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A Walk Through History - the Roots of the Craft Show Business

My friend, Richard Rothbard, recently came on this article and forwarded it to me. It is a thorough interview with Carol Sedestrom Ross, founder of the American Craft Council, who started the first wholesale craft market in the U.S. in 1973 at the fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, NY. Some of you will remember the excitement of those times, but if you don't this is an excellent look back at how art fairs and craft shows came to be.

Just in case you don't read all the way, here is an important quote:

Carol's idea, "If I could just figure out how to start some craft markets we could have beautiful things made in our own country. Probably 90% of the 500 people who showed in that first fair I organised at Rhinebeck in the early 1970's had some other job. When I left Rhinebeck ten years later probably 90% of the exhibitors were making their living from selling their craft."

Interview with Carol Sedestrom Ross June l998, Copyright © 2003-2004 Craft Australia

In June,1998 Craft Australia co-ordinated the visit to Australia of Carol Sedestrom Ross from the USA. Ross is the founder of American Craft Enterprises, the commercial arm of the American Craft Council which brought contemporary crafts into the mainstream of American merchandising. This article documents an interview conductedwith Ross by freelance writer Jo Litson, with Beth Hatton in attendance.

Jo Litson: It seems that since you first became involved there has been quite a radical shift in the way that craft is perceived in America and the way that it is being marketed.

Carol Sedestrom Ross: I actually started my career as a potter and, in the 1960s, I was married to a man who was teaching ceramics at the State University of New York. For years he graduated talented young people who went on to get teaching jobs in other universities because at that time craft education was just burgeoning. Suddenly in the mid-60's there were no more jobs and yet all these young people were still coming through the schools. At the same time in America everything that was beautiful, well-made and unique was imported even though we had so much local talent. If I could just figure out how to start some craft markets we could have beautiful things made in our own country. Probably 90% of the 500 people who showed in that first fair I organised at Rhinebeck in the early 1970's had some other job. When I left Rhinebeck ten years later probably 90% of the exhibitors were making their living from selling their craft. So it turned around very quickly.

Craft marketing in the US seems to have gone through three major stages. The first big interest on the part of the public was totally nostalgic - they couldn't believe that people they knew were actually making things. In 1973 we did an exhibition at Rhinebeck called Living With Crafts. We installed a range of crafts in a house on the fairgrounds used to demonstrate electricity, and held the display over for the Duchess County Fair.

Jo Litson: Which is like our Easter Show in Australia?

Carol Sedestrom Ross: Yes. I was sitting in the entrance to the house, at a Wendell Castle desk, and people would say to me: "Everything here is imported from Scandinavia". I would say: "No, it was all made in the 13 Northeast States" and they simply couldn't believe it. So that was the first stage of marketing crafts in the USA. I used to call it the thumbprint era, you could sell anything that had a thumbprint on it, people were thrilled with homemade things, lumpy and bumpy and not quite perfect.

That period went away and during the 80's we had crafts turning into luxury goods.

Jo Litson: Greed is good.

Carol Sedestrom Ross: With this burst of economic wellbeing in America, buying unique craft objects seemed a wonderful way for people to speak about their individuality. They could own something special that other people didn't have. Being populist rather than elitist, I found part of that movement unfortunate, there was so much money available that craftspeople started to make "collector pieces" selling for $5000, $6000, $8000, whatever. There was a lack of grounding in that era. Instead of well conceived design with a basis in function there was a drifting off into this other kind of craft. Then of course the 80's crashed and burned and this huge group of people, who had been fairly used to producing 10 to 15 big pieces a year and selling them for large amounts of money, suddenly didn't know what to do. Many started to develop a less expensive, bread-and-butter line of production work. Everybody was concerned that this was the end of the crafts but actually I consider it the true blossoming of craft in the US because people are now having to be very accountable to their audience. They are having to stretch their creativity to produce a craft that fits into what is going on rather than necessarily a personal statement. They are having to be clever about how to make it work.

