Tuesday, November 17, 2009
In this Corner... the Heavy Weight Challenger
Again, the Contemporary Craft establishment was shocked into dialogue by ex-New York Ceramics Dealer and craft critic Garth Clark. Clark's recent lecture, entitled Palace and Cottage, took place at the American Craft Council's conference in Minneapolis, just over a month ago. While I was not in attendance I had heard about 5 first hand accounts before I was able to listen to the lecture, which came rolling down my American Craft Council iTunes podcast subscription feed just a few days ago. This and other lectures can be found by clicking the title of this post.
Clark whose watershed lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in October of 2008 - How Envy Killed the Crafts: An Autopsy in Two Parts - had inspired much debate in the craft world by making such proclamations as "craft is dead" and that craft should seek to align itself with other creative business models such as design (objects).
While Palace and Cottage did not cover much new ground in terms of advancing Clark's original argument, it did deliver a blow to the belly of the beast. By publicly and directly challenging the American Craft Council at their own event, Clark made clear his challenge to the status quo in the years to come. For anyone who has been a part of the craft world, at any level, the fact that regional and national craft infrastructure is unhealthy and is in need of reform should come as no surprise. Clark has become the vital mouth piece for a sentiment that has been expressed many times, by many people, but has long been ignored. Because of Clark's high profile in the craft world the craft mainstream has finally taken notice. Clark's position as the figurehead of impending reform is welcome (at least by me) not only because of his stature, but because of his clear articulation of the history and circumstances which led to the current institutional decay.
Metal Smith Goes to Washington
But as you may be accustomed to by now dear reader, the reference to Clark's lecture is only the impetus for the real subject of this post. Criticism is easy. To find flaws in something and point them out, stopping short of effecting - or attempting to effect - change is indeed the province of the intellectual charlatan. And if my captain, Garth Clark, is to realize his position as craft's prodigal son, then his commitment to enacting reform now becomes his rope; whether he uses it for climbing or for hanging himself (metaphorically of course) remains to be seen.
It was at the end of Clark's lecture, in the question and answer session that Clark began to address actual strategies for reform and advancement of craft in the 21st century. The only serious suggestion that I heard (perhaps my memory is short) was that of installing a craft lobbyist in Washington.
I did find quite interesting Clark's assessment of the craft marketplace. Using data provided by the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design on the Western North Carolina Craft industry, Clark "conservatively" projected that the national annual total output of the craft industry was roughly $16,000,000,000 (16 billion dollars). While this seems like a believable number, anyone who is familiar with the craft industry in Western North Carolina recognizes that it is one of the most vibrant and healthy craft fiefdoms in the country. Taking figures for Western North Carolina craft production and expanding them to project a national average is dangerous at best. Perhaps an analogous calculation would be using figures from Silicon Valley companies to project figures for the US technology industry.
But suppose we do take $16 billion as the annual output of the craft industry, how does it compare to other industries and Gross Domestic Product? In 2007 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the United States in 2007 was $13,841,300,000,000 (13.8 trillion dollars). That means that craft production constitutes (very roughly) 0.001156 percent of US GDP. Using 2006 data (which was the most recent that I found), that puts craft on about equal footing with the water transportation industry, apparel, leather and allied products, and textile mills.
It will come as no surprise that industries of comparable size all have a lobbying presence in Washington, in some form or another. So supposing now that it makes sense for craft as an industry to create a lobby, what do we want to lobby for? While I don't pretend to truly understand business, tax law, and other subjects not essential to the profession of metalsmithing and writing, my thought experiment presses on as if I know what I'm talking about. Any mistakes or oversights from the point forward I invite readers to pose via the comments section of this blog.
What do we Want? _____! When do we want it? Now!
Now that we have establish that Mr. Clark's proposal of a craft lobby is reasonable by economic standards, the question remains, what does craft as an industry want from the federal government? Most suggestions I have heard (not from Clark) revolve around two two issues: Funding support for craft and the reform of tax law for artists and craftspeople. Starting with the later issue, the deduction of charitable donations made by artists currently is only applicable for the value of the materials in the donation. For example, if noted ceramicist Ron Meyers decided to donate one of his platters to a non-profit organization, he would not be able to deduct the full $300.00 value of the work, but instead only the cost of materials used in the piece, which I suspect would be some where in the neighborhood of $10. However, if Mr. Meyers sold or gifted the platter, the recipient of the platter would be able to donate it, and receive credit for the full value of the work. This hardly seems fair to Mr. Meyers or to any other maker, whose brand, ideas and skill have no legitimate value according to the IRS. So to the future craft lobbyist in Washington, please work on getting makers fair value for their charitable donations.
