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The Crafts Council of New Zealand (1965-1992), founded as a chapter of the World Crafts Council was established to represent all crafts people of New Zealand.

by Philip Clarke

The first occasion that the Crafts Council of New Zealand was able to prove itself was 1979, in a campaign to remove an inadvertently imposed sales tax on studio ceramics.

Ministerial embarrassment regarding the antics of craft retailer and media celebrity Peter Sinclair smashing pots in public, led to the Crafts Council receiving Government funding to co-ordinate a more seemly campaign.[1] The success of removing the studio ceramics sales tax built the credibility of the only organisation claiming to represent all craftspeople.

By 1981 the organisation possessed a small Wellington secretariat comprising Director, Resources Officer, Gallery Director and Administrator, who set about gathering information to help map a relatively new entity - the New Zealand craft sector. The newsletter was upgraded to the New Zealand Crafts magazine in 1982, the following year New Zealand Craft Shops: a directory was published as well creating one of New Zealand’s first digital artist databases.

New Zealand Crafts magazine, issue 5, May 1983

In 1984 the Crafts Council entered into a partnership with the City Gallery, Wellington, and established a craft Resource Centre. The Centre answered 1250 information requests. These activities provided services to a diverse sector, raising the profile of craft in general, and generating a 68% membership increase between 1983 and 1984.[2]

The NZ Crafts Council conferences and workshops, brought over international makers, providing occasions to meet for professional development. One of the outcomes of these meetings was a real push from within the sector to establish tertiary craft education. In 1983 the NZ Crafts Council, in collaboration with the Vocational Training Council, surveyed 600 makers resulting in the report, A Study of the Craft Industry, Craftspeople and their Training Needs. The findings presented clear support for tertiary and apprenticeship training.

The Ministry of Education established a working party to progress findings with Crafts Council representation. A critical issue emerged: should tertiary training be delivered through the existing network of polytechnics or should it be concentrated in a small number of centres of excellence? The Crafts Council was in favour of the latter; and the Ministry of Education of the former - presenting this as the most democratic and pragmatic option. Ultimately Crafts Council President Carin Wilson would withdraw from the working party and tertiary training was provided at polytechnics up and down the country, without any direct Crafts Council involvement. [3]

Despite demonstrable achievements, fundamental issues were unresolved and indispensability remained elusive. The reason for having a Crafts Council was that it represented all craft interests. But it never did. Much older independent organisations working in the fields of spinning and weaving, pottery and embroidery set standards for their far larger memberships and operated without government funding.

Attempts to develop federal or capitation arrangements with the ‘allied organisations’ all failed and the Index of NZ Craft Workers, initiated in 1986, exacerbated tensions. Claiming to want to work with the ‘allied organisations’ the Crafts Council initially set itself as the sole arbiter of excellence, while ineptly permitting selectors to select themselves. The Crafts Council’s and Index’s perceived focus on an exclusive group of makers led prominent figures to resign from the Crafts Council [4] and one member to write, 'I have a strong feeling of alienation from the organisation which seems to becoming elitist in attitude.' [5] Memberships generated $4380 in 1980 and $40,012 in 1986, but began falling soon after, which rendered its claim of sector representation increasingly less convincing.

New Zealand Crafts magazine, issue 16, autumn 1986

The NZ Crafts Council's new high profile premises on The Terrace, Wellington, occupied from 1985, were particularly good for their Gallery that sold members’, and others’, work and it was profitable to the end. In an attempt to make income, the Crafts Council established a Corporate Art Scheme, which unfortunately was under-capitalised and neglected, and never properly got off the ground.

However, this new location brought the organisation closer to Government and the Crafts Council facilitated for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the defining 1988 jewellery exhibition Bone, Stone, Shell. This highly successful exhibition subsequently started an era of New Zealand jewellery.

In 1989 the Crafts Council, already carrying some debt, began work on its 1990 sesquicentennial project, the $290,000 exhibition Mau Mahara. Ambitious but imprudent in almost every way, it was a calamity that hastened the inevitable. The Arts Council, its counsels unheeded, and its client trading in deficit, quickly commissioned a sector review in August 1991. The controversial Stafford Report concluded 'that the Crafts Council is incapable of delivering on the need of the crafts sector.'

In December 1991 the Arts Council stopped annual funding for the Crafts Council, now burdened with a $100,000 debt chiefly attributable to Mau Mahara. In 1992, the Crafts Council of New Zealand was wound up.

The 1990's were "a difficult period for the craft sector. The disestablishment of the Crafts Council as a result of the Stafford Report and the subsequent demise of the Arts Marketing Board of Aotearoa meant that the craft infrastructure had changed radically."[6]

Internationally the New Zealand Crafts Council was not alone in being challenged by the realities and myth of a national craft sector. Nevertheless in its address to a whole sector, the Bone, Stone, Shell exhibition, the Mau Mahara publication and work it did for tertiary craft education, the New Zealand Crafts Council left significant legacies.


Header image: A willow basket maker on the cover of New Zealand Crafts magazine, issue 12, summer 1984

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

Citation 

Clarke, Philip. 'The Crafts Council of New Zealand', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11/11/2019.

Footnotes

[1] Conversation with Crafts Council Director 1981-84, Christine Ross, 16 May 2017.

[2] Unless otherwise stated the source of information is Crafts Council of New Zealand: Records, Reference: 92-278, Alexander Turnbull Library. Folder 92/278/06/13 contains early histories of the New Zealand chapter of the World Crafts Council (WCC) by founders that detail the personal connections between WCC founder Mrs Vanderbilt Webb (Aileen Webb) and New Zealand. The NZ chapter became the Crafts Council of NZ in 1977.

[3] Conversation with Crafts Council President 1981-85, Carin Wilson, 26 June 2017.

[4] Constructing craft: harmony and conflict within the New Zealand studio craft movement 1949 – 1992. 2012 Doctoral thesis by Vic Evans. This thesis examines a period that terminates in the year the Crafts Council was disestablished. Chapter 7 focuses on the Crafts Council.

[5] New Zealand Crafts #24, page 3. New Zealand Crafts was the Crafts Council’s magazine. Its Letters to the Editor section is a particularly useful index of topical issues.

[6] The Persuasive Object/Korero a Te Whatu: Report & Selected Papers. A Conference on the Future of the Crafts, Held at Unitec, Auckland. April 16-19 1998. Following the ‘radical changes’ of the 1990s the Arts Council initiated the conference to assist the visibly ailing ‘craft sector to chart its future’. The conference prompted further sector gatherings and the establishment of Objectspace in 2004.

More information

The Crafts Council of New Zealand newsletters.