The American Crafts Council is a national, non-profit educational organization founded in 1943 by crafts pioneer Aileen Osborn Webb. Webb had a vision of contributing to world peace by uniting the craftspeople of the world. What a great thought!
The mission of the Council is to promote understanding and appreciation of contemporary American craft. Their primary goal is to explore how to be the bridge, linking and connecting Webb’s original beliefs and sharing those views and ways of thinking to larger audiences.
Programs include the bi-monthly magazine ‘American Craft’, annual juried shows presenting artists and their work, a 2006 leadership conference on craft, the ‘Aileen Osborn Webb Awards’ honouring excellence, a specialized library, workshops and many seminars.
I had a chance to speak with Monica Hampton, the Director of Education at the ACC, who had many insightful thoughts on the future of Craft. What does your role involve at the American Crafts Council?
The mission of the ACC is to ‘Promote the appreciation and understanding of American Craft’. That is where my role begins. Through a series of educational programs, I aim to place or situate ‘craft’ not just as a noun, but as a verb in the public arena, by exploring and celebrating craft’s relevance and connections to our daily lives – to the world around us.
I believe that Craft is experiencing a moment – very timely moment. Craft is everywhere today – it has never been more relevant. You see the impact of the handmade in the world around us – from architecture to clothing to food – the impact of the hand, the touch of the hand on fields beyond the traditional field of craft is endless. The tenets that craft has to offer – knowing your materials, where they come from, how they are used, under what condition the objects or things in our lives are made, etc…we believe that these systems of belief that makers have at the core of their practices are the linking factor – the energy point that will help to connect craft, giving it a relevance beyond the field of craft, particularly in today’s world, where we are seeing the fall out from industrialization and globalization. When did you join?
It will be 2 years this August. What did you do before?
My background is in Museum Education and have worked almost exclusively in Museum Education departments. Prior to coming to the ACC, I was Head of School Programs at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution in NYC. What is your office like?
This is definitely the best office I’ve ever had! My office has two large windows that look out onto Spring Street in New York’s SoHo district – so I see amazing architectural details of the buildings across the street (as well as the people in the offices right across the way, having meetings and talking on the phone!). The interior of my office is pretty sparse – I have a big ‘wall of craft’ – a bulletin board that is about 4 feet tall by 6 feet wide filled with postcards, flyers, posters and ephemera I collect from our shows and programs and travels. I have a few plants (cactuses and other succulents) and try to keep cut flowers on my desk to add some colour. I also have a beautiful Alexander Girard wall scrim that hangs the length of one wall. In front of that, on a table, I keep all the issues of our magazine, ‘American Craft’ on display. And on my desktop, I have a bizarre collection of objects that I keep trapped under a bell-jar including a tourist statue of the Empire State building, an iron eggplant paperweight, a silver clamshell paperweight, some rocks I found at the beach and 2 miniature pinecones I found with my daughter. Above my desk are open bookshelves, which contain my collection of craft books and resource materials. How many crafty items do you have on your desk right now?
Four, (the two paperweights mentioned above) a hand-blown glass tumbler, and a knit tiger finger puppet stuck on top of a pencil. What kind of people do you interact with on a daily basis?
In the office, I interact pretty closely with our Magazine staff for ideas to shape programs around…and on the phone and through email, I interact with a really varied group of people from heads of craft programs to individual makers, looking for information on resources for grants, etc… Do you do any making yourself?
Not in any official capacity. I do have a background in fine arts, but I don’t really make much these days except for the odd craft project with my daughter. Recently I’ve been into sewing with felt and doing appliqués to her clothes. What do you think makes American Crafts stand out?
Their relationship to a long tradition of the medium that they represent. The attention to detail. The uniqueness. The materials and the passion and choice to make something in a culture that offers so many quick-fix options for buying mass-produced objects. What project do you feel has been your highlight in your career?
In my overall career? I’d have to say shaping an annual, week-long conference for educators around design and the design process for the classroom. That work was done at the Cooper-Hewitt and was called ‘Summer Design Institute’. The types of speakers I brought in, the community I built, and the focus I placed through the Institute, exploring process over product and honoring the creative process as an important life-skill for anyone to master and re-use in their lives is something that I am trying to bring to my work at the ACC. I see so many similarities between craft and design. What is your favourite time in the Crafts Calendar?
I’d have to say getting ready for and doing the Baltimore Show in February. It’s our biggest show – it is for both wholesale and retail markets and it’s a time when I program, program, program for the exhibiting artists, for emerging makers, and for the general public. What are you working on now?
I’m spending most of my time preparing for our upcoming conference, ‘Creating a New Craft Culture’ which is going to be in Minneapolis in October. I’m also getting ready for some of our partnership programs with Colleges & Universities – the ‘Making Meaning in the Marketplace’ program. We’re kick starting this year’s trio of programs at Savannah College of Art & Design.
What is the one most covetable item you have seen in your time at the Crafts Council?
That’s a tough one. I am a big fan of ceramics and glass and saw a few really juicy items at the Baltimore show this past February that I didn’t open my pocket book for. I don’t think I could limit it to just one object! Finally, what advice would you give any new crafters in this economy?
* Be as resourceful as you can be.
* Think about how you can create dimension to how you’ve gone about promoting yourself, your business, and your product.
* How can you use new and inexpensive means to promote yourself now?
* How can you use the internet as a tool for marketing and sales and community building?
* Think about ways that you can build on one of the ultimate strengths of the craft field which is ‘community’ and how can you build ‘community’ to your benefit?
* Can you create a local network of other makers and share expenses for a store?
* Can you share expenses for printing promotional materials?
* Take out an ad in a magazine?
* Approach craft fairs as a group to exhibit together?
* What is your unique story to tell and how are you going to communicate that story to your potential buyers?
* Find ways to engage your customers in your personal story and process. Link your process to things that are beyond the product you’re selling. For example, highlight the fact that your products are ‘Made by hand. In America.’ Or highlight the fact that you work with sustainable materials – that you know where your materials came from and you can look your customers in the eye and tell them the conditions under which they were made.