We now have so many mass merchandise stores in America - Gap, Banana Republic, Crate Barrel, Pottery Barn. You can go into the central business district in any city and find exactly the same goods for sale. Most Americans cannot afford to furnish their entire lives with handmade things so what they do, for example, is buy inexpensive dinnerware and supplement it with special handmade pieces - salad bowls, coffee servers, those kinds of things. Mass merchandising has created a huge appetite for craft in the US. The only way that small stores can make themselves different to the chain stores is through craft. So galleries, gift shops, even big stores like Nieman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue are looking for those special items which no competitor has. This is what has brought craft from being marketed separately through its own circle of craft fairs. We now have almost 1200 craftspeople in our gift shows across the country. I don't know whether the same thing will happen in Australia. When I first started going to England about ten years ago the craftspeople there wouldn't hear of the idea of making your living producing craft. We now have about 80 British craftspeople coming to our San Francisco and New York gift shows and most of them are making their living from selling their crafts. So it may be possible in Australia too. Most of it has to do with what is going on in society generally as opposed to what is happening in crafts.

Jo Litson: I am assuming that many practitioners don't want to get locked into too many production lines but then if you are really successful and there is a demand for your work there must be a compromise possible.

Carol Sedestrom Ross: I had this conversation with a young man a few years ago. He was upset because a famous glass collector in the US wouldn't buy his one-of-a-kind pieces because he also did a mass produced line of wonderful goblets etc. So I said: "Let's have a look at this. Would you rather sell one piece to a collector who will put it in a closet or on a shelf in his apartment and show it to his friends so that maybe 30, 50 or 100 people will see it? Or would you rather make beautiful, useful objects which many people can buy, and in that way bring beauty into their lives?" It is quite a different perspective.

Jo Litson: So the collector wasn't interested in somebody who was also producing. I suppose that is one of the difficulties for the crafts practitioners?

Carol Sedestrom Ross: It is very hard to figure out. I am talking about craft marketing only. There is a whole other aspect of art/craft made by people who probably do something else, teach or whatever, and who produce and sell fewer pieces. There is quite a separation between the two. Some craftspeople were accused of selling out because they were producing multiples, of losing their way, of not being artists any more. It all boils down to how you define creativity. I think that if you are creative enough to make things that bring beauty into other people's lives, people who don't have thousands of dollars to spend, that is a wonderful achievement.

Jo Litson: Craft is sort of halfway between mass produced and one-off work.

Carol Sedestrom Ross: Maybe that movement is particularly American because we have such a huge population at mid-income level that supports it.

Jo Litson: What have you come to Australia to do, will you be talking to craftspeople and craft organisations?

Beth Hatton: Carol will be talking mainly to craft practitioners. Her tour is aimed particularly at advising people who are thinking about taking work to America because Craft Australia has been participating in the San Francisco Gift Fair ever since 1995. Carol will be giving craftspeople an idea of what they should be doing to develop their product for the American market.

Jo Litson: Is it specifically for America or are her talks about developing their products for the Australian market as well?

Carol Sedestrom Ross: I think both because I am going to be speaking a lot about how to present yourself with printed material or in a booth, and that can be anywhere craft is marketed. I am also going to talk about current trends. Since I first got involved in this I have become interested in how major sociological trends have driven the crafts. It was the Industrial Revolution that truly started the early Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and the US. Was there a similar movement in Australia?

Beth Hatton: Yes, English practitioners and teachers came to this country and influenced the arts and crafts in late 19th century.

Carol Sedestrom Ross: The Arts and Crafts Movement eventually died in the US, I think because the public was not particularly interested in handmade things. It was the first time in history that you could buy mass produced things and use them and throw them away and get more of them. I think that artists are always the first to respond to social change so it doesn't surprise me that Charles Rennie Macintosh and William Morris and other artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement were the ones saying:" Wait, wait, we can make these things, too". But nobody was paying any attention to them, we do now but not then. That was a "pushed movement" then, in marketing terms, the artists were trying to push their ideas onto other people. What is happening now is what is called a "pulled" movement because the public is very tired of mass produced things and prefers handmade so it is pulling the movement forward. There is now a huge appetite for craft in the US. I heard a lecture last Friday by John Naisbit who wroteMegatrends. He is most famous for his "high tech, high touch" concept, that is, the more technology we have in our lives the more things we need to touch to remind ourselves that we are human. It was the industrial revolution which started the craft movement and now it is the technological revolution 100 years later that is really pulling it forward.

Jo Litson: The more time people spend with their computers the more they need the other side.

