How does someone make a living from craft in the 21st century, and, in particular, how can the sector cultivate an appreciation of the value of contemporary craft in ways that drive collecting and buying? Using the experience of Metalab, a contemporary fine jewellery gallery in Sydney's Surry Hills, as a case study, this article explores the opportunities for marketing craft.
"as well as providing pleasure and satisfaction to the maker and designer, a practice also has to be a sustainable, viable reality, and successfully find its marketplace." - Grace Cochrane (2007)
How does someone make a living from craft in the 21st century, and, in particular, how can the sector cultivate an appreciation of the value of contemporary craft in ways that drive collecting and buying? This question first came to mind when I tried to sell my own work and two years ago it became the topic of a research paper for my Masters of Art Administration degree. For the research paper I interviewed a number of people in New South Wales about the marketing of contemporary jewellery. Through the interviews I identified Metalab as gallery that is doing things in new ways. They agreed to share their experience for this article about making a living from craft in the 21st century.
The starting point for my research paper was a UK report, Making it to Market: Developing the market for contemporary craft, in which the authors Morris, Hargreaves and McIntyre (2006, p.7) propose that if you want a thriving craft sector there needs to be, among other things, a high level of 'subscription' activity, where 'subscription' is:
"the process by which artists or designer-makers accrue endorsement for their work through the actions of critics, dealers, collectors, public galleries, curators and other peers within the sector."
Morris, Hargreaves and McIntyre (2006, p.184) argue that strong subscription activity not only legitimises work, but also supports value and prestige, which in turn drives collecting, in both public and private spheres, and general purchasing activity. Through their research they found that, compared to the fine arts sector, there is a lack of subscription activity within the craft sector. This is driven by a lack of infrastructure, particularly at the high-end of the market. Without a strong retail and dealer sector, they argue, there is little to distinguish the professional from the amateur, few mechanisms to control the amount and quality of supply, and, generally, craftspeople have to be their own advocates. All of which has negative outcomes for the sector as there is "very little legitimisation or subscription activity to cultivate rarity or prestige."
Sitting alongside this idea of subscription is the notion that people access the market in various ways and at various levels: people may be 'introduced' to craft at a local market, develop an interest in a maker or style of work, become a regular buyer, then perhaps, a collector and ultimately an advocate for the sector. For this to occur there must be places where people can see work and ways they can learn about it.
Metalab is one of a number of galleries in Australia taking up this challenge. Metalab is a commercial contemporary fine jewellery gallery in Surry Hills, Sydney, established by Nina and Cesar Cueva in 2005. When they opened, Metalab was going to be exclusively a space to exhibit contemporary jewellery and objects from established makers. But the Cuevas quickly realised it would be difficult to sustain a living from exhibiting alone. So, they divided the gallery into two spaces, one for exhibiting work and the other to sell work. Then in 2007 they opened a separate retail space, Courtesy of the Artist (COTA), in Bourke Street Surry Hills. They felt it was important to set up a retail space alongside their gallery, both to provide a source of income and as a "way in" to an appreciation of more cutting-edge jewellery.
"For customers, visiting a retail store is a completely different experience, people just drop in to shop and there isn't the same barrier that there is going into a gallery. Through our relationships with our customers we develop their interest in contemporary fine jewellery." - Cesar Cuevas
A 1997 Australia Council report, To Sell Art, Know Your Market: A Survey of Visual Art and Craft Buyers noted an increase in the number of gallery-shops. They commented: "[this] has signalled to a significant number of people that some examples of original art, 'good art', are generally within their range and affordable." (p. 34) Retail outlets can provide a more accessible way to see and buy contemporary craft.
Metalab now operates an exhibition space that is combined with a collector's cabinet to sell more cutting-edge and expensive work and a studio where they hold workshops and master classes, provide workshop access, and undertake commissions, special orders, and product design, development and manufacture. For Metalab, having the studio within the gallery "makes a big difference . . . it's about longevity . . . maintaining and creating a stronger consumer confidence." The Australia Council report (1997, p. 35) noted that those surveyed were "most enthusiastic about having direct contact with the 'creative people' who are able to produce art or fine craft work." . Being able to visit a maker's studio satisfies a desire to have personal contact with makers, to see the processes involved in making work, and even become involved in making or designing work.
In mid-2009 the Cuevas' set up a second Courtesy of the Artist outlet, a 'pop-up' store in the Strand Arcade in Sydney's CBD. This was a way for them to test the city market, and in particular the corporate market. Now the Bourke Street Courtesy of the Artist has moved permanently to the Strand Arcade. Commenting about this venture, Cesar said:
"The COTA 'pop-up' has been a major success. It was an ideal scenario in which we were able to effectively transplant our retail concept into the CBD and also quantify the increase in visitation and sales. Having a retail presence in Australia's busiest shopping precinct has helped cement our presence in Sydney's retail landscape. The market research we have been able to collate has been invaluable. The 'pop-up' scenario gave us the confidence to make a long term commitment and we have since accepted a long term leasing agreement from the Strand Arcade. This will give us the opportunity to further refine our concept and holistically apply our ideas from the interior and graphic identity, visual merchandising, sales approach to the types of events we produce. Public reaction has been excellent."
Metalab also has a website Metalab and a blog Metalab at Blogspot. Writing in Object magazine in 2005 Craft Australia general manager Catrina Vignando (2005, p.41) said: "websites are a visual marketing tool taking work from a local context to a global marketplace . . . they show the web's communicative capacity for furthering discussion about craft practice, engaging in dialogue with other makers, and as a resource and inspiration for buyers, galleries, art managers and researchers." Through websites, people can view images; learn about processes, materials and history; email makers directly; and communicate with others interested in craft.
