The executive director of the Crafts Council discusses the value of public collections
As I sit down to write this, the London Design Festival has just come to a close and I am reflecting on the opening of our contribution to LDF, Inside Out, our new exhibition at Habitat’s Platform Gallery on the King’s Road. It focuses on 24 pieces of furniture spanning four decades: the oldest work, from 1978, is by Alan Peters; the most recent is Sarah Kay’s solid oak chair, Helga, made in 2007. In between there are extraordinary pieces from the likes of Tom Dixon, Tomoko Azumi, Richard La Trobe-Bateman and Fred Baier that illustrate an almost bewildering array of techniques and influences, but the thread that holds the whole together is that all they all come from the Crafts Council’s Collection.
Created in 1972, the collection covers a range of disciplines – ceramics, glass, textiles, furniture, metalwork, jewellery, lettering and bookbinding – and contains over 1,600 objects, and masses of archive material. It is a hugely important resource, providing snapshots of prevailing influences in the field. In this exhibition you can see early works of now giants of the design world at the very start of their careers. As it matures and we continue to acquire, it is being transformed into a comprehensive survey of contemporary craft practice in the UK.
Like all keepers of public collections, our challenge is to make these objects as accessible as possible. We do this in several ways. We regularly loan pieces to galleries and museums as well as touring our own exhibitions. Currently, you can see Crafts Council works in Milton Keynes, Salisbury, Bath and Manchester. Over the past four years 265 objects have been leant to 75 venues and, as a result, have been seen by 6.5 million visitors.
In November, we will be launching I AM HERE at the Upper Gulbenkian Gallery at the Royal College of Art. It shines a spotlight on contemporary jewellery from the 1970s to the present day. While the show contains works by a slew of international makers such as Ted Noten, Gijs Bakker and Felieke van der Leest, on loan from the collections of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima), Galerie Marzee, Gallery S O and Pangolin, the bulk of pieces from UK makers – Wendy Ramshaw and David Watkins, Caroline Broadhead, Susanna Heron and Dorothy Hogg – belong to us.
We are also working on showing our work digitally. Over the past year, a team including volunteers from University College London, has been working on The First Decade Project, which brings together pieces from the first 10 years of the Collection. It includes archive material such as letters, photographs and sketches, and recorded interviews providing an oral history of the era. The First Decade Collections web pages now include a timeline that maps the beginnings of the Crafts Council through 100 seminal objects and key moments. In an age of dramatic cuts in public sector spending, it might be tempting to question the validity of a resource such as this, but it seems to me that public collections are more important than ever and we’re not the only ones who think so, the Heritage Lottery Fund were instrumental in making the project happen.
As graphically illustrated by Isis’s destruction of the temples of Palmyra and the killing of archeologist Khaled al-Assad, our sense of identity is stored in our heritage – be it architecture, the football team we support or the objects we treasure. That, perhaps, is why oppressors are in the habit of destroying such work.
For the crafts to move forward, we must understand and appreciate their past. The First Decade and touring shows like Inside Out are also vital teaching tools and will help a new generation think about the importance of making and come to these works afresh. Earlier in the year, for instance, we joined forces with Plymouth Museum & Art Gallery to create the children’s activity tent at Bovey Tracey’s Contemporary Craft Festival, providing drop-in stencil cutting and printmaking for local school groups. The starting point for this exploration of pattern were Crafts Council Collection works by Peter Collingwood and Pauline Burbidge.
But what might we collect in the future? Over the last few years we have acquired digital work from makers such as Michael Eden and Drummond Masterton, while the acquisition of Julian Stair’s work Reliquary for a Common Man included Super 8 film and the ashes of his late relative. Looking ahead, how do we deal with performance-based pieces by artists such as Keith Harrison and David Littler, where the object is temporary and the work concerns process? Should we acquire an embroidered surgical implant such as the one featured from Julian Ellis in Power of Making? It is vital that the Crafts Council Collection remains in a state of permanent flux to tell the ever-changing story of British craft.