Carol Sedestrom Ross: In the craft movement we forget to look at what is going on in the rest of society. The crafts are part of these huge sociological trends that cause things to happen. I feel that I wandered into marketing at the right time. When I started the Rhinebeck fair, which was the first big craft marketing initiative in the US, I'd say to people: "I must be doing the right thing because it is just so easy." I seemed to know intuitively what was ready to happen, so it just grew and grew. Rhinebeck was held outside on a fairground in the summer time. It seemed to me if we were ever going ensure crafts as a profession we had to do a winter fair. If buyers were going to be confident that they had craft as a resource they had to be able to buy it at least twice a year. So in 1977 I started a show in Baltimore, Maryland for which I was able to find 275 exhibitors. It was the first time in the US that crafts had been marketed in the winter in the city in a trade hall. I was lucky because Joan Mondale (the Vice President's wife) had promised that if her husband's party were elected she would start a campaign for America's craftspeople. So after the inauguration I asked her to open the fair in Maryland for us. That really started it and Baltimore is still the premier event for craft in the country.

Jo Litson: In Australia our major art galleries don't show much craft. We do have craft organisations such as the Centre for Contemporary Craft which is going into Customs House. That is going to be really major, it is right down on the Quay where all the tourists go and there will be a whole floor of craft, but generally we don't see much craft and what we see doesn't necessarily register with us as craft. So do you think craft fairs are crucial for practitioners to be able to show their wares?

Carol Sedestrom Ross: Well, they were in the US. For example, Rhinebeck is only 90 miles from New York City, a lovely little Victorian village that people love to visit - location, location, location. Then, because we had two wholesale days and three public days, I was able to spin the public relations. I released to New York papers and magazines the fact that Nieman Marcus was coming all the way from Dallas and Marshall Fields was coming from Chicago as well as Bloomingdales and Bergdorfs and all the big stores. When these names went into the local papers then the general public wanted to go and see why the big important stores were going. Then I turned it round the other way and released to all the trade publications and big store magazines the fact that we had 54,000 people coming to see these beautiful crafts. So that was how I was able to get the spin going. We had over 500 craftspeople in the fair so it was well worth making a trip to see - it would have been hard to get the steam engine rolling unless I had this kind of focus. So that is why fairs are important. They have come to be part of the fabric of American life. I now read novels which refer to going to Rhinebeck or to "that wonderful fair at the Baltimore Convention Centre" and I think wow, I started all that!

Beth Hatton: You're part of history.

Carol Sedestrom Ross: Talking about a downtown area which is showing crafts, when I was a child my father used to travel a lot. Whenever he came home with Marshall Fields bags I knew that he had been in Chicago and when he came home with Bloomingdales bags he had been in New York. You can't do that any more with either domestic or international travel. So it is important that there is some place in Australia where you can buy Australian crafts. In San Francisco I go to small galleries to find things that were made or bought in San Francisco. Tourism and the interest in tradition and heritage are feeding the demand for crafts.

Beth Hatton: The desire for the local product, something that is identifiably from the country.

Jo Litson: Have you seen much of Australian crafts, to have any sense of them?

Carol Sedestrom Ross: I haven't seen much yet, only what has been sent to the [San Francisco] Fair in the past three years, which is different enough to be interesting to American galleries. Tom Peters wrote in The Search of Excellence that companies originally competed on price, then they competed on quality and next, in the wave that is coming now, competition will be based on design. So what is happening in the US right now is that a lot of companies are hiring craftspeople to design for them. I have a friend in San Francisco (Susan Eslick) who is designing for six companies. Not only is she a ceramist but she can also do painted designs which is not a combination you often find in craftspeople. Susan was in our show SURTEX (Surface Textile) which we started 12 years ago for people to sell designs. They bring portfolios of designs for sheets, towels, record covers, greeting cards, wrapping paper, whatever. That show stayed at about 120 exhibitors for almost nine years but it has now burst forth to almost double in size. That says to me that the exhibitors must be selling their designs.

The Olympics will have a major impact on Australian crafts. The State of North Carolina did an economic impact study a few years ago and found that in 22 counties of a mountainous area, the crafts contributed 122 million dollars annually to the State economy. So they decided to do something with that. They published Heritage Trails which was distributed through all the tourist areas, listing various little villages where there were people carving corncob pipes or making ceramics. After the first year those small craft businesses had increased anywhere from 15% to 46% in terms of dollars coming in. Tourists love to see how people live and make things in small villages - it is part of this current wave of nostalgia - we don't know what is out there in the future so let's go back in time. That is why there is a retro theme going on now. All these megatrends are driving craft. If it hasn't started to happen here yet it probably will. Customs House could be the beginning of a focus.

