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We aim 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.

Cultural expression is essential to human well-being and community health. The Center works with our partners to preserve and elevate cultural practices, including those that improve and sustain local economies. Artisans are important partners in this work. Historically, artisans were also designers, creating products based on local aesthetic and sociocultural needs. Rapid changes brought on by urbanization and globalization have largely isolated artisans, as local markets choose cheaper, mass-produced alternatives.

This isolation has contributed to the loss of traditional knowledge as artisans turn to agriculture and other trades to earn a living. As young people flock to cities in search of new opportunity, they are less likely to acquire knowledge of craft traditions 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 is dedicated to building the sustainability of these traditions. The program brings together community-driven research and documentation, product design and development, enterprise training, and a suite of tools artisans can use to unlock access to markets.

Guiding Principles
  • Local Partners

    We aim to leave a small footprint, ensuring all activities build the capacity of local counterparts. We accomplish this by building strong partnerships with communities and local organizations, providing specific tools to accomplish their cultural sustainability goals.

  • Youth Engagement

    We aim to restore intergenerational knowledge transfer by engaging youth. For example, using technology to promote cultural practice, pairing young designers with elder artisans for collaborative projects, or working with local urban brands to introduce handmade elements into their product lines.

  • Appropriate Market Access

    While we recognize the tremendous potential of international market access, we take a balanced approach to product design with an eye toward local markets and the meaning of products in their cultural contexts.

Current Projects

In the foreground, a lineup of mannequins each with colorful embroidered garments. At the end of the line, out of focus, a woman dresses a mannequin.
Documentation Celebrating Women Artisans in Central Asia

The Center is working with local partners in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to document and highlight the cultural heritage practices of women artisans. Working with the Union of Artisans Kazakhstan, the Center will produce a digital and print publication highlighting fifty artisans to promote their work and increase awareness and appreciation of their craft locally and internationally. In addition, the Center provided virtual and in-person training for the artisans on marketing strategy and how to use the publication to promote their cultural heritage and artisan enterprises.

This project is implemented with support from the USAID Trade Central Asia Activity and the Commercial Law Development Program of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

An older woman and a young man sit next to eachother on a floor. The woman, in front holds a flat wooden disk in the shape of a hat to bend horsehair around.
Folklife × Asian Art: Artisan in Residence

The Artisan in Residence program is a year-long public programming collaboration between the Center and the National Museum of Asian Art in 2023–2024. Through the partnership, the Center assists the museum with identifying artisans to invite for public programming, including past Smithsonian Folklife Festival participants and artisans engaged in our Cultural Vitality projects. The Center then coordinates an enriching exchange experience for the visiting artisans in the Washington, D.C., area, including museum and studio visits with local artists and artisans.

An older woman with dark hair in braids, wearing a traditional Mexican embroidered shirt and plaid skirt, holds wool she is spinning at a spinning wheel. Behind her are brightly colored, woven rugs she and her family have made.
Heritage & Handicrafts: OAXACA

Heritage & Handicrafts: OAXACA is a community-based project that aims to deepen connections between cultural heritage handicraft entrepreneurs in Mexico and markets for their goods. Working with our community partner, the Center co-creates research and training activities and utilizes Smithsonian platforms to enhance market access and awareness of Oaxaca’s craft heritage. All activities aim to increase intergenerational skills and knowledge transmission and, ultimately, strengthen the stewardship of local cultural heritage sites.

Heritage and Handicrafts is a collaboration with the Cultural Heritage Center in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

A woman wearing a white headdress and floral tunic sits on the ground, weaving. She looks down, concentrating on the loom.
Soul of Tengri: Kazakh Traditions and Rituals

Soul of Tengri: Kazakh Traditions and Rituals is a Smithsonian Artisan Initiative pop-up at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, developed from the Center’s collaborative work with the Union of Artisans Kazakhstan and the Makerspace Expands! Kazakh Artisan Exchange project. Soul of Tengri brings eight Kazakh artisans to share their craft practice at the Festival through demonstrations, hands-on workshops, narrative sessions, and performances.

Soul of Tengri is made possible with support from Chevron, celebrating thirty years of their work in Kazakhstan.

A group of young students, the girls in black traditional jackets and woven conical hats and the boys in red plaid shirts, inspect a museum exhibit of textile fibers.
Sustaining Traditional Weaving in Bhutan

The Center partnered with the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan in 2018 to support the sustainability of traditional weaving. The Center supported activities like professional exchanges, strategic planning, training on culture-based product development and design, research surveys to understand consumption patterns and youth attitudes toward Bhutanese textiles, and an educational color theory guide for weavers and designers.

Past Projects

A man holds a stone he carved, painted in white and red.
Lag Zo

In the Tibetan language, lag zo means “handmade.” Lag Zo, a partnership with China Arts and Crafts Association, celebrated the incredible range, knowledge, and skill in traditional ethnic Tibetan craft, including thangka painting, silversmithing, wood carving, stone carving, khyenle bronze casting, black pottery, and textile arts made from felted and woven yak wool.

From 2014 to 2021, we worked with ethnic Tibetan artisans and partners in China to provide training workshops, product design and development support, one-on-one mentorship to artisan enterprises, and improved connections to both local and international markets.

Several women crowd around a table, all facing a person at front, speaking, face turned away. Some are filming with their cellphones.
Makerspace Expands! Kazakh Artisan Exchange

In partnership with the Union of Artisans Kazakhstan, Chevron, and the U.S. Department of State in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the Center facilitated a virtual and in-person maker workshop series titled “Makerspace Expands.” Held in the spring and winter of 2022, the workshops aimed to support participating emerging artists to build relationships, expand their international network, and work collaboratively through craft.

two men bent over, holding chisels carve pieces of wood on a table.
My Handmade Armenia

My Handmade Armenia was one of the major initiatives of the My Armenia Cultural Heritage Tourism Program, funded by USAID and implemented by the Smithsonian between 2015 and 2021. My Handmade Armenia supported the growth and, in some cases, revitalization of craft traditions in Armenia’s regional communities, including wood carving, stone carving, embroidery, carpet weaving, and pottery.

While creative technology skills developed rapidly in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, products made by hand were often relegated to the category of souvenir. My Handmade Armenia worked with artisans and local partner Teryan Cultural Center to document craft traditions and provide training workshops including product design and development, marketing, costing and pricing, and technical skills—which expanded and elevated the notion of handmade craft in the market and launched more than sixty new artisan enterprises.

A woman applies dye or to create a pattern on fabric. Other women at work stations behind her also work on textiles.
African American Craft Initiative

The African American Craft Initiative (AACI) worked to expand the visibility of African American artisans and ensure equitable access to resources. Established through a consultative dialogue process with African American makers and organizations, and the mainstream craft sector in the United States, AACI outlined concrete actions for sustainable change.

Through collaborative research, documentation, and public programming, the initiative built upon the relationship between craft and community by amplifying and supporting the efforts of African American makers to sustain their craft practice. As of 2024, the work continues as the African American Craft Alliance, supported by the Folk School Alliance.

AACI was supported by Ferring Pharmaceuticals, Folk Education Association of America, and CERF+.

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