The Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council recently announced its decision to de-fund Craft Australia. There are a few factors behind this. Some are quite fundamental. The very name ‘Craft Australia’ doesn’t reflect increasing interest in representing design. Others were circumstantial. It was seen to have a low public profile and depend exclusively on Federal funding.
The roots for this predicament lie partly in history. Craft Australia was actually disbanded about a decade ago when it was seen to clash with moves by organisations such as Object (previously Crafts Council of New South Wales) to represent the sector nationally (in the context of the 2000 Sydney Olympics). In 2003, Craft Australia was moved from Sydney to Canberra, and re-born as a lighter organisation that would focus on lobbying, research and promoting the sector.
As a result, Craft Australia was left without an exhibition program which it could brand as a unique product. However, it sourced good writing and managed to produce much useful online information. Other organisations have cut back their publishing. Object magazine moved from a print to an iPad format (now including Android and online), but remains largely a promotional vehicle. Without argument, we lapse into just telling ourselves the things we like to hear. Craft Australia remained as a lone source of serious national dialogue around the business of craft and design. In the broader scheme of things, it invested more in content than marketing.
This incarnation of Craft Australia will be remembered for many achievements. The series of Selling Yarns conferences were quite seminal in developing a reconciliation dialogue around the flourishing scene of Indigenous crafts. The peer-reviewed Craft & Design Enquiry created a very important platform for academic research, which helps bolster the broader ecology for the field.
So what happens now? Will another organisation take up Craft & Design Enquiry? What will be Australia’s connection with the World Craft Council, a key cultural network in our region. Where has the money gone? Funding for Object has been increased, but what will they contribute to common story of Australian craft and design? There will be a fund set aside for strategic initiatives in craft, but which organisation will come forward to fill the gap in our national platform?
What happens to the archives? Where does the 40 year old story of Australian craft go?
In the broader context, the demise of Craft Australia reflects some disturbing trends. According to the creative industry model, the unit of value becomes the ‘job’ – the individual practitioner as a small business. In this scenario, culture is reflected back as a series of economic measures. Our cultural organisations work more within a corporate mentality, putting their brand value before higher ideals. There is no longer a common story that artists can contribute to. There is little motivation to create the astounding work of art that changes the way people might think or feel about the world. The market comes first. Creative industry provides a language for the arts that is readily understood by outside political interests, but we need to maintain an internal set of critical dialogues for acknowledging artistic value.
I hope I’m wrong. Craft as a practice does depend on collective institutions. From guilds to craft councils, they provide a memory that nurtures skills across generations. Without these, we no longer have craftspersons, only ‘makers’. We no longer have those who dedicate their lives to a specialist material, learning the intricate language of clay, glass or silver. We have makers who do show invention and spirit, but few aspire to reach beyond the local scene to tell a collective story.
Think about what’s happened on our political stage. Our last two Prime Ministers have eschewed any reference to Australian history in their speeches. The passionate contest over the Australian story that divided Howard and Keating has been replaced by calls for ‘working families’ and ‘stop the boats’. Without an ongoing narrative, public leaders end up consumed by personality politics, which rushes in to fill the vacuum.
This doesn’t mean that craft needs to be preserved in a fixed form. The loss of Craft Australia comes just as design is moving towards craft as a social value. As it always has, craft is presently re-configuring itself for changed times, responding to new developments such as ethical consumerism and social networks.
The people who made the decision to de-fund Craft Australia were no doubt seriously considering what’s best for the sector. But we do need to think carefully about where it might lead. We need to shift momentum away from atomised self-interest to our common story. No one is saying that it needs to be a single story, but it’s the argument about what this story is that keeps us in the game.
Disclaimer: I was on the interim board that re-constituted Craft Australia in 2003 and I am currently serving on the research committee that oversees Craft & Design Enquiry.