A crafty Christmas

When standing in front of a beautifully crafted thing, do you find yourself mentally trying to make it yourself? Doesn't it make your heart sing even if you fall back defeated and just give up and buy it? And anyway it's Christmas, a time of indulgences. However, as lovers of beautiful things we need to be conscious that behind the object lies a life of dedication to a practice that can be both hugely rewarding but also precarious.

A lot of Australians have an aspiration to be that clever maker. Certainly the statistics seem to affirm it showing that over 2 million of us are engaged in the craft making process, working to perfect the practice or sometimes just simply doing it for the joy of making something personal and unique. The majority of citizen makers would have no ambition beyond satisfying their personal creative urges. However, if you frequent the markets around the country it is evident that there is a blurred borderline between amateur and professional craft makers.

Those at the top end of the practice have been surveyed for a recent research report commissioned and produced by the National Craft Initiative, 'Mapping the Australian Craft Sector' which identified some key issues. For example, the definition of craft is volatile. As creators' practices morph across many forms of expression using an almost limitless range of materials, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a definition that encompasses the speed and variety of their imagination and its application across the spectrum from visual arts, through craft to design. Technological evolution continues to have a transforming impact across all artforms and can challenge or extend the concept of the hand made, dear to the hearts of many craft practitioners. The use of the on-line environment is influencing all aspects of craft making and manufacturing, delivery, promotion and exhibition.

The shrinking of the world through the communications revolution and high speed, comparatively low cost international travel has expanded the horizons of local craft and design practitioners. International collaboration and exchange are almost becoming clichés in the rhetoric of the art world. But there is no doubt that being able to travel, work and sell artwork and cultural expertise in other countries can be hugely stimulating and make viable careers that otherwise struggle within the constraints of limited craft and design audience and buyer numbers in Australia. It also serves a diplomatic purpose, forging friendships and networks of business contacts that overcome the reticence to engage with people who are culturally different. This in turn can nourish individual artistic development.

The sustainability of creators' careers is a lifelong challenge even for some of our most successful high profile artists. It is slowly becoming better understood that craft and design practitioners are adept problem solvers and can be ingenious inventors of lateral ways around obstacles, both real and virtual. They are increasingly applying their craft and design skills within other areas like community cultural development, shaping of the urban environment and in business and manufacturing. This expansion of opportunities to apply their skills in new fields has led many practitioners to adopt changed models of working and explore the application of craft and design thinking and skills to new industries and markets. In consequence, alternative infrastructure business models are being developed. This is also a response to a contracting environment of government support and an outcome of the entrepreneurism being encouraged in art school undergraduates.

For any traveller it is evident that crafts play an important role in communities, particularly in regional locations. One of the pleasures is checking out what local craftspeople are making and selling. Visiting craft and design exhibitions and buying a local product can add value to the travel experience. For local government authorities, the tourism market is sometimes the impetus for their supporting the development of local craft and design collections, exhibitions and public programs and events. For locals this plays a practical role in building community engagement and participation with local culture.

So for all these reasons, this holiday season we all should be buying Australian made craft as the perfect ideologically correct gift and visiting exhibitions of work by local practitioners. Enjoy a well crafted summer holiday.

Tamara Winikoff, Executive Director, National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA).