A large colourful tapestry being woven by a machine
Magic Carpet by Kai Syng Tan

The Art of Craft: Unlimited and the Crafts Council get Talking

Unlimited seeks to work across all artforms supported by Arts Council England – which includes craft. But what is craft? And are we doing enough to support makers? Jo Verrent talks to Ellie Clewlow, Talent Development Manager for the Crafts Council, to find out what more we – and they – can do to encourage disabled craftspeople.

JV: Unlimited has supported some artists who use forms which might be craft based – tapestry, glass, fabric, clay – how do you distinguish between fine art and craft?

EC: The Crafts Council aims to be inclusive – we don’t try to exclude by imposing a single definition of what craft is or isn’t. We work with a wide range of people who might call themselves makers, craftspeople, designer-makers, or artists. Makers can be master goldsmiths or builders of film sets and props, small-batch production designer-makers or creators of one-off ceramic masterpieces, and engaged in anything from centuries-old traditions of everyday craft to cutting-edge digital making.

JV: So is it up to the artist, the maker, how they might self-define? Or is it up to the sector to decide which works fit into which category?

EC: Self-definition as a maker is certainly important, and there can be a lot of elements that go into that – like connecting to networks of other creative people with whom you share a language or understanding; finding the events, training or opportunities that feel like the right fit for you; or identifying the channels to audiences for the work you want to make.

JV: Tell us more about the Crafts Council and what it’s there to do.

EC: Like Unlimited, the Crafts Council is funded by Arts Council England. The Crafts Council is responsible for advancing craft in the UK. We harness the power of craft to inspire new audiences, champion new makers, and empower new making. At a practical level, that encompasses a really wide range of activity.

The Crafts Council offers learning programmes that take craft skills into schools, and co-ordinate public engagement work, like Hey Clay and the Craft Club network, to support people to engage with craft activity. We provide access to resources and publications, like our Crafts Magazine, and online via our website and newsletter. Our Maker Directory provides a platform for makers to promote their work nationally, while our annual fair, Collect, is an international showcase for the very best in contemporary craft. We also have a fabulous collection of contemporary craft pieces, and curate or contribute pieces to exhibitions around the country. As a national body we also undertake research and contribute to policy discussions on craft and the creative industries more broadly.

The strand of work that I contribute to is called talent development, which is support for makers in their professional development. We offer one-to-one advice sessions, business development workshops, a biennial conference called Flourish, and applications will open in June for our flagship programme for emerging makers, Hothouse.

For a small organisation, we cover a lot of ground!

JV: How diverse are the makers you are working with at the moment? It’s an obvious question for me to ask, but are there many disabled craftspeople out there?

EC: Our recent research on the demographics of those working craft occupations suggests that people working in craft occupations are more likely than the population as a whole to suffer from a work-limiting problem or disability (17% compared to 13%), so there are definitely disabled makers out there.

The Crafts Council has had a longstanding commitment to equality and diversity, but we have more work to do. So we are making this a particular focus of our work over the next four year period. We are aiming for year on year improvement in the diversity of our audiences and makers to be representative of the population as a whole.

JV: I know of the brilliant Radical Craft programme curated by Craftspace, which worked with, by their definition, ‘historically renowned artists associated with Outsider Art and contemporary artists some of whom are self-taught and all of whom see themselves as facing barriers to the art world for reasons including health, disability, social circumstance or isolation’. Do you know of other organisations working in this area, including those working with taught/trained disabled artists?

EC:  The work of organisations, like Radical Craft and Shape, which put inclusion at the heart of their work, is not only important in terms of the support they give to individual artists and makers, but also in the expertise on effective inclusive practice that they contribute to the wider creative sector.

I was fortunate enough last week to have the chance to draw on the expertise and advice of a number of organisations that work in disability-led arts at a local level in Surrey (DAISY, Creative Response, Art Ventures, Art Matters, and Stopgap). Their feedback is now helping us to shape a more inclusive approach to our own Hothouse programme. For example, we’ve invited an external expert to review our documentation and imagery so that we can make it more inclusive and accessible. We are reaching out to a broader range of networks to promote Hothouse to a more diverse pool of applicants, and also to involve a more diverse range of moderators, selectors and mentors. We are also operating a guaranteed interview scheme under which disabled applicants who meet the core selection criteria are guaranteed an interview.

JV: Tell us more about HotHouse. We have a programme for emerging artists too and I’m wondering about the overlaps?

EC: Hothouse is a 6 month national programme of creative and business development for ambitious and talented emerging makers. By emerging, we mean makers who have set up their creative practice or craft business in the last four years.

The aim is to provide a maker with the tools to grow a sustainable and successful creative business and build professional networks. Participants benefit from the support of tailored 1 to 1 mentoring, the support of a peer group, access to a national network of industry experts, organisations, speakers and trainers, and a series of monthly creative business development training days located in key centres of craft activity around the country

The feedback we get from past participants is incredibly positive. One recently said “I have been able to actually make a career in the crafts sector largely due to Hothouse.”

JV: Definitely some overlaps there – we need to look through the artists, alumni and others we know to see who might be at the right level to apply, and perhaps we can help get the word out there too to other makers? And hopefully it can work two ways too – perhaps there are some makers out there who’ve never considered applying to Unlimited for funds before who might read this and start to think about an application (the next round will be advertised from this summer, with applications due in the autumn – sign up to the newsletter for information at the bottom of this page).

EC: It would be great to help each other in this way.

More information about all the initiatives I have mentioned can be found on the Crafts Council website. Applications for Hothouse open on 11 June, and anyone can keep up to date on this and opportunities by signing up to the Crafts Council newsletter www.craftscouncil.org.uk/newsletter

We also really welcome makers getting in touch with us to discuss their professional development needs, and which of our development opportunities might be right for them. We can be contacted on makerdev@craftscouncil.org.uk