Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Complete Disgrace

Several weeks ago, I participated for the first time as a vendor at the annual Fall Arts and Crafts Show at Plattsburgh State University. I was incredibly disappointed, outraged and saddened, all at the same time.

It seemed as though the show managers were concerned only with collecting as many booth fees and entry fees as possible. 60% of the vendors at this "craft" show were selling items that were NOT handmade. 30% of the vendors were selling jewelry, and of those vendors, there were only 4 of us that were selling jewelry that we made ourselves and did not import or purchase for resale.

I counted one ceramic artist, one artist doing bags and hats, one photographer, one paper artist, and two wood artists. There were no functional glass artists (i.e., vases, plates, bowls, goblets and drinking glasses) and no one selling fiber or fiber art.

I was so outraged by this that I started a letter-writing campaign to everyone at the university that I could think of, as well as letters to the editors of our two local newspapers. So far, the only response I have received was from the editor of the Press Republican who told me that it wasn't that there is some debate over when an item becomes "handmade" and that I would have to scale my two-page manifesto back to 300 words or less if I wanted it published. The response from the editor, Bob Grady, reads as follows:

Jennifer,
I'm including an article we carried last May on the problem to which you allude. The college apparently is aware of the complaint.
If you'd like to write a Letter to the Editor on the subject (or any other, for that matter), we'd be glad to publish it. Our limit is 300 words per letter. Yours is substantially longer, so if you had intended it for publication in our paper, you'll need to shorten it.
We've heard from a number of people on this, over the years. Apparently, one of the sticky points is at what point a purchased item becomes a craft. If a person paints it, or decorates it, or ties a ribbon in it, does it become a handmade craft? And should the host of the show be responsible for policing it and making a determination on that point, ousting violators?
I'd be glad to have a Letter to the Editor offering your views, but you should know that there doesn't appear to be unanimity on the question.

Bob Grady
Editor

Since I could not respond as I would have liked to his letter and have it published, I am going to write my response here.

First of all, the managers of this "craft" show should look for some guidance from such respected organizations such as The American Craft Council. (Their website can be found at http://www.craftcouncil.org.) The American Craft Council is an arts organization that promotes handmade craft in the United States. They have a wonderful mission statement that can be found on their website, and numerous links and resources to help shape the notion that craft is, for all intents and purposes, art.

The show managers should also look at some of the websites popping up such as Etsy that showcase items made by real people. They could look at Craftster.org, indiepublic.com, Craftzine.com, the Northern Adirondack Trading Cooperative, or Interweave Press. These are all places that are promoting the work of independant artists who make their living working with their hands.

There are so many reasons why handmade is important. (Tainted milk, toxic baby toys and poisoned pet food ring any bells?) In the economy here in the Adirondack North Country, Handmade artists such as myself work hard to create beautiful pieces of art to support our families. It is just not right to promote a show as an "Arts and Crafts Show" and then allow vendors to set up who are simply there to sell cheap, imported crap. When I set up in a venue where I am competing with other Handmade artists and vendors, my sales are very strong. When I set up in a venue where I am competing with imported, mass-produced items, my sales are nonexistant.

Over the summer, I was a regular vendor at farmers' markets in Keene, N.Y. and in Elizabethtown, N.Y. Using only volunteer employees, the good people who run the Adirondack Farmers' Market Cooperative allowed only vendors who sell handmade work at these venues. There was one vendor at the Plattsburgh State show who I know for a fact had been kicked out of the Elizabethtown farmers' market because the items they were selling were in fact imported from Hong Kong. But Plattsburgh State let them in to what was supposed to be an "Art and Craft" show. Huh? The managers of the Plattsburgh State Show get PAID to do their jobs. They have the resources of the world-class art department of the university. And they still allowed someone selling Italian charm bracelets to set up her table one booth down from mine.

Why can the Farmers' Market Cooperative do what Plattsburgh State cannot, or is unwilling, to do? Is it just that they don't want to be bothered? Is it that they just don't know what they want the show to look like? Are they confused by the difference between a flea market and an Art and Craft Show? If the answer to any of these questions is YES, then they shouldn't be running an "Art and Craft" Show. They should call it a bazaar or a flea market and be done with it. Especially if they are unwilling to take the time to make any changes to the show, even after, as Bob Grady informed me, they were aware of the problem.

So, it is with this in mind that I am gearing up for my last two or three shows of the year. I will have my tables set up at the North Country Community College Holiday Craft Show this Sunday in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and then I will be set up for three days in Essex, N.Y. at the Adirondack Art Association Gallery on Main Street during their "Christmas in the Village" celebration.

And, of course, I will be promoting Handmade.

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