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Smithsonian Artisan Initiative

A student weaves at the Choki Traditional Art School, established in 1999 on the outskirts of Thimphu, Bhutan, for underprivileged children to learn painting, wood carving, weaving, and embroidery.

Photo by Jake Naughton, Smithsonian

Smithsonian Artisan Initiative

Working in clay, Tibetan bronze sculptor and Lag Zo participant Nima puts the finishing touches on Buddha’s face.

Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian Artisan Initiative

Potters in their workshop in Dzongsar, China, creating black pottery tea pots, cups, and bowls.

Photo by Josh Eli Cogan, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Smithsonian Artisan Initiative

Women at the Goris Womens Resource Center put the finishing touches on crocheted products for the annual My Handmade Armenia Festival.

Photo by Narek Harutyunyan, Smithsonian

Smithsonian Artisan Initiative

A young Tibetan thangka painter and Lag Zo project participant focuses on his work.

Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian Artisan Initiative

Basket maker Artur Petrosyan weaves willow branches around a glass wine jug in his home workshop in Yeghegnadzor, Armenia.

Photo by Narek Harutyunyan, Smithsonian

Background

A large part of our mission is to increase the visibility and vitality of culture bearers, artists, and traditions to promote cultural expression as essential to human well-being and community health. In an effort to champion cultural vitality and sustainability, we work with individuals and communities to preserve and elevate cultural practices, including those that improve and sustain local economies.

We recognize artisans as critically important partners in this work. Historically, artisans have also worked as designers, creating products based on local aesthetic and sociocultural requirements of their client. Rapid changes brought on by urbanization and globalization have largely isolated artisans, as local clients turn toward cheaper, foreign-made alternatives. Often, artisans lack knowledge of and access to unknown urban and foreign niche markets. This isolation has contributed to the loss of traditional knowledge as artisans turn to agriculture and other trades to earn a living.

Further, as young people flock to urban centers in search of new opportunity, artisans are less likely to continue the long tradition of passing on this knowledge through family or apprenticeship. Traditions passed down and evolved over thousands of years can be lost in the length of one generation.

The Smithsonian Artisan Initiative (SAI) is dedicated to building the sustainability of these traditions. The program brings together community-driven research and documentation, product development, enterprise training, world-class design development, and a suite of tools artisans can use to unlock access to both local and international markets. SAI aims to reposition artisans as leaders of the creative economy by providing the knowledge, skills, and support necessary to revive and sustain their communities’ craft traditions.


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