In May and June 2020, the American Craft Council hosted a series of three virtual discussions, American Craft Forum: Craft Thinking. With support from the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the series examined “the ways craft is standing up and standing out during the global pandemic as makers dig deep into their creative conscientiousness to heal, mend, and build a more resilient and equitable craft ecology.”
Over the next month, we will publish the archived forum videos along with reflections from Folklife interns on key themes and how the Center fits into the future of building resilient craft communities. This series will be one of many highlighting the work we do with makers all over the world.
The culmination of the American Craft Council series asked participants to create solutions for makers as they return to the economy and rethink how we all show up in the craft world. The discussion circled around a statement made by Folklife director of special projects Halle Butvin in the opening remarks: “Diversification builds resilience.”
How is resiliency built in communities, through participation, and with ecommerce and digital storytelling? Makers around the world are facing an array of new challenges and have had to expand what their markets and products look like in response. In the midst of COVID-19 and many institutions reckoning with systemic racism and inequity, these conversations seemed to fill a void for those questioning, “what comes next?” The presenters and short films in “Design solutions for an equitable and sustainable craft economy” came forward with their own approaches to building a resilient craft community that will grow with and adapt to current and future challenges.
The first portion of the discussion was devoted to organizations who use the power of community to lift up the makers around them, represented by Katie Stanton, program and membership director at the Urban Manufacturing Alliance (UMA), and Steven White and Dominick Davis, co-owners of Different Regard. What does urban manufacturing look like and how has it changed in the past few years? How have businesses sought flexible and creative solutions to put capital in the hands of communities, especially communities of color historically underrepresented in the craft market?
At UMA, Stanton emphasized the importance of crafting connections between makers and access to lending, collaborative advisors, and economic development. The national organization has since published policy reports on the impact of its work, titled “Pathways to Patient Capital,” “Moving Towards Equitable Maker Ecosystem,” and more.
Different Regard, a zero-waste fashion label and one of the youngest Black manufacturers in Baltimore, found success in local initiatives like Made in Baltimore and city grants for manufacturing. White credits Different Regard’s diverse team as a reason they found it easy to pivot their operations in the pandemic; with so many different skill sets, it was “all hands on deck.”
Next, we were asked what participation in the craft economy looks like in a pandemic and beyond. How are makers accessing their markets? How has that access changed, and why does it still matter? A short film showcasing the Carolina Textile District demonstrated the value of individual units when they come together with a common goal—in this case, making personal protective equipment for North Carolina communities. Because of their strong network of textile producers, they were able to shift quickly to new products.
Keith Recker, of HAND/EYE Magazine and TABLE MAGAZINE, gave insight on how the Santa Fe-based International Folk Arts Market was pivoting to make up for lost income when their annual in-person event was canceled. Even after defining the many ways makers have had to adapt to a new digital market, Recker insisted, “As long as people gain exposure to these things and their imaginations are sparked about how to live with them… we might be able to sustain some ground level of awareness and storytelling and value.” Craft’s flexibility throughout history—and during the current pandemic—will inevitably lead to its future success.
The session concluded with the important topic of the future of ecommerce and where makers’ stories fit in. Vallejo Gantner showcased two projects that sought to connect makers to their audiences, even if virtually. At the Onassis Foundation, they supported artists through micro-commissions to generate new work safely at home. On hireartists.org, makers can sell their skills, artistic or otherwise, to those whose income was not heavily impacted.
Gantner reported that this venture was largely successful for the individuals it hoped to aid, though not in the way that they expected. He hoped that creators could fill a practical “need” for others, but it was in fact the “wants” that were more highly sought after—the activities that feel “frivolous, but at the same time feels so liberating.” The artistic talent and creative strategies that creators were bringing to their work proved to be just as essential as the technical skills they were bringing to their gig job, separate from their creative practice. We have all seen this ourselves as makers around the world use their skills to make hundreds of thousands of essential PPE for their communities.
In the words of Libby O'Bryan, owner of Sew Co, a member of the Carolina Textile District, “There’s so much empowerment in making, that we need to preserve these skills so that we can respond when necessity strikes.”
What will safe and adaptive spaces and events look like in the craft economy moving forward? No matter the solution, this forum has shown that makers will be a part of it. Craft is often passed down from master to apprentice, and thus craft economies have long built community. Historically, this community has convened at annual markets like the one in Santa Fe or in local cooperatives, but the pandemic has proven that craft communities can thrive in the digital space.
At the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, we place local markets at the center of our work with artisans. With rapid globalization blurring the lines between local and non-local, where should makers prioritize growth, marketing, and sales? Though “community” has an ever-growing definition, craft will bloom where people gather, especially in communities with a strong connection to place and tradition.
While fashion and textiles found a market to fill in a global pandemic—from hospital PPE to stylish masks—participants pointed out that other craft mediums have been largely overlooked in these discussions. Thus, in efforts to expand the breadth of craft used in response to the pandemic, American Craft Council executive director Sarah Schultz signed off with “to be continued…”—a sentiment that the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is proud to support.
Emma Efkeman is a cultural sustainability intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a graduate of the College of William & Mary with a bachelor’s degree in art and art history and religious studies, focusing on South Asian devotional art. She learned to crochet from her grandmother and is excited to contribute to the Center’s work with craft traditions.