Essay - The Crafts in Victoria: an evolving story by Grace Cochrane
We live in an exciting, challenging and changing society, and contemporary craftspeople and their work have a strong presence within it. In recent decades, opportunities provided by education, travel and new technologies for designing, making and communicating have expanded phenomenally. There have been many such points in Australia’s history, each one affecting social, political and cultural values and the associated fashions, styles and trends that shift and change – and sometimes return – along the way.
Across cultures, and over time, the crafts have always sat in a changing place between art and design, industry and society. Curiously – or perhaps not – while the practical need for the handmade is currently less of a necessity than in the past, the desire to make things by hand persists. Whether for expression or utility, pleasure or ceremony, people continue to want to learn the skills to work with tools and materials, bringing a craft approach to their ideas for making things that mean something to them. Many resolve to make a lifetime professional commitment to their work, and clients, customers and collectors acquire what they produce because they recognise and value that intent.
Victorians come from many geographic and cultural origins: from the long and continuing occupation by Indigenous peoples, through colonial settlement to many subsequent waves of migration over more than 200 years by those who may have been seeking fortunes in gold, livelihoods on the land, opportunities in business and industry, refuge or just a new life in a new place. Across this time and into the present, people have brought different experiences, knowledge and expectations for what they wanted and needed, as well as innovative attitudes to improvisation or interpretation in carrying it out. Domestic crafts, ‘making-do’, and crafts in trades and industries that crossed ceramics, glass, jewellery and metalwork, furniture and woodwork, fashion, fibre and textiles, as well as contemporary expression of Indigenous traditions, evolved during what is known as the ‘contemporary crafts movement’ of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, into individual studio practices.
Professional craftspeople in Victoria today represent several generations of exemplary studio practitioners in all media, from the post-war leaders and teachers to their countless followers and recent graduates. Many remain committed to contemporary expression based on traditional ‘crafts’ forms and processes associated with the handmade; others work out of that background to make works that are intended as ‘art’; while some make works in a ‘design’ context, often using new technologies but with a crafts understanding of materials and skills at the core. Some cross all those approaches, making one-off works or carrying out commissions for bespoke items, while putting some of their ideas into production as designers, often in collaboration with small specialist industries, where they combine sophisticated technologies with knowledge of materials and hand-processes. They also consider the sustainability of the resources they use and ethics associated with contracting skilled labour, sometimes off-shore.
The institutional infrastructure that supports the crafts in Victoria is spread across the state, reflecting the histories of the development of cities, towns and regions through their different industries, the encouragement of local councils and the social and cultural interests of the people living there. Some early centres of state and national influence were art and craft communities such as Open Country at Murrumbeena, Montsalvat in Eltham and Potters Cottage at Warrandyte.
Significant have been the examples set by key teachers in education institutions which evolved during the 20th century from working men’s colleges to technical and teachers colleges. During the 1980s, many of those institutions became universities or were incorporated within them, sometimes as regional campuses. Universities such as RMIT, Monash, Deakin and Ballarat and many Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutes offered challenging courses in crafts education and training. The tally of influential people across all media who taught over many decades is extensive and their graduates continue to provide examples of professional commitment and innovation. Today, as crafts courses decline in some education institutions, professional crafts teaching studios are again emerging in their wake, such as Slow Clay in Collingwood and Cone 11 in Abbotsford for ceramics; jewellery at Northcity4, in Brunswick; and Phoebe Everill’s furniture-making school in Drummond. Many local councils also support education workshops and studios as well as collections.
Over time, the most significant of what has been made has been collected for reference and education: from early silver trophies and goldfields jewellery, handmade timber furniture and exemplary products from industrial potteries, to selected contemporary pieces made by studio craftspeople. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) established an important continuing collection of contemporary craftworks within its overall holdings of fine and decorative arts, while regional museums and galleries also evolved, often focusing at first on items from local industries and history. Among those galleries which developed specialised studio crafts collections from the 1970s were Ararat and Wangaratta (textiles), Shepparton and Castlemaine (ceramics), Hamilton (metalwork) and, in the 1980s, the Koorie Heritage Trust. Many of the collections in these institutions originated as gifts from private collectors, to be enhanced through further acquisitions, including some from events such as festivals and awards that reinforced their nominated areas of specialisation. The Manningham Victorian Ceramic Award, the NGV’s Cicely and Colin Rigg Craft (now Contemporary Design) Award and the Wangaratta Contemporary Textile Award are among those currently offered. Meanwhile the W.R. Johnston Collection is one of a number of private house museums that support contemporary crafts practice in their programs.
With its current gallery, shop and professional development and information programs, Craft Victoria, founded in 1970, is an important example of the organisations that have supported craftspeople along the way. The earliest was probably the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria in the early 20th Century, preceding various specialist state and national organisations that formed later in the century. These include Ceramics Victoria, the Victorian Woodworkers Association, the Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria and the Victorian branches of national organisations such as Ausglass, the Jewellers and Metalsmiths Group of Australia (JMGA) and the Australian Forum for Textile Arts (TAFTA). The state government through Creative Victoria (est. as Arts Victoria, 1972) and the federal Australia Council for the Arts (est. 1973) have also encouraged the crafts through grant programs to individuals, organisations and events. The Meat Market Craft Centre and the Victorian (now Australian) Tapestry Workshop, set up in the late 1970s, and events such as Arts Victoria ’78: Crafts, were early examples of such assistance, and this pattern is continued today with many festivals for crafts, art, architecture, writing, fashion and design, in which craftspeople can participate from their position. As well, NETS Victoria provides an important co-ordinating function through touring exhibitions throughout the state. Throughout these decades and into the present, key dealer galleries and their dedicated founders have contributed to the livelihoods of makers across all crafts media and the appreciation of their clients and collectors. Too many to properly acknowledge here, among many other city and regional galleries, current examples include Gallery Funaki and e.g.etal for jewellery, Kirra Galleries for glass and Skepsi for ceramics.
The collective information drawn together in Craft in Context gives a special insight into the scope and background, across time and throughout the state, of Victoria’s significant population of current and legendary craftspeople and many of the organisations associated with their work.
Grace Cochrane AM was formerly a museum senior curator, and is now an independent curator, writer and consultant. Over 40 years she has produced many publications, catalogues, articles and conference papers and has served on a range of boards and committees. She wrote The Crafts Movement in Australia: a history (UNSW Press, 1992), while a recent exhibition curated in Victoria was Potters Cottage: a tribute, Manningham Art Gallery, 2011. She has an MFA (UTas 1986), a PhD (UTas 1999) and a D.Litt (UNSW 2007).
Grace Cochrane, The History of Craft Victoria, 2010, in Craft Culture, on the Craft Victoria website.