How Craft Became Mainstream
INTERVIEW TAMSIN BLANCHARD
In its new report, The Market for Craft – the third in a series reports which began in 2006 – the Crafts Council asserts that craft has become mainstream and has undergone a radical transformation in terms of not just who is making it, but who is buying it. “The growth in the public’s desire for authenticity, for experiences, for ethical and sustainable consumption have helped fuel an interest in making and in handmade objects,” we are told in the introduction.
In 2006, when the first Crafts Council report, Making it to Market, was published, Instagram didn’t exist (that didn’t happen until 2010). In 2020, we have seen how social media has opened up the world of craft to a global audience, and in particular to a younger age group, under 35, who are seduced not just by how things are made, but by experiencing how to make things themselves – and sharing the results with their friends. At the same time, craft has also become an antidote to the digital world, a kind of therapy. A desire to switch off and use our hands to make something rather than simply swipe a screen or type on a keyboard, has fueled an explosion in craft as something we do, as well as something we buy. “Further impetus comes from a concern for wellness and mindfulness,” reads the report, “as well as the growing need to switch-off from electronic devices.”
When Hole & Corner launched in May 2013, craft was still something of a hidden world, quietly getting on with itself, carving, whittling, weaving, spinning, stitching, and chiseling away. Seven years (and 19 issues) later, we remain true to our off-line, analogue roots, but we also love nothing more than sharing our stories of dedication – and the worlds of the makers we meet in the pages of the magazine – with a global audience via Instagram. We enjoy the connection and discovering new kindred spirits and it is exciting to see in this report how our world is opening up and evolving.
The Crafts Council reports that sales of craft have grown from £883m in 2006 to over £3b in 2019. While the craft sector has never looked healthier, Brexit was already presenting challenges, and the Covid-19 pandemic has halted some of those sales in their tracks. We were keen to find out more about this new report, which was commissioned before the pandemic hit, and caught up with the Crafts Council’s Executive Director Rosy Greenlees for a bit of a de-brief…
What surprised you most about the research for the Market for Craft report?
The younger age profile did particularly strike me. [between 2006 and 2020 there has been an increase in the younger age groups, from 17% (1.1m) under 35 in 2006 to 32% (9.1m) in 2020]. I wasn’t surprised the sector had grown, but I had assumed the demographic, in terms of age, would be higher. The increased breadth of the market and democratisation of craft have happened simultaneously. It is heartening because it shows there is a potential for people to build an interest over years and as they become older they may move onto higher end and more expensive objects.
The report shows that craft market consumers in 2020 are younger and more ethnically diverse which is good news. But according to the report the proportion of makers from ethnic minorities remains unchanged.
Craft skills and knowledge enrich and uplift us as individuals and diversity, of all kinds, enriches creative practice. So, diversity should be at the heart of all that we do. We have a responsibility to promote diversity and have taken a number of affirmative actions. For example, we’ve successfully increased the diversity of makers on our professional development programme ‘Hothouse’ by introducing a guaranteed interview scheme for makers of ethnic minorities and disabled makers who meet the core criteria.
We are also working on two Doctoral Training Partnerships focusing on diversity and inclusion: ‘Diversity in Craft’ with Nicola Dillon and Kingston University and ‘Supporting Diversity in craft practice through digital technology skills development’, a collaboration with Dr Karen Patel and Birmingham City University. Both of these research projects are helping us understand the issues and what we need to do to support BAME makers. However, we recognise that we still have a way to go to change that statistic.
There’s an increase in makers being self-taught, often starting with a side shuffle to a day job and then becoming the main source of income.
Pre 2010 the notion of portfolio working was still relatively new. I’ve always believed our sector is ahead of the curve; we’ve been doing portfolio working for a long time, maybe by necessity. The difference now is that people are coming through who haven’t been formally trained. What is an amateur and what is a professional is blurred and not so relevant today. What’s interesting is historically craft would have been learnt through apprenticeships. You wouldn’t have gone to university. We are, in some ways, making a return to people learning from doing it themselves. The development of online sites like Etsy are creating the platforms for those craftspeople not only to make but sell as well.
How has social media affected the market?
At the time of the first market for craft report in 2006, we had a project called Photostore where you could come to the Crafts Council in Islington – to what was then the resource centre – and you could sit down at a computer and look at people’s work. This was the beginning of looking at craft online. At the time there was a strongly held view that you can’t buy and sell craft online because you can’t see or touch it in the way you can in real time and place. That has changed with social media: with Instagram etc. People want to see the stories and know the maker. It’s been enormously influential in encouraging more people to buy online. Nevertheless, the physical and virtual continue to work together and it is clear in the report that face to face buying is still more important.