Jo Litson: So when is the San Francisco Gift Fair?

Carol Sedestrom Ross: It is held twice a year and the next one is in August.

Beth Hatton: Craft Australia is taking 12 people over this year, we have been going for the last three years taking a range of crafts.

Carol Sedestrom Ross: It is an international gift fair. We have 18 British craftspeople coming as well as handicrafts brought by various Asian governments which makes for a nice mix.

Beth Hatton: People are now designing items on computer which can then by produced by the computer. British writer Peter Dormer spoke about this at a Craft Australia conference a few years ago. He saw computer aided production as a great threat to craftspeople making things by hand in their studios. Eventually it could do craftspeople out of a living. What do you think?

Carol Sedestrom Ross: The computer is coming to life within the crafts in a number of ways. For example, some weavers are using it in their designing. A number of crafspeople in the US have their own web sites, so they can photograph a piece, put it on the computer and phone a collector interested in their work.

Beth Hatton: So they are using it as a marketing tool.

Carol Sedestrom Ross: Yes. There are people who are hoping to create sales directly on the computer in this way. Many people are marketing through television home shopping networks and QVC or whatever. A woman who makes collapsible baskets did a demonstration on QVC of how they were made. She then sold something like 35,000 in an hour. So there are different ways in which the computer is being used. I am not at all pessimistic about craft until there is a global disaster and nobody goes shopping any more. Craft in the US is no longer an alternative, it is very much part of the mainstream. Crafts have become the darling of the gift industry in the US. On the opening morning in our gift show the craft section is always the most crowded. Buyers know that they are dealing with limited edition, small quantity merchandise and if they don't place their orders early they could miss out. There is a sort of mystique around craft, you can't order 400 dozen in two weeks, you have to get there first to get what you want. So in 20 years we have come from way outside the lines of society to being right in the middle of things.

Beth Hatton: So you don't envisage companies buying up images out of copyright such as Monet and printing them on everything for sale? That is what craftspeople will be competing with.

Carol Sedestrom Ross: I know. But a lot of craftspeople are selling their own designs to these companies, it is another source of income for them. Truly creative people won't have to worry about that sort of production.

Jo Litson: It won't be special any more if it is copied.

Carol Sedestrom Ross: When I go to the mass merchandise stores I recognise ideas from craftspeople I know. But they are never the same - they don't have that same attention to detail, they are watered-down versions and the stores only do a big thing on them for six months. Some craftspeople say they don't want to be in a gift show because somebody will steal their ideas and I say: "If you want to keep your idea you have to put everything you make in the basement. Once you get it out into the world it's fair game". Anyway there aren't many really new ideas around any more, it is just the way that you interpret them that is original.

Beth Hatton: Keith Richards says something like that, too. He doesn't claim personal ownership of his ideas, he thinks that there is a great pool of ideas in the universe and he just puts up his antennae and picks them up for his songs.

Views: 261

Tags: American Craft Council, Carol Sedestrom Ross, Craft Australia, Rhinebeck, craft shows

Comment by terri phillips on January 13, 2010 at 8:30pm
My husband and I attended the ACC show in the 70's and it was an atmosphere and feeling that transformed our lives and our own careers - amazing is the word that best describes it. I have pieces I collected from artists exhibiting in "Rhinebeck" that my family will treasure forever. If only things could be that way again - I will cherish my memories.
Comment by Mary Strope on January 14, 2010 at 11:28am
I was fortunate to work for Carol Ross during my employment at GLM in NY. She was and still is, a real dynamo! With Carol's influence, GLM brought craft to many of their gift shows and she personally mentored these artists. I learned so much about the craft movement from Carol. I also had the opportunity to see fine crafts from other countries. I'm not talking about the knock offs or cheap foreign imports. I'm talking fine, high end crafts from the UK, Australia, Ireland and Germany. Always such a pleasure to see objects made from local materials of other countries. Although Carol had a strong curiosity and interest in craft from other countries, her heart was always with American Craftspeople. She made a huge impact on my career in arts management. Carol used to say, "Crafts have been very good to me," and i say that now. But in truth, Carol has been very good for crafts.

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