Craft in Victoria by Joe Pascoe
A history of craft in Victoria could start with objects made by Aboriginal people of south-eastern Australia, or with colonial silverwork produced as a by-product of the 1850s gold rushes, or the establishment of the Working Men’s College (RMIT) in 1887, or perhaps in 1912 when ceramic artist Merric Boyd held his first exhibition.
Craft in Victoria has diverse origins and diverse expressions: making-do out of necessity, and the creation of beautiful objects. Even the beautiful grids of city streets for Geelong, Melbourne and Williamstown, drafted by Robert Hoddle in the 1850s, can be seen as part of Victoria’s craft DNA.
Sovereign Hill at Ballarat offers an immersive experience of the role of craft in a make-do society. Canvas camps, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and miners using ingenious hand-made tools all reflect craft’s embedded role in colonial society. The Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton, a later expression of affluence, illustrates through its joinery and paintwork, the creative and beautiful work of master craftspeople.
Design has a special place in Victoria’s craft scene, especially in the twentieth century through the interest given to industrial and architectural design, as taught and researched at RMIT and Melbourne University. This dimension of craft is readily seen in the facades of famous buildings such as Flinders Street Station, and more intimately in churches, where the windows and altar pieces are often sourced locally.
The inter-war period of Victoria’s development, the 1920s and 1930s, saw the rise of individual craftspeople like Merric Boyd. His approach to pottery, informed by a modernist vision of the English Arts and Craft movement, struck a note with the public, and the collecting of craft as art quickly became a small but significant norm.
Australian craft as a culturally anointed art form can be said to have found its niche from about the 1950s on, with exhibitions by makers such as Harold Hughan being critically appraised by an appreciative public. Contentiously earnest debates regarding the merits of particular strands of craft were felt in Victoria as art schools multiplied in the 1960s onwards, and commercial galleries began to prosper, serving well educated elites.
In the background to these changes and debates (such as the Hamada versus Funk crisis of the early 1970s), populist crafts have continued to prosper throughout Victoria. Perhaps it is the relative shortness of white history in this state that has allowed people to exercise their choice uncluttered by centuries-old traditions that have informed craft practice in other countries and continents.
It was from this fertile base that Craft Victoria was formed in 1970, and in 1979 interest in craft boomed when the Meat Market Craft Centre was opened in North Melbourne, with the Crafts Council, as Craft Victoria was known then, as one of the inaugural tenants. Today, Arts Victoria (est. 1972) and the Australia Council (est. 1973) provide important support to Craft Victoria.
Over the years, the development of fine art collections of decorative arts, such as those found at the Geelong Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria, gather in a huge vocabulary of different types of crafts, including ceramics, furniture, glass and by extension, design. These collections have provided greater access for researchers and the public.
This new degree of access allowed craft to become an important carrier of values and concepts, and to be researched and studied by fine art and social history academics alike. The domain of craft practice has throughout Victoria’s development been linked to rapid changes in the economy, and shifted from a base of prosaic necessity to artwork. Over the past 40 years, since Craft Victoria was established, contemporary craft has become an increasingly complex arena.
From the individual nature of highly charged craftworks created in the 1970s - a golden era of political craft - different media have assumed world class status through the leadership of distinctive makers. The role of the consumer has also evolved. Many people now acquire craft as a form of personal expression, as opposed to standing back from it as a revered object. As a result, craft has become an even more democratic form of cultural expression where identity politics has fused with the intentions of the maker. We now wear our craft as much as see it in museums.
We are in the midst of a major craft revival. Contemporary Victorian craft has an international back story, allowing the craft object to connect with many meanings and contexts. This was also the hope and message of the craft movement in the seventies. The intellectualisation of craft now sits atop of its production, and the academic and commercial sectors freely interact. In addition, technology has opened new pathways to access craft: through databases of craft practitioners, such as via Craft Victoria’s website, or through Craft in Context where collections distributed across Victoria are brought together.
Craft continues to be celebrated in Victoria - craft has always been, and still is, everywhere!
Joe Pascoe, CEO and Artistic Director, Craft Victoria (2008-2013)