The recently published book, Makers: A History of American Studio Craft provides an interesting perspective on the past century of craft. It will surely be a comprehensive reference for craft education. Then comes along the Craft Forward Symposium, with a provocative title alluding to the future of craft. I was genuinely anticipating learning about all the emerging trends and where they will lead us.
So what is the future of craft? Where is craft going? What does Craft Forward really mean?
Unfortunately, Craft Forward sidestepped the difficult issues and kept to "safe" topics like knitting, community, craft activism and easily inclusive group think. Where is the "risk" as touched on by the keynote speaker Glenn Adamson?
My concern is not a judgment of the speakers or lectures, but hunger for an exchange of insights about where Craft Forward should have taken us. I have observed craft in the first decade of the 21st century and it is precariously balanced. Where is the conversation about the survival (or elimination) of craft curriculum in academia, the disappearance of so many high-end galleries that specialized in craft media, the redefinition of the marketplace with the influence of the Internet, the aging audience for craft replaced with D.I.Y. crafty night happenings?
Theaster Gates asked one of the most penetrating questions after the Mimi Robinson lecture. (The impact was lost because he was much too polite, his observation requires a bit of contemplative thinking, and there was no time to expand upon the issue.) GATES was referring to Mimi Robinson going to Third World countries to develop those craft traditions for the international market. He said, "We have our own traditions. Why go to the third world? We are persons of color, our story is here."
John Rose commented on Crafthaus: "We love the idea of "craftivism" at the same time feeling disappointed that we in the craft world have not applied these principles towards our own well-being. Perhaps we should be discussing how to save ourselves first, then the world.
Rose continues...."Nothing we do will have any impact without a political voice. As far as we can tell, NO ONE speaks for craft. We have many national organizations, not one of whom is tackling a single issue that is substantive to the financial/political interests of their constituents."
"We, as a group, are increasingly marginalized in American society. Witness the effect on arts and craft curriculum funding. Witness the public demonizing of funding for the NEA and NPR in the budget debates. Witness our own First Lady Michelle Obama who apologetically wears and promotes a British jewelry designer."
When a symposium brings together an audience of 400 with the title of Craft Forward, it should bring out more substantive issues than the minor difficulties of knitting a "Rainbow Flag" that runs out of pink or turquoise.
There was something glaringly absent at Craft Forward (with a few exceptions) - a discussion about money. Somehow we are conditioned to perceive as inauthentic or impolite any talk about art, craft, money, and power in the same paragraph. But the fact is that economy and power are major factors affecting art and craft. We need to discuss the whole of the issues, not politely ignore the elephant in the room.
Over and over this undercurrent remained unspoken, almost actively overlooked.
Power and money go hand in hand. We should not conclude that we will lose artistic or craft authenticity if we talk about money. We can't continue to ignore these facts or stick our heads in the sand. If our work doesn't have relevance to the marketplace, we might want to ask, Why? or we will never have money. And will craft play a less significant role in the 21st century? This is not because we can't or won't make our work. It will be because our day job prevents us from investing as much time into our work.
If the marketplace can sell "pet rocks" and if a company like Skype (which has never made a profit) can sell for $8.5 billion, then maybe we need to think about how our work can be more relevant. Ten years ago we could not have anticipated the impact of Etsy, Facebook, YouTube, or Internet TV.
We need to think, talk or anticipate how the structure of craft is changing.
Theaster Gates owns four buildings on his block. He talks with his neighbors, they fix the buildings themselves, they have a block club, there is black ownership of the block which they rent to white students, sell to faculty and create a land trust, or non-profit. The point is that taking ownership of the idea and entrepreneurship is an important step.
We listened to Bridget Cooks talk about the collectors, Tinwood Alliance, the museums, and for-profit companies who all made money from the Gee's Bend Quiltmakers. We were appalled at the disproportionate greediness...those who "marketed" the work made lots of money, while the quilters labored for a few extra dollars. The quilters loved what they crafted with the skill of their hands and the pureness of their heart. They are certainly authentic. But if they had received a larger share of all the money made, would they be less authentic? Somehow we have been conditioned to think that making money contaminates the craft.
In contrast, we don't seem to view the art world with those same judgmental eyes. Jeff Koons can make a purple balloon dog* as his art that is fabricated, dare we say, "crafted" by an anonymous worker. And he is celebrated for his "art" and paid millions of dollars should we talk about that?
Here is just one suggestion. Several lecturers used video to document their work. How can video and YouTube expand the craft market? This could be a path to being more relevant to the new craft audience. Should we expand the focus beyond the unique object itself, and document the making or some other characteristics, activities, or attributes of the object?
Another suggestion: I believe that every artist and maker should have a website or blog. Not a static website that you never touch, but an ongoing reflection and insight into your work. The future of the craft is riding the Long Tail.
These aren't easy issues and there likely are no easy answers, but what does Craft Forward mean to you?