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The More The Community Supports Crafts…

Posted by learntobead on December 29, 2009

The More The Community Supports Crafts…
The More Crafts Resonate
As Products of the Human Hand

In most places across America, you will find a lot of crafts.     But also in most places, the quality of these crafts leaves much to be desired.   Often what you see are repetitions of things done elsewhere, little innovation, little risk-taking in artistic expression, poor to weak techniques, and little use of newer technologies.    

Crafts aren’t created in a vacuum.   They are created in social settings.    They require nurturing.  They require support.   They require a sense of expectations and where the “bar” is, and where the “bar” can be set.   When you see the same-old, same-old, it tells you alot.   It tells you alot, not only about local craft artistis, but the quality of life in the community you are in, as well.

In many places, crafts do not get that local support.    Crafts compete with arts, and arts get more attention, visibility and money.    The elites in many communities often try to associate themselves with arts, and disassociate themselves from crafts.     In my mind, there’s little difference.   But that’s in my mind.   What is important in each community is what is in other people’s minds.

It’s usually not crafts.

And some of this lack of local support has to do with long standing biases and assumptions about crafts.   Anyone can do crafts, it’s assumed.   But not everyone has the talent to do arts.    Crafts have too strong of country roots, and art with country roots is at best labeled Folk Arts.     Crafts that meet every definition of art get labeled Fine Crafts — that “art” label always elusive, somewhat unattainable.     Crafts somehow are seen as lacking sophistication.     And as such, people don’t ask how more crafts, better crafts, more integrative crafts, more reknowned crafts can contribute to the local community’s sense of identify, beauty, wealth and value.  

Crafts are often seen as some affirmation of things past — tribal and primitive ways of making things, historical connections from family to new family to new-new family and new-new-new family, and so on.      Arts are often seen as setting agendas — historical agendas, religious agendas, political and social agendas.    Craft choices seem fixed.      There are only so many ways to pot a ceramic toilet.    Art choices seem boundless.     You can never stop art.

And all these social attitudes and expectations stymie crafts.  

We have to change these.

We all have to become deputized advocates for crafts as art forms, and crafts as central and vital to any community’s aesthetic, as well as economic, health.   Crafts, craft artists, and their networks of activity can form the bases of community and economic development programs, tourism programs, neighborhood development programs, and neighborhood cooperation programs.

I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and it’s a great environment to see and experience all these kinds of  conflicts between crafts and arts, as well as the lack of understanding on the part of community and economic developers about the very positive roles crafts can play, and how the crafts infrastructure in the community may be leveraged.    

Nashville is very centrally located to all the myriad of crafts enterprises from the Gulf and Mississippi Rivers up to the Ohio River and out across the Appalachian Mountains and piedmonts and tidewaters beyond.   Pottery, wood, fiber, glass, beads, ceramics.    Berea, Kentucky.    The Appalachian Center for Crafts in Smithville, Tennessee.    Clarksdale, Mississippi.   Ashville, North Carolina.    Face pottery in the mountains of Georgia.   Yet, while you will find a lot of crafts in and around Nashville, you would hardly say that Nashville is a center for crafts.

The city promotes itself as Music City USA.      The city also promotes the arts.   It has tried to centralize art galleries along an Avenue of the Arts.   It has promoted the development of a center for traveling exhibitions of arts.    It has promoted public arts.    It uses the arts widely to raise funds and visibility for many causes.   

There is little promotion of crafts, however.    When Nashvillians meet and greet new people — “I’m from Nashville,”  — they often get a “Hee, Haw” in response.    To which they immediately lower their heads and apologize, and say something like “There’s more to Nashville than country music.”    They go on to point out the Symphony, and the Opera, and the Theatre.      The word “crafts”, when used in Nashville, too quickly gets associated with country crafts, and country fashion and humor, in an all too perjorative sense of the terms.

In one of the centrally located city parks, there are Crafts Fairs in the spring and fall.    But, in my opinion, they seem tired and lame.    You always see the same stuff.    You rarely see the use of new technologies.    The pieces are meant to be saleable to a broad audience.    But if you visit other cities and attend their crafts fairs — like St. Paul/Minneapolis, or Naples, Florida, or even the Peabody show in Memphis — you’ll see crafts that resonate from the life of the craftsperson, forms and shapes and colors and materials and textures and constructions which make you salivate.   You use all your senses to experience the fullness of everything — what a high!

