On the Crafts Economy

Editorial for Norwegian Crafts Magazine 1/ 2014: Market and Marketing

The global market for contemporary crafts is changing and has been for some time.

In the contemporary jewellery market, Marjan Unger, art historian and long-time collector who donated a large jewellery collection to the Rijksmuseum in 2010, sees challenges related to the lack of new collectors. She presented this view in a lecture in Munich in 2012 and repeated it in Oslo in 2013.

She posed the following question to jewellery artists present at her lecture at Oslo National Academy of the Arts in January last year: ‘Do you want to be part of a scene where your gallerist is a lot older than you and selling your work to people as old as me?’[i]

Her concern is that interest in contemporary jewellery is fading, that the jewellery field is too inwardly oriented and that little ‘new’ money finds its way into the contemporary jewellery market. Her proposition is for young jewellery artists to engage with fashion houses and design brands to get their work out there, to be seen and to be bought.

«You have to meet the collectors that collect art, not those who collect ceramics, paintings or sculpture»

Åsmund Torkildsen

Unger’s observation corresponds with one made by Andrew Page, the editor of American Glass Quarterly, when I visited him and Urban Glass (where the magazine has its office) in Brooklyn in 2012. There are few new collectors for glass works. Some collectors may buy glass occasionally, but the consistent collectors who mainly buy and collect glass works are getting old. The young collectors collect art in different media and materials, and the economic consequences for glass artists are tremendous.

A similar observation is made by Åsmund Thorkildsen, director of Drammen Museum. He is quoted in an article by Christer Dynna in this issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine, on the seminar The Ceramic Object – To Make, Promote and Collect: ‘The whole idea, I think, is that ceramic art must enter the art world. You have to meet the collectors that collect art, not those who collect ceramics, paintings or sculpture.’

Thorkildsen’s claim seems rather paradoxical in light of a recent article in Brooklyn Rail, written by the director of the Museum for Art and Design, Glenn Adamson. He asserts that crafts are commercially sought after, and also that the crafts economy is booming: ‘[T]he 21st-century artisanal economy is booming. The Internet enables small businesses to source materials and knowledge easily, and to reach a worldwide audience.’[ii]

And a bit later he points to the crafts fairs:

‘Craft fairs—only 30 years ago, humble affairs held in fields with folding tables—have increasingly come to resemble contemporary art biennales. From Chicago (Sculpture Objects Function Art, S.O.F.A.) to South Africa (the Design Indaba) to South Korea (the Cheongju International Craft Biennale), the staging of global encounters through handmade objects has become increasingly commonplace.’

«Craft fairs—only 30 years ago, humble affairs held in fields with folding tables—have increasingly come to resemble contemporary art biennales.»

Glenn Adamson

Here it may be worthwhile stressing that the crafts market is not really a market, but a complex economy with largely differentiated buyers, target groups and sales venues. Crafted objects, for instance the ceramic ones discussed at the recent seminar in Oslo, belong to some extent to the art world as part of the system of art galleries, museums, collectors and the like. In certain contemporary art practices, we can observe a renewed interest in material qualities, blurring the boundaries between what used to be considered craft and what used to be considered contemporary art. This phenomenon, easily observed in textile art and ceramics, was addressed by textile artist Inger Johanne Rasmussen already in the first issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine in 2010 and thoroughly discussed in the resent publication Materiality Matters (eds. Joakim Borda-Pedreira and Gjertrud Steinsvåg, Norwgeian Crafts, 2014).

On the other hand, maybe in response to the fact that we are part of an increasingly virtual and a ‘mass-produced’ reality – what Adamson describes as a ‘shared “everywhere”’ in his article – we may notice an increase in the fondness for unique and crafted objects in design and fashion. This was observed in 2010 by editor Grant Gibson in Crafts Magazine, when certain print ads by Louis Vuitton where banned because they could ‘mislead consumers into thinking its products are hand-made’.[iii] Gibson considers it a huge compliment to the makers that a luxury brand like Louis Vuitton would want to be associated with crafts. He states that it shows how ‘craft, the art of the handmade, is cool’.

«learning about processes and concepts behind the works may incite more people to get involved with crafted objects»

The crafted object seems to belong to an ambiguous realm situated between the realms of contemporary art and design industry, a theme I discuss further in an article on Schmuck 2014 – the jewellery week in Munich.

For Alison Britton, interviewed here by Joakim Borda-Pedreira, making ceramic objects that targets museum collections has been a conscious choice. And she thinks that collectors today ‘regard ceramics as an expression of contemporary culture and are as likely to collect ceramic objects as paintings or any other kind of art object’.

In different ways, the articles in this issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine try to address some challenges related to the markets for crafts, and to the promotion of crafts, which can be seen as highly related. To get people to buy the works, they need to know about them, and learning about processes and concepts behind the works may incite more people to get involved with crafted objects.  

At the same time, despite Unger’s concern about a lack of collectors for contemporary jewellery, it seems like different craft-based practices are experiencing increasing interest from collectors and a more general audience.

In other words, it may be that this is not the time to mourn the lack of status for craft practices, for there is increasing interest in craft both within the art world and the design and fashion industry. Still, from reflections in Dynna’s article in this issue, we can infer that a booming crafts economy doesn’t necessarily mean that craftspersons are well paid for their work.

[i] Christer Dynna: Qu0 Vadis Contemporary Art Jewellery?, Norwegian Crafts Magazine, issue 1/ 2013

[ii] Glenn Adamson: ALL TOGETHER NOW: Craft Across Boundaries, Brooklyn Rail, 2 April 2014: http://www.brooklynrail.org/20...

[iii] The online reference for this is The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/v...