The Birth of Island Artisans

This article first appeared in the Craft Association of B.C. newsletter Summer 2002 edition and was written by Dianne Young.

CEDCO Victoria ( Community Economic Development Corp.) was a catalyst in the formation of a Victoria regional craft association, Island Artisans Association. In the fall of 2001 CEDCO, with funding from Human Resources Development Canada began a labour market study referred to as “The Community Promise”. This study looked at both opportunities and barriers to finding or creating work in 5 economic sectors in Greater Victoria. One of these sectors was the craft sector. The overall objectives were to collect information that would assist local craftspeople to increase their incomes, to create more jobs through the expansion of existing craft businesses and to strengthen the craft industry in the Capital Regional District. A 15 member advisory committee comprised of people concerned with craft at all levels guided the project.

Craftspeople are unified by a desire to create objects, be they one of a kind pieces or production lines. We are mainly self-employed though a few have businesses with employees or subcontractors. The uniqueness of our products contrasts with the mass produced items that are commonplace today. Most of us have chosen to become craft producers for the personal satisfaction it gives us, however we still hope to make a reasonable living for our efforts. A 1999 Canada Council for the Arts study found annual incomes of full-time craftspeople were only 45% of the average incomes of those employed in other cultural sectors. CEDCO estimates there are between 3,500 and 4,000 craft producers making a full or partial living from their craft in this region. Until now there has been no overall craft organization in Victoria to support and speak for craft producers in this community.

So, how does one begin to study the labour market for craft? Well, not in the traditional method of surveying employers. CEDCO decided that a good starting point would be to determine the market demand for locally made crafts. To this end a research questionnaire specific to craft was developed and CEDCO hired 3 craftspeople/ researchers to interview operators of 42 retail outlets that sell craft and 10 corporate gift buyers. A wide variety of retail outlets were surveyed from high end craft galleries to gift shops attached to local tourist attractions plus a number of garden centres. Buying patterns, missing craft products, preferred buying methods and desired marketing tools were just a few of the areas surveyed. For the most part, stores that carried primarily craft were able to find the quality of work they look for locally because craftspeople usually came to them when they were looking for a place to sell. However, gift and tourist outlets found they had a problem in accessing locally made product. Tourism is the single largest industry in Greater Victoria, worth more than one billion dollars in revenue. Cultural tourism is a significant area of industry growth. Visitors like to take home a reminder of the different culture they have experienced. There is a strong demand for more locally made crafts that reflect Victoria’s unique features. A significant part of the culture of a country is contained in its arts and crafts. Tourist exit surveys report some dissatisfaction with the current offerings and a demand for distinctive hand made souvenirs. Clearly, there is a need for easier accessibility to the objects we create.

Nearly every store approached was open to accepting new work if the artist would just make an appointment and bring work in for they buyer to look at.

The CEDCO study determined that there is a growing demand for locally made craft, but there is a need to approach retailers in a business-like manner. Retailers were also most interested in a local annual trade show to bring them together with craft wholesalers. Over half of the retailers surveyed attend the Vancouver Gift Show. It was interesting to note that a web site was not considered a valuable tool in terms of actual purchasing as craft retailers said they needed to see and handle an item before committing to buying it.

Craftspeople are often the first to admit that they are somewhat lacking when it comes to business skill development, they are too busy with creating. Such things as developing opportunities to sell to larger markets fall by the wayside. Unlike other small producer groups, local craftspeople have not previously banded together in any numbers to work on their common training and economic needs. Now they have, as the Island Artisans Association. Educational programs, a trade association, marketing services, a production facility and a range of communication tools are clearly on the wish list of the new organization. They are in the process of applying for non-profit status, 10 people have signed on as directors and bylaws are being prepared for adoption. Discussions have been taking place with the Craft Association of B.C. regarding any role they might play in the development of this Victoria regional craft organization.

In January, 2002 CEDCO Victoria organized a one day gathering of craftspeople called Building the Craft Industry in the Capitol Regional District to share the results of their market research and develop discussion on how to meet the market demand for craft. It was also an opportunity to gain input from craftspeople as to their training, business and infrastructure needs. This was a very successful gathering on a snowy morning at the Mary Winspear Cultural Centre in Sidney with 45 craftspeople from the South Vancouver Island and Saltspring Island taking part. The day started with the retailers perspective with Ellen Henry, owner of Out of Hand Gallery in Market Square and Patti Rivard, buyer for the gift shop at The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria giving advice and suggestions for approaching local retailers. Then we broke into smaller groups to address three issues: a) technical skill training, b) business development and c) infrastructure and supportive services needed to help craftspeople increase their incomes. At the end of the day it was clear that an organisation to aid in the business side of craft would be of great benefit. The low profile nature of craft locally makes us to a large extent members of an invisible industry. By talking and working together through an organization that would provide collective services it was felt that we could better achieve support and a voice for craftspeople. A long term strategy is required to overcome the years of neglect and realize the craft sector’s potential to contribute to the development of the community.

Luckily one of the advisory committee members happened to be Gail Price- Douglas, a community development office for the city of Victoria. As a follow up to the CEDCO study and to provide some impetus for the development of a local craft organization she arranged for a May 11 Symposium and Celebration of Craft at Victoria City Hall as part of Arts Week celebrations in the city. It was a way for craftspeople and supporters to network and discuss future ways to “grow” the crafts industry. It was also an opportunity to honour the 3 people in the CRD who have over the years received the Saidye Bronfman Award for Craft; Robin Hopper, Walter Dexter and Carole Sabiston and have them form a mentoring panel. The afternoon’s events began with the Mayor presenting each of them with a city award. Then the three panelists spoke briefly on how they achieved their successes. A display of their work was previously set up in City Hall. Each of the craftspeople attending was also invited to bring one of their pieces and a beautiful craft gallery came together quite impromptu in CityHall. It was very encouraging to have this type of support from the city and an acknowledgement of the impact and scope of the craft sector in the region. Jane Mathews of CABC spoke on the role of her organization and provided encouragement for the work that was taking place. Afterwards there was small group discussion on how to better support and grow the local craft industry followed by a lovely afternoon spread of wine and goodies hosted by Ellen Henry of Out of Hand Gallery and CEDCO Victoria..

The low incomes and small scale nature of many craft businesses limits the amount of time and money available to do development work within the sector yet it is a process we, as a group, have chosen to undertake. To do this we need to sit down together and discuss priorities, make plans, organize, raise funds, develop resources and some day build institutions to support common goals. Similar industry people coming together can accomplish many things.

Island Artisans Association wishes to acknowledge the many people who contributed to making the group come together. In particular, thanks are due to Lynne Markell of CEDCO Victoria who coordinated and nurtured the craft sector project. Also to be commended are Jim Thornsbury and Peter Weinrich, my fellow craft researchers for the project and Gail Price-Douglas, community development officer for the city of Victoria who is committed to seeing Island Artisans Association flourish. The Advisory Committee members provided invaluable input for the duration of the project and many local craftspeople gave their energies to ensure that the Craft Sector Community Consultation and the Craft Symposium were successful.

Dianne Young