But not in Nashville.

The major local newspaper has 3 arts editors, but refuses to cover crafts events.    Crafts are not art, and they have no place in the local newspaper.    Nashville, for awhile, had a major glass studio.    The studio had national and international glass artists teaching and demonstrating almost weekly.    They sold glassworks from around the world.     The Prism Gallery was on a mission for glassworks, and needed the support and visibility that newspapers could help generate.    But the newspaper refused to cover any event there.    And now Nashville’s loss is Providence, Rhode Island’s gain.    And the Prism Gallery is a local treasure there, supported by all — even the local newspapers.

Crafts should be seen as a tool for economic development in the community.   Only in this way, will it break out of its more hidden and overlooked stance.   Only in this way will the various segments of the community not look down or away, when you mention the word “crafts”.   Only in this way will there be pressures on craft artists to perform their endeavors in ways that excite people, motivate people, and encourage people to demand more and more crafts.

What does this mean?   In what kinds of ways can crafts be tools of economic development?

If I were looking at Nashville, Tennessee, I’d make these kinds of recommendations:

I. Build Upon What We Already Have, But Make It Better
a.  Up the evaluative bars on the existing local crafts fairs.   Include the kinds of crafts demonstrations that you would think the Smithsonian would want to videotape for posterity

b. Country Music tourism is one of the major forces of economic development in Nashville.     The city can better leverage “country crafts”, instead of denigrating these.
– Support a country crafts museum or exhibition center — show the best of the best, as well as exhibit all the kinds of humorous, “country-smarts”, crafts, if for no other reason that pure Einstein-level insight and cleverness, they would be a major tourist draw.
– Sponsor contests which promote the use of new technologies and ideas, in  crafts, country and otherwise
– Encourage local universities to research and document local or Southern crafts; teach classes in crafts; promote new technologies in crafts; exhibit crafts

c. Put pressure on local newspapers to cover craft artists

d. Encourage crafts galleries and studios along with the arts galleries and studios on the Avenue of the Arts; rename this area the Avenue of Arts and Fine Crafts

II.  Create New Things To Leverage Nashville’s Cultural Assets
a.   Create a Fine Crafts Museum, like that in Portland, Oregon.    Strongly link this museum to local unversities and crafts organizations, with research, exhibitions, demonstrations, workshops, and presentations.

b.  Work with Vanderbilt and Belmont Universities to find funds to create chairs in Fine Crafts.

c.  Foster a change in attitudes about crafts, through community education programs in the community at large, as well as the public school system

d.  Increase programs which foster greater community participation in crafts

e.  Provide business, marketing and leadership skills to local crafts artists.     Very often the barrier to involving crafts artists in economic development projects is one of communication and understanding.    Craft artists need to market their goods and be able to create and sustain new markets, but lack the skills to do so.    Community economic developers don’t know how to talk and work with craft artists, because this common language of commerce does not often exist.     Creative partnerships between craft artists and economic developers often breakdown.   The city needs to confront the issues here, and encourage these kinds of partnerships.

f.  Stimulate demand for local crafts products.  

g.  Create more opportunities to integrate different types of crafts and different types of sub-communities which create crafts.        Find the synergy, and leverage the excitement around beauty, labor, and identity, for purposes of economic development.    Crafts include systems associated with design, with production and with distribution.   Be aware of all of these.

h.  Create a “Nashville Design”.     Working with the entire community, develop a set of standards about design, materials, construction, appeal, sensibility, production, distribution and cost.   These standards should result in a unique sense of Nashville Design, and should serve to attract buyers, both locally and nationally, to purchase crafts in our local market.       The process of developing these standards could also serve as a way of centrallizing local attention on crafts.    Any set of standards should be sensitive to both traditional and contemporary crafts.      Develop a way to assure the authenticity of any craft/craft artist meeting these kinds of standards.      Use the existence of these standards to encourage companies which produce and/or distribute crafts to relocate to the Nashville area.

i.  Create a Crafts Marketplace, (or an Arts and Crafts marketplace), where vendors who sell crafts can have showrooms, and conduct business-to-business sales.     This could be an actual year-round business in a fixed location, or could be 3-4 exhibitions held in the Convention Center.

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