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Friday, 6 June 2014

Small Fish, Big Ocean

Britain's crafts industry may not be regularly slathered in the obscene dollops of thick creamy funding that is applied the arts, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Exposure to market forces makes craftspeople stand on their own two feet, they become sharp, streetwise, attuned to their economic circumstances, and critically, better able to adapt when those circumstances change.

In the years since 2008 our economic circumstances have changed enormously. The banks currently borrow our taxes from the government at 0.5% and lend it back to us at 12% or more (as long as you are willing to bet them your family home that you can pay them back that is). If the price for putting a roof over your business and the price of oven ready chickens had kept pace with each other over my lifetime, chickens would now cost just under £50 each. This isn't just the normal ebb and flow of markets, it's a full on sea change. So how are the people who make high quality useful objects responding?

It is perhaps fitting that craftspeople are reverting to type and following nature's example. If you feel like a small fish in a big ocean, you do what the small fish do - swim together!

Collective workshops are now undoubtedly the future of the British craft industry.  Vale Lane Workshops in Bristol are a perfect example of the direction the industry is now taking. Ten exceptional craftspeople sharing one workshop, with shared access to wonderful kit, bench space, each other's enthusiasm, and a single beautifully presented and promoted website with everyone's work on display. They have divided all the costs and multiplied all the benefits - finding genuine economic and creative synergy in the process.

The way in which craft businesses are funded is also changing massively, peer to peer lending is rapidly taking over from the high street banks as the first port of call for small businesses. You typically get a much better rate, you are helping individual savers to achieve a realistic return on their savings, the interest you pay is determined on a case by case basis by auction, and to an extent you are also gaining exposure to potential new customers.

For centuries the key to success in the crafts has been patronage, clients who will give you a one word brief and trust in your vision and creative spirit, then having paid for the piece, allow you to borrow it back again to exhibit and drive further commissions. It can go wrong, (Thomas Chippendale being the oft quoted example) but for the most part this arrangement works for both parties. The patron becomes the owner of a famous and widely exhibited piece of furniture, and is admired for having spotted the potential of the maker. Whilst the maker gains exposure, both through the patrons acquaintances and through exhibiting their past (and paid for) work to the public.