The idea of craft as an experience has also grown. In the report’s population survey, one in five (21%) of the overall market for craft (buyers and potential buyers) has paid to take part in a craft class, workshop or course.
That is reflected, in part, by those younger consumers. Ceramics and kilns and printing presses are not things they grew up with. There was an article in the Evening Standard about how a young student at Goldsmiths had set up a WI and was making jam. At this achingly cool college, this was the new cool. Making things. When we did the Power of Making show in 2011 at the V&A that’s when it started to take off; people were becoming more interested in the physical again rather than just the digital, the recession made people think about what they were buying, Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman was pivotal in a renaissance in the appreciation of skills. All of that has driven this shift to the experiential over the last ten years. Who would have thought the BBC or Channel 4 would be making programmes about craft now? It gives you such a good feeling to make things, it can increase your self-esteem: I made that! There’s also the idea of ‘flow’ of getting so absorbed in things that you forget about the worries of life and can de-stress you. All of these things are really important.
Is there a workshop you would like to take part in?
What I’m really tempted by is a Richard Mcvetis embroidery workshop. I would love to do one. I do like sewing. That would be my choice.
Will this new younger, less affluent but enthusiastic audience change the way craft is shown and sold with a move away from the more exclusive, rarefied exhibitions?
The craft world still exists. There is a segment of people who are still very engaged and want that risk taking experience and are interested in contemporary craft pieces. You see those people at Collect and Ceramic Art London, they are still there. It’s about how you take people on that journey from buying a relatively inexpensive piece at a fair to developing a deeper passion and becoming more knowledgeable about that discipline. To become a connoisseur, you have to start somewhere, it can grow into a serious pursuit and for some it becomes a business. You have to be more savvy about understanding which bit of the audience you want to reach. You have to know who your market is. A lot of makers already instinctively know this.
What advice do you have for makers on reaching new markets?
You need to know who your audience is, who are your buyers, understanding the market you are already operating in. To differentiate and position yourself in the market. Do you want to expand into other areas? If so which ones. The Market for Craft research has some really useful consumer profiles: on who is buying what, where, how. This can help you look at how you build your audience. Telling your stories, helping the consumer engage with the work, giving your back story, about you how you made the work. Social media is a fantastic way of reaching audiences.
Which makers do you follow on Instagram?
I’ve been following makers on the #artistsupportpledge – an initiative to promote artist and makers sale which has come about because of the pandemic. There’s weaver, Jilly Edwards, I follow on a daily basis. Janine Partington who is on our Hothouse scheme: she was an enameller and but has recently been doing leather work. She has been really effective in using social media and making sales through the pledge.
What if you are not so digitally savvy?
For a lot of people, it’s not just about using digital technology to tell your story but it’s also about selling online. Makers clearly need more support in this regard. We have just launched a series of zoom workshops: how you understand your market and improve access to your audience through digital activities. There is professional development support out there, and more and more different providers are giving that support. But not all makers are good at accessing training. You have to know what you are good at. If you are not a natural salesperson you have to find someone to do that for you, maybe that’s online rather than being at a fair where you have to chat to people or through an intermediary – a gallery or craft retailer. Ultimately, it’s about makers needing to make a living.
How do you think the pandemic will impact the craft industry? Is it making people rethink what they buy and how much they buy…
Who knows? This is impacting on people’s incomes, and it’s almost inevitable that means buying less. Makers have been hit hard by the crisis. But they are resilient: they are good at adapting what they make. I’ve seen makers skilfully extend the range of their work to accommodate different circumstances. This report demonstrates that there is huge appetite for craft and the recommendations give us a clear signal of what we need to do. With lockdown and staying at home, people have discovered making as a meaningful and satisfying thing to do. That can only help in continuing to build and sustain the market.
I like the word “Authentiseeking” that is used in the report. What does it mean?
It is the notion that people are looking for things that have a value, that feel special to them. We live in a world where people say one thing and mean something else. People are looking for something genuine. At its core there is something about the act of making which is very instinctive and central to us as human beings. It’s different to fine art. There is a real sense of humanity imbued in craft. You are relating to something which is a physical tactile thing. That’s what gives it authenticity when you see real craftsmanship, people do respond to that. Craftspeople spend so much time and effort making; and people are fascinated and enthralled by that incredible skill, passion and commitment.