When Rosy Greenlees stepped up to the post of executive director of the Crafts Council last year, one of the central aims of her strategic review was to determine what the council stood for and what its identity should be. At the unveiling of its new corporate strategy a year later, when asked how she would define craft as against, say, design or the visual arts, Greenlees demurs. To pin the sector down by definition, she claims, is ‘not very helpful’. ‘I don’t particularly want to define it specifically. Nobody asks this question of the visual arts. Many of these areas overlap and nobody can agree exactly what it is, so let’s just move on,’ she says.
As the Crafts Council looks to build stronger relationships with outside organisations, both across the country and within London, it’s hard to know whether craft’s apparent lack of distinction is a strength or weakness. Greenlees is certainly keen to explore how contemporary craft skills relate and overlap with other disciplines, including design, digital media and the visual arts. Perhaps, encouraging these sectors to overlap and blend will bolster craft’s presence, as well as throw up interesting crossover work. ‘Why,’ she asks, ‘aren’t more visual arts spaces used to exhibit craft works? This is the way we should be doing things.’
The ambitious vision for the Crafts Council is to ‘position the UK as the global centre for the making, seeing and collecting of contemporary craft,’ according to chairman Joanna Foster.
A redrawn corporate identity and print collateral, designed by Intro, present the graphic face of this new drive (although the final logotype is not the radical departure from the original, Pentagram-designed ‘stone carved’ identity that had been mooted).
At a corporate strategy level, Greenlees and Foster break the council’s advocacy role into three areas – creative economy, building audiences and championing craft – essentially focusing on building markets and awareness.
But to ongoing disgruntlement, the council closed down its London shop and gallery space in 2006 to divert resources into the regional programmes and partnerships that Greenlees believes will most benefit the sector.
A number of figures from the craft world have criticised the resulting lack of a dedicated exhibition space in the capital. Greenlees defends the changes, saying that the council has to spread the allocation of its £3m-a-year Arts Council funding across the country.
‘London is a very important place for the crafts and we have strategic, high-profile initiatives here. But our view is that we can have much more impact in partnerships with [other] organisations than we can just using our own space. We are a national body, so we have to work across the whole country,’ she says.
Along these lines, one of the schemes announced last week aims to link the sector with the architecture and building professions to explore ways of integrating craft skills into the built environment. Although details of how this might work in practice are scant, the Crafts Council is developing a relationship with the Architecture Centre Network, an organisation representing 23 architecture centres around the country. Five of these will take part in the Crafts Council collaboration.
‘We approached the Crafts Council with a hunch, an idea, that there were considerable opportunities for people in [both our] sectors to work together, but knew that this wasn’t actually happening,’ says ACN chief executive Michael Craven. ‘We wanted to see where we could make those kind of collaborations, so we discussed it with the regional centre directors and other architects, and now we’re beginning to think about how to drive it forward.’
Other tie-ups are ongoing. The Crafts Council’s association with London’s Victoria & Albert Museum will continue with the fifth Collect show of contemporary craft later this year, and the second Origin craft fair runs at Somerset House in London in October. But there will also be the first in a planned series of triennial exhibitions at the V&A, entitled Out of the Ordinary.
The exhibition will showcase the work of seven international artists – from China, Japan, Nigeria, the UK and the US – who all use everyday subjects and materials to create craft works. Another V&A tie-up will place craft practitioners in residency at the museum’s Sackler Centre, giving makers the opportunity to research and develop their skills, and visitors the chance to engage in the making process.
A further museum initiative is a new awards scheme encouraging curators to develop exhibition ideas that feature crafts work. The Spark Plug Curator Award will dish out up to five £5000 awards each year for the development of ideas that ‘engage with craft in a fresh, inventive and innovative way’.
Greenlees describes her time since joining the Crafts Council as ‘exciting and demanding’. Now, the challenge is to invigorate the crafts sector across the country and in both business and public spheres.
‘We’ve been through changes and now we need to move on,’ says Greenlees. ‘We should be seeing crafts in the context of design, seeing it in visual arts spaces. We have to use our limited resources to make the maximum impact not for the Crafts Council, but for the crafts sector itself.’
CRAFTING THE FUTURE
• Three-year research programme with Esmée Fairbairn Foundation in the North East, South West and West Midlands
• Spark Plug Curator Award – up to five £5000 awards given to curators to develop exhibitions that promote crafts
• Victoria & Albert Museum’s Sackler Centre will host residencies for makers
• Collaboration with Architecture Centre Network will explore engagement of crafts with architecture
• Out of the Ordinary exhibition runs at the V&A from 13 November to 17 February 2008, showcasing work by Olu Amoda, Annie Cattrell, Susan Collis, Naomi Filmer, Lu Shengzhong, Yoshihiro Suda and Anne Wilson
• The website – www.craftscouncil.org.uk – will relaunch later this year as a resource portal