YOU MUST HAVE NOTICED THE ABUNDANCE OF CRAFT FAIRS WE HAVE AROUND HERE. There are art crawls in the fall and street fairs all summer long, to say nothing of the many craft shows in the offing throughout the year, running the gamut from high-end artisan specialty exhibitions—like the fine crafts wares of the Minnesota Craft Council’s annual show—to the new proliferation of small, independent fairs with a distinctly DIY flair. Whether one is inclined toward the traditional workmanship of turned woodcarving and fine pottery or looking for that just-right ironic baby shower gift, amidst all these wildly varied craft festivals, there’s something for everyone.
But the local craft scene is changing quickly, as established artisans make way for a younger generation of scrappy, indie makers. Tensions between the two revive questions about the distinctions between art and craft, and about where the new trends in the Minnesota craft scene are headed and how to best ensure that support for artisans and craftspeople can continue to thrive and grow.
That last is an important question, because a number of the region’s long-running institutions and guilds devoted to fine crafts are seeing hard times. The Minnesota Craft Council has been in for a particularly tough ride in recent years. According Dave Glenn, the Council was founded in 1974 as an open, artist-membership network committed to increasing the visibility of fine crafts in an art community that was, at the time, inhospitable to craft. Artisans had a hard time getting exposure or recognition for their artistic achievement, and there really weren’t networks in place to help them with marketing and showing their crafts. Over the past three decades, though, the Minnesota Craft Council has largely accomplished its original mission to elevate the standing of artisans: now, museums and galleries routinely exhibit traditional handiwork as art. What’s more, a proliferation of niche craft organizations—like the Textile Center, the Center for Book Arts, Highpoint Center for Printmaking, and the Northern Clay Center—have cropped in recent years, beneficiaries of the groundbreaking work done years before by the Minnesota Craft Council.
The irony is, like many other professional craft guilds, the Minnesota Craft Council’s membership is graying and its membership numbers steadily dwindling. The organization may well be a victim of its own accomplishments, rudderless now that its original objectives have been largely met. In paving the way for these smaller, more narrowly focused artisanal organizations, the Council also sowed the seeds of its greatest competition for dollars and members. What was once a larger, more unified network of artists with a shared goal has become a field of micro-markets and niche crafts areas, all vying for audience attention and collector support. Such troubles go a long way toward explaining why, this fall, the Minnesota Craft Council laid off its paid staff, including 11-year Executive Director Dave Glenn. Things have come back full circle, as lack of funds is driving the Council to become, as it was in the beginning, an all-volunteer organization.
But in spite of the Craft Council’s troubles, in Minnesota the larger craft scene is not struggling at all. Not only is there a wide array of specialty organizations and nonprofit craft centers, the landscape is also teeming with bold little craft fairs like the new Craftstravaganza in St. Paul and the No-Coast Craft-O-Rama in Minneapolis. Virtually every Twin Cities neighborhood offers its own such festival.
What’s new about these indie festivals is their DIY, grassroots flavor, and a business savvy for exploiting the advantages of sales and marketing (especially online) that would have been distasteful to the 1970s arts crowd. These newly emerging artisans also share a penchant for clever innovation and ironic, whimsical interpretations of traditional craft forms. These makers are more likely to think of themselves as businesspeople or “crafters” than artists. Tracy Parker, a member of Crafters Local 612 (the group organizing the No Coast Craft-O-Rama) explains, “ I just make cards. I don’t’ think of it as artwork. And I have to admit that I love it that the vendors (of No Coast) don’t take themselves so seriously. If you see someone do something totally [laughing]… I don’t know, totally wacky… and it’s liberating. So many shows are really only receptive to ‘artistic’ craft. But I think there’s no reason craft shouldn’t be really fun, too. People should feel free to try something new with these traditional crafting methods.”
Andy Krueger, of the duo behind the Craftstravaganza fair in St. Paul echoes that sentiment. “When I went to most craft shows, I kept thinking, ‘none of this is for me.’ The guiding principle for us has been mostly: would we want to buy it? I’m a young guy—I want to make sure there are things for men, too. So, we have lots of leather, zines, t-shirts and screenprinting as well as crafts that more traditionally appeal to women.”
And audiences are coming out in droves for these indie fairs. Trish Hoskins, owner of Crafty Planet and a driving force behind the No Coast craft show, mentions that a large number of vendors in last year’s show, the very first one, sold out of all their goods. Craftstravaganza was a hit with audiences, too. Over 2000 shoppers turned out for its inaugural run, also last year.
The Craft Council’s membership has a very different point of view on craft than this younger generation of artisans. Its artists identify themselves as such gladly and readily make use of nonprofit arts support and grants that the “crafters” wouldn’t dream of applying for. When I asked the Craft Council’s Dave Glenn, a potter himself, to articulate a definition of a “fine crafts” (as opposed to mere “crafting”), he explained it this way: “Fine craft, and the artists that the craft council works with, consider themselves artists first, who happen to work in a medium of craft (wood, glass, fiber, metal, clay, and mixed media). There are a few younger members doing craft coming in and doing good work. That said, it’s true that there is a graying in the industry, because a lot of people don’t realize they can make a living doing this.”
