The Crafts Council Chair Geoffrey Crossick anticipates a future in the making
As I gave my summing up at the end of our Make:Shift conference, I looked at the several hundred participants and thought how great it was to be chair of the Crafts Council. It was late-November but I found it hard to believe that I’d been doing the job for nearly a year. A non-executive chair only spends a day or so a week on Crafts Council matters, but I already want to find more time for this role. This cannot simply be because so many makers are producing work that I want to look at and think about, though it is partly that.
One reason is that it’s such a great time for craft. I’ve become aware of just how much craft and making resonate with society in Britain today, and in other countries as well. I don’t see this as some counter-cultural resistance to ‘globalisation’. Just as Italians who asserted their own culture when they arrived in the US during the later 19th century were not opting out of integration but finding their distinctive way of doing it, so the flourishing makers and their customers today are not opting out of the global environment but finding a distinctive and challenging way of engaging with it. Global markets for materials, craft products, creative ideas are growing. This is an attempt to recapture authenticity, quality, materials and place – key components of craft – within a global setting. So many people are doing that – even those who rebrand real ale as ‘craft beer’. See Grant Gibson’s article in Crafts, No. 249 July/August 2014 and my endless tweets on the subject.
In speeches I’ve insisted that craft is not a search for tradition and stability in a changing world, even if some try to pin that identity on it. It’s hard to go to a contemporary craft show and see it as simplistically about tradition, when what one finds is often so exciting: stretching materials, techniques, and ideas in new directions. As a historian this doesn’t surprise me. Since the Middle Ages, craft has been central to innovation in industry and consumption, and in how people construct their lives through material objects. This has continued to today, even if certain currents of thought from the later 19th century tried to capture it for social and aesthetic nostalgia. Nostalgia, as the radicalism and innovation in the National Portrait Gallery’s recent William Morris exhibition reminds us, was not the lens through which to view craft.
One of the most important events in my first year at the Crafts Council has been the launch of our strategy for innovation by Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture and a great supporter of the Crafts Council; and the buzz of the Make:Shift conference at which 300 people (makers, artists, scientists, business) explored the way contemporary makers are opening up innovative paths by pushing the boundaries of how materials, technology and creativity interact.
We’re not going to maintain the public interest in craft, the flow of creative makers nor their capacity to innovate, if the rapid decline in craft education in schools is not reversed. Another highlight of my year was the House of Commons launch of our Education Manifesto for Craft and Making. With its striking title – Our Future is in the Making – it has evoked a lot of interest. The endorsement by both main parties, with Tristram Hunt, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, one of the main speakers, was welcome. So, too, was the eloquent and passionate keynote by Edmund de Waal. (Crafts, No. 252 January/February 2015). And all were upstaged by three young people, now or recently studying craft, whose speeches were inspirational.
If innovation and education were key themes of my first year, the excitement of contemporary craft, core to what the Crafts Council is about, threaded through it all. The huge audiences and impressive displays at COLLECT, the many exhibitions and shows, a memorable day at the Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair in Manchester (where I met some lively makers who were recent Hothouse alumni and sang the praises of that programme), opening our Sound Matters show at the marvellous Smiths Row in Bury St Edmunds, and meeting and talking to so many makers: these were the heart of a year in which I came to appreciate the importance of the Crafts Council.
Arts Council England recognised this in giving us another three years of National Portfolio Organisation funding. But with government funding for culture set to be cut still further, we know that we must raise far more of our income from donors, foundations and business. We need our friends. I’ve learned over my first year just how many friends the Crafts Council has who want to see us continuing all we do to support contemporary craft. And it has taught me that craft is fiercely contemporary