Contrary to popular belief perhaps, the crafts industry in Northern Ireland is an innovative, highly creative one. The image of twee products and drab studios could not be further from the truth. It is important to remember that crafts are, essentially, an extension of artistic expression and require all the education, talent and knowledge that goes with such a label. Indeed, given the nature of the work — be it traditional or modern — there is a need to be both competent and trained in any number of production methods.
Craft Northern Ireland is the lead body operating on behalf of the contemporary craft sector in the region. Established in 2005, it is now funded by both the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Invest NI. From the outset the organisation was granted a remit of advocacy and promotion alongside the role as a clearing house for relevant information. Training and business development, for new and inexperienced artists, also constitute major facets of its wide-ranging brief.
Following arrangements made by Craft NI with prominent local venues, including Parliament Buildings at Stormont, Belfast City Airport and various National Trust properties, producers have been allowed to display their wares in retail outlets at those locations. It recently assisted a delegation of local talent in preparing for trade shows in Dublin and at Earls Court.
According to Craft NI’s CEO, Alan Kane, this area is undergoing significant growth. It injects, he says, around £20 million into the Northern Ireland economy. Considering the nature of the enterprises populating the craft world, this is an impressive sum. ‘On an individual level, the industry is comprised of very small micro-businesses. Collectively, it’s fairly substantial… Grouped together, they make a significant contribution.’
Just as compelling is the subversion of the standard public profile associated with crafts. ‘There is now a big move towards embracing new technologies,’ says Kane. ‘What’s perceived as being a very staid sector is actually, in a lot of ways, right up there at the cutting edge of what’s going on.’
He points to the willingness of many small traders to engage with advanced computer-based techniques in designing and producing work for sale. They are keen also to utilise social media for maximising profits and exposure. ‘To some extent, they’ve embraced these things more wholeheartedly than some of the bigger businesses that you see in Northern Ireland, fiddling about at the edges of the digital world.’
Names to look out for include award-winning jewellery designer Rachel McKnight, ceramic maker Victoria Bentham and glass artist Alison Lowry. Lowry possesses a hefty and impressive CV and is, at present, preparing to take up a residency at the prestigious Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. In Kane’s view this is the sort of level to which Northern Ireland talent is regularly aspiring. ‘It’s a fantastic opportunity for her to develop her own skills in different ways but it’s also a statement of the quality of her work that an internationally recognised institution is taking her on board.’
August Craft Month is the largest event on the craft calendar. Craft NI is responsible for coordinating with partner businesses and organising events, talks, shows and demonstrations. ‘We try and promote the sector to as broad an audience as possible,’ says Kane. ‘It’s one of the biggest initiatives we do every year.’ With an estimated audience of 20,000 people attending 65 dates in 45 locations nationwide, the month represents an indispensable means of profiling the industry’s sheer diversity. The goal, he suggests, is to ‘leverage up the exposure the event has.’ The estimated reach — 4.6 million individuals worldwide — is far from trifling.
Craft making is an existence which lends itself to collaboration and communal creativity. There are a number of collectives in Northern Ireland, the largest of which is the Craft Design Collective. Comprised of roughly 120 operators, the group maintains a shop, Space CRAFT, in College Street, Belfast. In addition, the Craft Village in Derry~Londonderry, currently made up of a 20-artisan cooperative, has enjoyed success since being launched in 2012.
These are becoming more relevant, says Kane, pointing to the merits of pooled resources and shared ideas. A properly organised collective helps the bottom line too, affording the partners opportunities to explore commercial options. ‘As a maker it’s a very isolated way to earn a living. That’s not necessarily always good for the creative process,’ he says. ‘The great advantage of having them work together, even if they’re not physically working together, but meeting regularly and sharing experiences and problems, is that it sparks ideas among creative people.’