.
How do we kindle interest in those unaware in what we do? I would say that we need to create a narrative about our work that fits in the lives of others.
Other organizations have done this, and are doing this, with great success. The example that I will cite is the growing organic food industry. In regards to functional pots the similarities are close: consumers of organic produce believe in its health benefits, that it tastes better, that it is better for the environment, and that organic food helps to support the local economy.
Now, take the words “functional pottery” and insert them into this equation and we come up with the same answer: people who buy handmade pots believe in their benefit, that they are better than industrially made pots, that buying from the artist is both better for the environment (just think of the carbon footprint of pots from China) and also helps support the local economy. From 1980 to 2000 organic food sales grew from 78 million to 6 billion dollars. Do we have the chance to help ourselves increase our own profits even a fraction of that amount? Or even a fraction of a fraction?
Organic farmers, along with entities like Whole Foods, (huge organically based supermarkets that also sell ready prepared food of many types) have done an excellent job selling the story of the food (some call it education, others marketing). How many times have you noticed the little cards by the butcher counter that give a brief description of the family who raised the chicken that you’re taking home for $10? Our audience loves to come by our studio sales to get a taste of the “potter lifestyle” and see “where the magic happens.” Social media, deeper social media like YouTube and podcasting, can help to do this work for us. They can help tell the story of what happens in the studio or how the potter got to where they are. Think of it as studio sale outreach. We cannot expect the audience that we want: younger, with an appreciation for what we do and the means to show their appreciation, to come to us the way that they used to.
Despite the fact that potters have been at the forefront of social practice and the locally sourced/local economy fad for hundreds of years we do not have the marketing teams that Whole Foods can afford. Much like Wal-Mart has done with their encroachment on the term “organic,” we are beginning to lose ground, more ground, with the terms “craft” and “handmade.” Last year, Martha Stewart introduced her American Made Awards, honoring innovative small businesses that “embody” Martha’s creativity. This award also helps Ms. Stewart to shape what people think about when they think of “American made craft.” It’s not something set in stone, but more ambiguous so as to better fit the Stewart Empire’s marketing and accounting structure.
We are falling behind by not injecting ourselves into the conversation of what quality is. People are willing to pay $300 for a pair of jeans made in Nashville or $3.99 for Washington grown Honeycrisp apples but balk at a $40 mug. We need to tell our stories better, become more savvy with technology, and to stop expecting things to be like they used to be.
What individuals can do on their own is to figure out where to go next and how to build on what we already have. But as important as ways of working individually are, I believe we need to take more accountability as a field for our future. This is business. We try many approaches and share what we learn. Education, craft shows, even a single potter depend on that bottom line for their future. Our advantage is what lies behind that bottom line: a love of making and connecting to others through art. There seems to me to be no reason that we can’t use the latter to strengthen the former.
From my perspective, the craft world is at something of a crossroads. Built and supported by Baby Boomers and now crumbling under its own history, the fine craft market is ready for a change of leadership. There is a younger generation making excellent contemporary work who don’t fit in at the fine craft shows or the DIY ones. They are in the middle, trying multiple ways of getting their work out there, slowly building their own market, but based on the old one.
So, is that one answer here? Use digital technology and any other means possible to tell the stories of the makers and the stories behind what is made? Work together to share findings and take little notice of the experience of those who went before, because it no longer has relevance? Avoid use of words like ‘craft’ and ‘hand-made’ as having new meanings in the new millennia? Worth thinking about?