One of craft's undoubted strengths is its sense of place and authenticity - it's the primary reason large brands and marketing agencies have been keen to associate themselves with the word in recent times. Yet by the same token this can also be perceived as a potential weakness. There is always a danger that craft can be seen as being a little inward-looking, parochial even. After all, by its nature it tends to be concerned with provenance and 'being local'. Unlike the design world, for example, it doesn't yet have the network of exhibitions and city-wide festivals that can take its message out to a genuinely global audience.
This is beginning to change, however. Last May, for instance, saw the launch of the London Craft Week, while last October I attended the European Craft Summit in Mons that included a major exhibition, European Prize for Applied Arts - showing over 100 of the best makers in Europe - and a fantastic conference that tackled issues around craft and technology including a very thought-provoking presentation by Suffolk-based artist potter Jonathan Keep on the development of his work from traditional ceramist to working with 3D printing. There was also a tour to the magnificent new ceramics museum Keramis on the site of the old earthenware production company Boch La Louvière, and other local museums and film showings.
Importantly, too, there was a meeting of the European branch of the World Crafts Council, of which I am honoured to be regional president. The WCC was founded by the US-based patron Aileen Osborn Webb in 1964 as a non-profit membership organisation to promote international interest in craft and encourage dialogue between makers in different nations. Europe has long had a strong voice in the organisation and the first European board was elected in 1978. While the interests of the member countries can be quite different - Slovenia, for example, concentrates on the heritage end of the making spectrum, while Norway looks to extend the boundaries of craft's contemporary possibilities - we all share the same concerns. Questions that buzzed around the meeting will be familiar to regular readers of this column: How do you bring on a new generation of makers? How do you make craft businesses genuinely sustainable? And how do you make sure that people value craft?
It may well be that the solutions are different for each nation, but hearing other people's experiences is invaluable - there was an extraordinary amount of energy in the room with people keen to push craft to the forefront of mainstream culture and prove its importance in any number of fields. What meetings like this also reinforce for me is the vital role that culture in general, and craft in particular, has to play in bringing people of different nationalities together. Making is a genuinely international language and an important component of 'soft power'.
It can also help with integrating people into communities. Last year we joined forces with Counterpoint Arts' Learning Lab, Craftspace, the Embassy of Sweden in London, the British Council and the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, to produce a day-long seminar programme that focused on the role making can play in navigating experiences of migration. Using presentations, case studies, conversations and workshops, the Lab posed a series of questions, including: 'What kind of cultural knowledge and know-how is produced through the transmission of craft skills amongst migrant and refugee women?'.
The day was framed by a conversation with the Stockholm-based social enterprise, Livstycket, which gives women who have immigrated to Sweden the chance to learn their new nation's language and culture both through making and other activities, and the Birmingham-based group Shelanu. Supported by Craftspace, Shelanu encourages refugee women to produce high-quality craft objects that have been inspired by their new home. The pieces are then sold. Both schemes aim to combat the potential for these people to become isolated or ghettoised, to challenge preconceptions and support integration into the local community.
Both Mons and Learning Lab illustrate that craft should never be regarded as mere frippery. Instead, making can be right at the heart of our society, both culturally and economically. And it's why I was delighted that George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, described the arts sector as 'one of the best investments we can make as a nation'. Art and craft can really make a difference.
This blog post also appears in the January/February 2016 issue of CRAFTS magazine