Ron Meyers - Platter with Bull, 2004
$300.00 at Ferrin Gallery
Changing tax law seems like a drop in the bucket though when considering the problems facing craft today. The aging and shrinking audience at major craft shows seems to be a serious problem not only according to Clark, but also to many exhibitors that I have had occasion to query. (As an aside I made a documentary film this past year about the craft marketplace conducting more than 30 interviews - this sentiment is very real among practitioners.) The ideal of making one-of-a-kind work and selling it at market or in a gallery is an insolvent business model. Perhaps the century and a half old ideal of the designer-craftsman has finally been dispelled, if it ever worked in the first place.
Enter the lobbyist once more, and perhaps this ideal, riddled by poor health, may be nursed back to life. How can this be? Fiscal conservatives look away... Subsidies! There are many failed industries in this country that the government, encouraged by lobbyists, have saw fit to subsidize despite the clear financial failure of the particular industry. The most recent and public recipients of government subsidies (or bailouts) included the auto and banking industries. And while a good case can be made for the necessity of bailing these companies out for the good of the country, so too can a case be made for craft. Not to get into all of the reasons here, but just to name a few: cultural preservation, the preservation of manual skill, the potential of craft as a green or carbon neutral mode of production/ alternative manufacturing, use as an empowering vocational option in economically depressed regions, etc.
Domestic agriculture provides a far better comparative case study for subsidy than banking or the automobiles in the matter of government craft subsidy. Since the 1920's US government assistance to farmers has significantly impacted the course and economic sustainability of domestic agriculture. Between 1996 and 2002 the average annual government subsidy to US farmers was approximately $16 billion dollars, approximately the output of the entire craft industry. Also roughly analogous is the percentage of the population employed in domestic agriculture and the Arts (not just craft). According to a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) study entitled Artists in the Workforce the number of artists in the US exceeds the number of agricultural workers. Though my own googling shows that these groups are about equal in size, accounting for about 2 million US workers, or roughly 1.4 percent of the population each. While craftspeople constitute a significantly smaller percentage of the population (a good, albeit rough, figure would be 200,000 craftspeople nation wide), there is a definite inequality in the allocation of government funds. If craftspeople roughly account for 1/10 of all US artists, and the NEA is the primary source of arts funding in the US, then we can determine that 1/10 of NEA annual funding is approximately equal to the US government's funding of the US craft industry. The NEA's 2008 budget was $144.7 million, which means that 14.7 million dollars is the approximate federal spending to support craft. Compared to 1/10 of the agriculture industry subsidy, $16 billion becomes $1.6 billion. That means the government provides 111 times the subsidy to the agriculture industry that is does to the craft industry, provided that the NEA passes on the appropriate percentage of their budget to craftspeople. Ergo as a farm worker the government will give you $8,000 annually, while as crafts person the government will give you $7.35 annually. All of the sudden getting fair value for your tax deductible donations seems all the more important.
Indeed these calculations are logical, though personally I doubt their accuracy under professional statical scrutiny. They are meant as a barometer. I simply mean to show that as a profession craftspeople (also all vocations in the arts) suffer a funding imbalance compared to historically subsidized industries. Perhaps direct subsidies are not the answer either. While giving $8,000 a year to every craft artist might dramatically change the craft landscape, a lump sum like 14.4 million dollars might provide the type of capital to support a national craft advocacy campaign. When it comes down to it, the dwindling craft marketplace is a function of the number of viewers and consumers craft currently has. What a national advertising campaign might look like is a subject for another post, but the point that I am surreptitiously arriving at is that yes indeed, a lobbyist would be most welcome if they could actually produce results. Effectiveness is also wholly another matter.
Setting out at the beginning of writing this post with no clear opinion in my head of Garth Clark's suggestion for a craft lobbyist in Washington, I think I have arrived at my answer. Yes. We need tax law reform and we need increased public funding. An obvious answer to an obvious suggestion. Perhaps this post simply took Clark's suggestion and put it into a more thoroughly examined context.
If there is a well thought out plan just yet for the future of craft it is a mystery to me. In my short tenure in the craft world I have seen extraordinary changes in rhetoric. When I arrived, the call for dialogue to advance the field reigned. It seems now that dialogue has arrived and is being replaced by suggestions for action. Perhaps in the next 2-3 years we can hope that calls for action might be replaced by actual action, and 2-3 years hence we may actually see the results of this action. The year 2015 will be the year of the craftsperson. Now is the time for suggestions, for formulating our grand plan, for collaboration, for cooperation, for selflessness and for looking forward. Keeping with the subsidy theme, I like to think of the American Craft Council as Citi bank. It's too big to fail, and so we will continue to prop it up for better or worse. An infusion of government money into such an organization would make them liable to more than the board of directors, and so a meaningful restructuring can take place, creating a new and effective entity. I lost track of whether I am talking about Citi Bank or the American Craft Council, either way it plays.
In any event, with or without the American Craft Council, my list of things to work towards for the betterment of craft has grown this week:
1. A national advertising campaign for craft.
2. Install a craft lobbyist in Washington.