‘Craft fairs – only 30 years ago, humble affairs held in fields with folding tables – have increasingly come to resemble contemporary art biennales,’ writes Museum of Arts and Design director Glenn Adamson in the new COLLECT catalogue. To which I guess the Crafts Council must hold its hand up and plead guilty. Over its 11 year history, COLLECT has set out to prove that making need not be cowed by the fine art world, bringing together some of the best galleries in the world with some of the most important collectors. And of course it’s not alone. There are also such events as SOFA in Chicago and the Taiwan Ceramics Biennale (previewed on page 18 of Crafts magazine issue 248). Through exhibitions like these at one level, and via websites like Etsy at another, craft has gone global.
As Adamson points out there is a danger in this, of course: ‘Craft has always derived a great part of its value from a sense of place; could it become homogenised, in the same way that fine art and design have?’ It’s a fair question, and an issue we should be alive to. There has been an exponential rise in the number of design festivals in the past decade, yet one of the criticisms increasingly levelled is that they are all beginning to look alike. Much of the same work and many of the same designers turn up in Lódz´ as do in London, and as this happens the world begins to look the same.
However, by the same token it would be foolish to ignore the opportunities afforded by new markets. COLLECT is perhaps the most obvious example of how we are attempting to extend craft’s reach, but over the past few months we’ve been involved in several others. In March for instance we took 10 designer-makers – from such established names as Bill Amberg, Lubna Chowdhary and Julian Stair to up-and-coming artists like Fay McCaul – to show at Design Days Dubai, with the help of UK Trade & Investment. This is our second year at the show, and each time we visit we glean more knowledge and make important new contacts in this emerging, and we feel increasingly important, part of the world.
This year the show attracted 12,000 visitors over five days, many looking to specify large-scale pieces for interior projects rather than following the European model of private or public collecting. Many will also regularly travel to London, and by raising British craft’s profile in Dubai we are potentially driving new audiences here in the UK too.
Similarly, the government has recognised the value of Britain’s creative talent in export and inward investment. We have been acting as a content consultant – alongside the British Fashion Council, the London Design Festival, the Founders Forum, the Science Museum, De Montfort University, Walpole and others – to the Festival of Creativity, which takes place from 20-22 May in Istanbul, as part of the government’s GREAT programme. The idea of the event is to demonstrate the creative talent that resides in Britain, and persuade potential visitors, consumers and investors that British companies are the best partners with which to do business. It will contain business surgeries, discussions on the role of digital media in emerging markets, and presentations from the likes of Jaguar Land Rover and the BBC. Our contribution focuses on the value of craft to innovation and includes a presentation on innovative textiles by the Textiles Future Research Group, with speakers including Carole Collet, Dani Salvadori and Suzanne Lee.
2014 marks the Golden Jubilee of the World Crafts Council and in the autumn a host of events will take place in China – the current presidency is held there – to mark the occasion. In Europe the WCC has been refreshing its plans and opening up its membership, and its General Assembly in June will be hosted by Norway. As I have commented before in this column the issues facing us globally are the same – how to sustain small businesses and retain traditional skills, making them relevant in the 21st century – a particular challenge in developing countries, where craft is often seen as representing the past and technology the future.
Adamson is absolutely right of course, provenance is an essential ingredient to a hand-crafted object. It is fundamental in defining different cultures and promoting a sense of healthy diversity. But craft also has a tradition of learning and indeed borrowing from other cultures. In Britain we’ve long shown a capacity to absorb other influences and turn them into something new. So at the Crafts Council we believe that it’s absolutely vital that we not only have a strong relationship with the craft organisations of other nations but that we also make sure we’re exporting the products, skills and ideas of the best of the UK’s makers to new places, opening up new opportunities and showing the world quite how good we are at making things.
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This blog post also appears in the May/June 2014 issue of Crafts magazine
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