In this series on craft education, cultural sustainability intern Emma Efkeman showcases our Smithsonian Artisan Initiative programs and explores the ways that craft sustains cultural heritage traditions.
One year ago, in the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage office, I browsed through hundreds (and I mean hundreds) of photos of Armenia. It was a crash course in Armenian culture, something I knew very little about when I started interning, and I could not think of a better introduction. Videos of festivals, products from artisans, even photo journals of some of our amazing tourism experiences gave me more insight than any search on the internet.
The prevalence of material cultural expressions at the Center led me to think of my own family history. I think of my Italian, West Virginian great-grandmother, always with a heavy crochet blanket in her lap for a grandchild off to college or a new baby. I think of accessing my Swedish roots through design, always finding myself choosing a Scandinavian pattern over others on the shelf. And I think of a Christmas present from that Italian, West Virginian great-grandmother: a beautiful Afghan decorated with huck embroidery (Swedish weaving), a method she taught herself specifically for me.
When we define our “culture” for others, we point to our food, our music, our wardrobe, our homes, and—for the purposes of this article—our things. These identity markers then physically carry the intangible parts of ourselves, like our stories and oral histories.When we are floundering for our sense of community, we turn to the people, tradition bearers, who can articulate our cultural and societal values in the form of material objects.
What Is Craft Education?
Tradition bearers act as mediators in our collective identities. As articulated by Mukti Khaire, scholar of creative industries and author of Culture and Commerce: The Value of Entrepreneurship in Creative Industries, makers (or tradition bearers) are engaged in “cultural brokerage.” Makers and artisans participate in this cultural brokerage by negotiating with outside influence, politics, and even time itself, to present cultural expressions to the world. Just as I learned about Armenia through its craft, makers embedded within cultures everywhere tell their stories through the things they make.
Historically, craft education through schools or apprenticeships has sought to pass along techniques and skills to new learners, creating multigenerational craft lineages. More recently, in an effort to realize craft’s economic viability, international craft education programs have focused on business skills and design in addition to technique. Some of these programs have found relative success in helping rural artisans access global markets. But as we at the Center think about sustainability and cultural vitality, we must be boldly creative about what craft education can be, not just what is has been.
How can education be mutually and communally beneficial? What can teachers learn? What can students teach? Not only does a new model of craft education uplift makers, it also celebrates the ingenuity of cultural expression and the many forms in which it materializes.
Craft Education’s Growing Relevance
To understand craft, and craft education, one must first define craftsmanship: a repeated and intentional building of high-quality techniques. Craft products are the material result of craftsmanship in practice. Apprenticeship, a central teaching model in craft, has historically been a pillar in craft communities, where specialized skills are passed down from master to student. However, in the contemporary era of globalization, the traditional processes with which master artisans are connected to potential mentees have become tenuous. Craft education, therefore, must be two-fold: not only equipping artisans with market skills, but also connecting culture bearers to avenues of preservation for their traditions (e.g. support organizations, teaching opportunities, apprentices, etc.).
A small number of organizations have initiated long-term craft education training programs for artisans, ranging from six months to one year, and focusing on skill-based capacity building. Skills training can include marketing best practices, audience research and development, design, business planning, the sourcing of raw materials, or teaching traditional technique. Increasingly, long-term interaction is the preferred method of education, and short-term workshops are traded in for programs with consistent follow-ups.
Craft education that establishes sustained relationships with artisan communities ultimately proves to produce better outputs in the future. Data shows impact even on families: Artisans Angkor in Cambodia found while evaluating their programs that 98.3 percent of the participant-artisans’ children were enrolled in school, showing significant impact on “non-income indicators,” like children’s education and well-being.
In India, where the creative economy employs an estimated 45 to 48 percent of the workforce, Somaiya Kala Vidya integrates continued intervention into their education courses: Design Education and Business and Management. The Business and Management course participants receive mentorship for ten months following the course to ensure that they apply the concepts into their work. Design Education graduates participate in future programs as teaching faculty alongside visiting professional design educators.
According to a report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the creative economy in Asia (including design, fashion, film, art crafts, and more creative goods) accounted for nearly $228 billion in exports in 2015, almost double that of Europe.
Paths Toward Future Sustainability
Artisans have historically served the role of designer, manufacturer, and marketer of their products. Education came naturally, as artisans taught their children their craft and other cultural practices. Products were made with intimately known customers in mind, meaning that design developed slowly and organically. Only recently, with the need to find new markets or compete with cheaper mass-produced goods, have artisans found that they lack adequate market intelligence.
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Especially in developing regions, the craft sector has been activated in the form of social enterprises or cooperatives, where organizations facilitate collaborations between designers and artisans to create market-ready products and employment, especially in rural areas. While this model of intervention may produce short-term results, little acknowledgement is given to the natural resiliency of craft.
Craft traditions have survived for generations because of their close ties to cultural heritage. Local consumers know and appreciate the value of craft beyond the economic. With the Center’s Cultural Sustainability initiatives, community value is held as equally or even more important than market value. In Bhutan, traditional weavers are taught how to incorporate cultural heritage and principles of design. Rather than stamping design trends onto a traditional product, artisans weave together theory and technique into a product that resonates with their communities.
Craft education programs must also consider future sustainability and how to think about craft education as beneficial outside of financial compensation. The artisan should be appreciated for more than just their significant share of the creative economy (though as we have seen, their share is significant). As Armine Poghosyan, a needlework artisan in Armenia, says about lace: “With very few materials, you can tell a whole story.”
Before delving into the world of craft education a year ago, I relied heavily on my own notions of success—selling product, growing a business, etc.—without thinking about other markers of resilience and value. I realize now that it is not a matter of either, or: either artisans protect the sanctity of craft from commercialization, or they design products that will sell in a global market. We can, and must, think in the “in between.”
Drawing Value from Cultural Goods
Craftspeople have always been innovative designers and entrepreneurs. They sustained their craft in the market long before we could view lists of design trends with a quick Google search. The issue is what the word “craft” now suggests. This definition of craft stems from a colonial and imperial history of opposition between crafts and modern industry, between colonized lands and Western empires.
Often, craft products are considered to be timeless, not affected by the passage of time or changes in fashion. In colonial India, craft was used both as a juxtaposition to modern technology and as an idyllic landscape of the past. Traditional modes of manufacture were used as justification for novel (Western) technology; then again, during and after the independence movement, artisans were held up as vestiges of a glorious past against fears of sweeping Westernization. As academic elites stepped up to the debate, artisans were excluded from the conversation about their own livelihood.
When we speak about cultural heritage and craft expression in the past tense, it robs artisans of their relevancy in modern markets. Craft is living. Each product is not without time but encapsulates all of time. Craft, and by extension craftspeople, weaves the past and present together, teaching about the old with the new and vice versa. Our models of craft education should reflect this fact.
New models of craft education that prioritize community knowledge, artisan expertise, and local economies can bring an appreciation of the intangible aspects of craft to the narrative of design intervention. What does craft really mean to its consumers? Centering the local and building out programs that engage new learners will reinvigorate those symbolic meanings embodied in craft products, which will ultimately outlive economic value.
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.