Sunday morning at Craft Forward started with a schedule change for the session titled, Mass Craft. Ayse Birsel (the scheduled speaker) was replaced by Mimi Robinson. Her lecture was titled, "Artisan Enterprise."
This lecture was another of the many lectures at the Craft Forward Symposium where the story was about community. In retrospect, I just can’t figure out why “community” was such an unexpected undercurrent of Craft Forward this year. Maybe by the time ASK Harriete covers every lecture I will have this figured out, or someone will offer their own insight.
In the meantime, I remain confounded by how Craft Forward became Craft Community.
Moving on to the topic at hand...
Mimi Robinson's specialty is going to small craft communities in third-world countries that are struggling to survive economically. She loves going to the place, figuring out what to make, and how to make it using local resources, skills, and creativity. The critical question for her at that moment is, “What is the unique spirit of the native culture, place, and time?"
What did I learn?
Her role in working for a non-profit or outside consultant is to develop an economic enterprise using the principles of micro-credit. She works hand in hand, person to person, connecting craft to the place. It is grounded in the experience of working with local makers and the “power of craft.” For Mimi Robinson the story is important to increase public awareness about the critical issues, raising the voice and the visibility of the artisan community.
She showed examples of beautiful ceramic decorative items that would be marketed to stores like Gump's and other high-end retailers. In fact, she has been so successful in some cases that the artisans eventually had to decide whether they should meet production demands when they distribute their work to international markets.
This brings up a new set of problems that American artists and makers can relate to themselves. Do you want to increase production? Hire more workers? Quantity vs. quality? What is needed to develop a cohesive collection, prepare images, and plan distribution when you take your product to a market like the New York Gift show? Just like with U.S. makers, the critical issue is often price point? What will people buy? Matching production with buyers and the problems with seasonal cycles.
Ultimately her goal is to preserve traditions while fostering new customs and improved livelihood with more resources, better tools, schools, and a sustainable economy for these makers. It was another feel-good moment for “craft activism” at Craft Forward.
What were the thought-provoking issues raised?
The feel-good moment, rah, rah, rah, community think is over! And again I sense something out of kilter. After reading my notes and careful consideration for the unacknowledged ramifications of the information presented, I realize that there is another side of the story about community.
Third-world craft economies are exporting their products to the United States and competing with crafters, makers, and artists that live in the U.S. The lower price points of imported items compete with local, regional, and national U.S. makers (who need to make more than a couple of dollars a day).
U.S. crafters, makers, and artists also have their own stories of hard work, local enterprise, creativity, and community. It is already very difficult for us to compete with the price points of the beautiful, imported items at Pier One, Crate and Barrel, or Bloomingdale’s "made by" third world makers. Our own community of artists and crafters attending the Craft Forward Symposium or reading this blog post in their studio need to make a living wage too.
In this case, the big question is, "Should we set a priority to support our own local artists and makers?" Our story is important! We need to increase public awareness about the critical issues, raising the voice and the visibility of our local, regional, and national artisan communities right here in the United States.
I think that there is merit in at least examining this issue carefully. If we want people to buy our art and craft here at home, shouldn't we be consistent in our own reaction to the soapbox at Craft Forward? Our work is also lovingly made in our studio with skill, creativity, culture, and perhaps the microeconomics of our own pocketbooks. We may not be a third-world economy, but the U.S. has both rural and urban poor that need to learn job skills and nurture their creativity and culture.
In the next lecture for Mass Craft at Craft Forward, Theaster Gates addresses just this issue. In fact, I think he was being very polite about trying to address the rationale of aiding third world economies when he sees the same problems right in his own neighborhood in Detroit, Chicago, the rural South, and elsewhere.
This will be the next post. In the meantime, consider your purchasing power every day. It matters... Do you buy from the big box stores or from local businesses? Do you buy your fruits and vegetables from Safeway or from the Farmer’s market? It may mean going to the hair salon owned by your neighbor. Or buying a pair of earrings from a friend? Or buying a wedding present from a local artisan? Consider the impact of your everyday purchasing decisions?
Background about the Speakers
Allison Smith was the moderator. Normally, I didn't say much about the moderators because of information overload, but her website is definitely worth some time in looking at her body of work. Don't miss it!
This post was updated on February 1, 2022, to provide current links.