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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.


Projects

Sustaining Traditional Weaving in Bhutan

Sustaining Traditional Weaving in Bhutan

In Bhutan, we are working with the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan on a three-year project to support the sustainability of traditional weaving. After launching the project in April 2018, together we conducted a consumption survey of Bhutanese textiles to understand demand dynamics of handloomed traditional textiles and machine-made alternatives. The results of the survey will inform cultural heritage policy and lay the groundwork for collaborative exhibition and public program development at the Royal Textile Academy’s museum.

Our team is also working with weavers and RTA staff to implement a series of training workshops for designers and weavers and envision a sustainable program for their National Centre for Weaving.

My Handmade Armenia

My Handmade Armenia

My Handmade Armenia is one of the major initiatives of the My Armenia Cultural Heritage Tourism Program, funded by USAID and implemented by the Smithsonian. My Handmade Armenia supports 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 are developing rapidly in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, products made by hand are often relegated to the category of souvenir. My Handmade Armenia works 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—with the aim of expanding and elevating the notion of handmade craft in the market.

Sustaining Traditional Weaving in Bhutan

Lag Zo

In the Tibetan language, lag zo means “handmade.” Lag Zo, a partnership with China Arts and Crafts Association, is a celebration of 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.

We work with ethnic Tibetan artisans and partners in China to provide training workshops, product design and development support, one-on-one mentorship to artisan enterprise, and improved connection to both local and international markets.


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