Building community online is also supported by physical location and proximity to larger craft and design venues. Cesar Cueva sees it as a plus being located in a neighbourhood with other galleries and retail outlets such as Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design. Through this physical proximity Metalab is able to create links into their shared audience and networks.
Metalab have also been involved in other industry programs; in 2010 Metalab was involved in the National Contemporary Jewellery Award hosted by Griffith Regional Art Gallery, assisting with the judging of the award. Working with other organisations in the sector allows both participants to tap into new audiences.
Responding to a question about the things that have made Metalab and Courtesy of the Artist successful from a marketing point of view the Cuevas commented; " I think having a clear vision for the scope of both Metalab and COTA has allowed us to establish a criteria for the types of work we are looking to stock and also the types of events we produce."
They also noted the importance of their relationships with their artists; "Our strongest marketable draw cards are the artists we represent. Through them we are able to put forth a strong concept driven retail experience that has broad appeal. COTA and Metalab are very carefully curated to fit within this concept."
The activities of galleries such as Metalab have also been supported by a growth in activity across the sector. The staging of the exhibitions Smart works: design and the handmade and Freestyle: new Australian design for living in Sydney in 2007 were significant events in the showcasing of contemporary craft and design in Australia. In addition, exhibitions such as Contemporary Wearables/ Commemorative Wearables and Excessory: Contemporary Australian Jewellery at Manly Art Gallery and Museum in June 2010, the 2007 Marian Hoskings exhibition staged as part of the Living Treasures program, and Baubles, Bangles & Beads: Australian at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery in 2006 have showcased contemporary jewellery exclusively. Rupert Myer (2002) in the landmark Report of the Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Inquiry noted that exhibitions in public galleries and museums are a good way to introduce the general public to contemporary visual art and craft and can create audiences and build respect for individual artists and craftspeople; as well as increasing audiences for contemporary art and craft more generally. He also noted that public galleries can play the role of a respected collector, and in this way influence the purchasing behaviour of others.
Other developments in recent years include the opening of new galleries/studios, such as Studio 20/17 and Pablo Fanque and a rise in the number of markets such as the Powerhouse Museum's Young Blood Designers and The Finders Keepers Markets. There are also a growing number of websites selling contemporary jewellery for example definitestyle andStudio Ingot and blogs where people write about contemporary jewellery such as Kit and Caboodle. As part of the Sydney Art and About festival a new studio visit program, START Studio Art Fest, will be launched: START Studio Art Fest.
Opening the Smart Works: design and the handmade conference in 2007; BBC broadcaster Peter Day noted the 21st century will provide great opportunities for craftspeople. With the development of wireless technology people can take the web with them wherever they go. Consumers and makers can communicate with others with shared interests around the world. He argues that, as a result, consumers will be better informed, will develop their own ideas and tastes, and will value individual, handmade and customisable objects. Day sees this as creating significant opportunities for craftspeople and designers, if they are ready to take advantage of them.
Through their own 'subscription' activity, Metalab and Courtesy of the Artist have been able to tap into different segments of the market and attract new audiences. They have been able to accrue endorsement for the work of the makers they represent and build value and prestige for contemporary jewellery, commenting "There has definitely been a dramatic change in consumer behaviour, most visibly in the last two years. Our clientele are generally well informed and wanting to invest in good quality locally made objects. Increasingly we are finding that customers are seeking out the one-off. Commission work has now become an important facet to our business and one that will feature strongly in future marketing strategies. I think this is all primarily due to consumer confidence. We are well aware of the power of word of mouth promotion." They have also taken advantage of opportunities, such as establishing a 'pop-up' store, embraced new technologies such as websites and blogs, used a range of tools to raise their profile, such as involvement with the National Contemporary Jewellery Award, and built and maintained a commitment to quality.
"I think it's an exciting time to be a practicing jeweller and metalsmith in Sydney. There is definitely a lot more opportunity for makers to practice, exhibit and retail their wares locally than there was 5 years ago. As independent creative enterprises I think it is important to work closely towards establishing unique identities. Collectively we can broaden and nurture a culture for collecting and commissioning new works from studio jewellers and object makers." - Cesar Cueva
Based on this case study, it would be interesting to see further research into the ways audiences experience the sector and to map how their participation changes over time (e.g. from attending markets, to regular exhibition visitor, to collector). It appears that each player within the sector has the potential to take advantage of the opportunities that are available to them, both working within their own enterprises and working with others, and thereby contribute in a wider range of ways to the value and prestige of contemporary craft.
Sarah Evans is a freelance writer and curator with an interest in textiles and the marketing of craft. Sarah is the Project Coordinator for the Tamworth Textile Triennial.
- Cochrane, G., Emus and Kiwis: flightless in cyberspace? Design and the handmade in Australia and New Zealand, Craft Australia, 2008. Available from http://www.craftaustralia.org.au/library/review.php?id=emus_and_kiwis
- Day, P., Opening address Smart works: design and the handmade, 30 March 2007, Powerhouse Museum, presented on By Design, ABC Radio, 28 April 2007 . Podcast:http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2007/04/bdn_20070428.mp3
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- Myer, R., (Chairperson), Report of the Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Inquiry, Commonwealth of Australia 2002 [Online]. Available from http://www.arts.gov.au/public_consultation/earlier-consultations/cvac_inquiry/report
- Quadrant Research Services, To Sell Art, Know Your Market: A Survey of Visual Art and Craft Buyers, Australia Council, 1997
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