There's no doubt that craft and the Crafts Council are in a state of flux. We've witnessed an unprecedented rise in the popularity of making, encapsulated by TV shows such as The Great Pottery Throw Down and The Great British Sewing Bee, while new technology has not only changed the way that pieces are sold but also how they are made. At the same time, the economy has struggled since boom turned to bust in 2008, and craft education has borne the brunt of government education policy. Into this maelstrom, the chair of the Crafts Council, Geoffrey Crossick, and I have spent the past 18 months touring the country, listening to the thoughts of people working and active in the field - including makers, curators, educators and gallerists - through a series of nine round-table discussions. Unsurprisingly it has been fascinating and, largely, very positive.
Each session was broadly based around four key topics - making, infrastructure, education and funding - and threw up a panoply of ideas that will inform the organisation's upcoming strategic plan. Inevitably, there were a few concerns, too. Some of the issues are perennial. If you want to get rich quick then a career in making probably isn't for you, for instance. To sustain a livelihood many makers have to adopt a portfolio career, promoting their skills in different contexts. This works for some but is more problematic for others, who see it as taking focus away from doing the thing they love.
This blog has covered the perilous state of making in education on many occasions, but I make absolutely no apologies for banging the drum once more. Many people around the tables expressed their dismay at the decline of making in schools. Craft needs a place in the curriculum and, it seemed to many, schools have to understand the impact it could have on their pupils' lives and future careers in areas as diverse as surgery, engineering and film-making. It is also vital parents are persuaded that allowing their children to take up a making-based subject shouldn't necessarily be seen as a soft option, but instead teaches their children to think with their hands as well as their heads.
Likewise, the issue surrounding the booming property market in London and the knock-on effect it's having on the cost of workshop space isn't necessarily news. However, the problem isn't restricted to one part of the nation. It was reported that vibrant studio cultures in areas such as Brighton and the south-west are also under threat from rising rents and gentrification. And there's no doubt that left to the market alone, the type of creative communities that make a place interesting in the first instance are in danger of being almost completely squeezed out. What's required is more thoughtful local planning and council support to make sure low-cost spaces for creative businesses remain intact. It may be that the emergence of maker spaces is a sustainable model for the future, providing makers with access to tools as and when they need them.
While the property market might be buoyant, straitened times in local services have blighted the programming of local museums and galleries - there's been a loss of collections' expertise and research at a curatorial level as jobs have been shed and new acquisitions become few and far between. Yet there were exceptions to the rule: for example, the re-development of York City Art Gallery and its new Centre of Ceramic Art offer very positive and exciting perspectives.
Other concerns are more esoteric and possibly intractable. Some of our guests suggested that the recently found popularity of craft could be construed as a double-edged sword. Though it is wonderful that the public is becoming increasingly engaged, sometimes it isn't necessarily discerning, and that the proliferation of online platforms selling 'craft' muddies the waters between amateur and professional making. Similarly, questions were posed about how the traditional gallery system can adapt to the multiplicity of ways craftspeople are working. Meanwhile, crafts' relationship with the luxury market also seemed to occupy a lot of minds, with brands using the language and values of craft to promote their products. There was a distinct sense that makers and craft organisations need to step out of their traditional zone of comfort and seek new audiences and markets and to use this moment to develop new ways of working.
Yet, it would be wrong to think it's all gloom and doom out there. What these nine meetings emphasised was the energy, determination and talent that existed in every region. There was a sense that the craft world couldn't afford to stand still and there is a strong desire to adapt and evolve in a shifting landscape. It reminded me the crafts are in good hands, and that augers well for the future.
Finally, the Crafts Council wouldn't let me write this blog without mentioning the OBE I was awarded in the New Year's Honours list. I come in a long line of Crafts Council directors and it leaves you with a profound sense of duty. What is really important, though, is that the award is good for the Crafts Council and good for craft in this country in general. It's rather humbling, if I'm completely honest. After over a decade in this job, I'd like to thank you all for your support.