That fear isn’t altogether unfounded. Even Glenn notes that it can be tough going for the professional artisan earning all their income from their craft. “People who have money still have money, but the people in the middle who might buy the mid-range stuff are being squeezed. So, sales are down overall, but at the high end seems to be doing fairly well.”
But Dave Glenn remains optimistic about the future of fine craft in general. “To be honest, it’s tough for any organization like this, in part because visual artists of all kinds have a hard time playing in the sandbox with others. [laughing] They’re passionate and they’re used to making decisions on their own, alone in their studios. One of the challenges I’ve had has been learning to work that into how I deal with this community of artists. That independence is vital to an artist’s creative process, but it doesn’t make it easy to build a smooth-running, long-lasting member-run organization. I think that’s what separates visual arts from all the other sorts of more collaborative kinds of arts. The Craft Council is in the process of redefining its mission and ongoing purpose in this new landscape. We need to find better ways to engage our audience—especially, we need to get better at taking advantage of online resources and marketing.”
So what should the new mission and driving principle for large nonprofit craft organizations like the Minnesota Craft Council be in this transformed marketplace? Are those central aims of artistic recognition and support still relevant to the next generation of artisans?
Surprisingly, Craftstravaganza’s Andy and Jenna Krueger indicate that it might be, albeit in updated form. Jenna Krueger remarks, “I don’t see why you can’t have both (an informal approach to craft, and ambition to make it a full-time career). Why not have fun with craft, do something new with it, and at the same time find a way to make a living doing this kind of art?” The women of Crafters Local 612 discuss the same possibility among themselves, and even they seem amenable to the idea, in spite of their reluctance to claim the identity of “artists.”
Sewing maven Kristen Himsl-Hunter describes the difference between traditional artisans and her kind of crafter, “I think we (crafters) think of it as more a business—with marketing plans and finding a customer base, and creating handcrafted products to suit their needs. I suspect artists think of what they’re doing as something other than business.” Chrissy Barr, another crafter, says simply, “This is just something most of us do after work. I never thought of making a living at it. It’s not the center of our lives the way it would be if we identified ourselves as artists. It’s more like, ‘Someone’s having a baby. I’m going to make them a baby blanket.’ I love doing this, but it would just never occur to me to think of it as ‘art.’”
She’s been pretty quiet for a while, but then Tracy Parker, another in the group, remarks, “But you know, maybe we’re revolutionizing all those old distinctions somehow. Maybe we didn’t go into it to make our whole living from it, but if we’re lucky maybe we’ll be able to do what we love to do, make things, and enough people will want to buy them that we can make it our livelihoods.”
Crafty Planet’s Trish Hoskins sits for a moment, then responds: “The women of Gee’s Bend were just crafters until gallery owners, people in the art world discovered them and brought their work to the East Coast. Then all of a sudden, it’s art.I have heard posited the theory that in some minds in the past, art was what men did and craft was what women did. That is, those art forms which were traditionally worked by men—painting, sculpture, etc.—could be accepted as “art” while traditionally feminine forms were “craft” (anything with fiber, especially). I think this is valid to a large extent, though certainly many art schools have fiber art programs. On the other hand, if you think about artists today working with crocheted or knitted sculptural forms, I think the market still thinks of those finished works a bit differently than they do sculptures out of more traditionally ‘artistic’ materials—plaster, wood, stone… you know, manly stuff. This might explain why many of today’s female crafters proudly claim that label. It’s taking back their heritage and saying that crating is wonderful and doesn’t need to be called ‘art’ to have value. I think it’s also true that the lines here are being blurred all the time.”
All told, it’s easy to be optimistic about the future of artisanal work in Minnesota. While the Boomer-founded Minnesota Craft Council struggles to find its new path, a burgeoning community of twenty and thirty-something craftspeople are building their own communities and support systems, like the Saint Paul and Minneapolis Craft Mafias, not to mention the emergence of national groups like Craftster.org, or Getcrafty.com. The entrepreneurial enthusiasm driving small, independent craft fairs like Craftstravaganza or the No Coast Craft-O-Rama is infectious, and it offers another reminder not to write off the local craft scene. It’s not fading away—not by a longshot. In fact, I’d venture to argue that if the larger, more established craft shows were to include some of the whimsical, edgier vendors’ offerings on display at these indie fairs it could offer a shot in the arm to lagging mid-range product sales.
After all these conversations, it’s hard not to be struck by the cyclical nature of community building, though. Does each generation really need to reinvent the wheel? Couldn’t some of these diverse pockets of artisans’ groups benefit from the hard-won organizational expertise of the others? But if these up-and-comers begin to ask for some support from the nonprofit arts community, are the grantors long-sighted enough and bold enough to give these innovators a hand?
Regardless of how it all pans out, I know this: it’s just impossible to be disappointed with all the variety of well-crafted work (fine or otherwise), in every possible price point, available to the savvy Minnesota shopper. The scene may be changing, but it’s still a handicraft-lovers paradise these days, with plenty to be found for every conceivable taste.
About the author: Susannah Schouweiler is editor of mnartists.org.