11 Oct 2017By John Gatimu
Editor Mark Hayhurst talks to Annie Warburton, creative director of the Crafts Council, about what the Crafts Council does, how the industry is growing and what we can expect from the organisation.
Funded by the Arts Council England, the Crafts Council develops, maintains and protects contemporary craft in the UK, ensuring that Britain’s rich crafting tradition long continues. And, at the helm of this project is Annie Warburton, who has an unsurpassed passion for the craft industry. She wants every sector of the industry to thrive, and has done since she fell into her role at the Irish Council.
Annie said: “If I was honest, in one way, my start at the Crafts Council of Ireland was slightly by happenstance, as is often the case for anyone in their early 20s, it happens to be the job where you are.
“I remember I had gone to see an exhibition at the Crafts Council of Ireland, at the time, which was of traditional Irish boats and it was one of the most astonishing things I had ever seen in a gallery, and probably still is to this day, so it fired me up in terms of my enthusiasm. I do have makers, potters, milliners and professionals in my family so it was always around.
“One of the things I always say to people is you think that a career is a linear thing, especially these days, and that’s a mistake. It’s best to think of it as ‘careering along’ – although maybe not completely out of control!
“There is certainly a logic to my career because every next step has incorporated the previous step. It’s definitely been a progression and an evolution. In my previous job, just before the Crafts Council, I worked with the fashion and textiles industries, and media industries as it happens, but fashion textiles is much closer to my current job and I worked on developing and raising funds for apprenticeships, for people to get into those industries, and designing schemes and building partnerships. That is one of the things I am really passionate about – enabling people to create the conditions where talent can flourish. In my last last job I loved it for all of those reasons but then it became really bureaucratic and I wanted to come back to the core of working in a creative way. And that’s one of things I love about the job now.”
Annie’s role as creative director with the Crafts Council enables her to follow her passions in the industry and to allow others to follow theirs as well.
Annie said: “Overall I look after the themes and the issues that the Crafts Council tackles throughout its creative programmes. Quite specifically I look at our exhibition programme, I manage our collections teams, our education and learning teams, our work in research and policy and in innovation and also oversee our international exhibiting programme.
“The way I see my role is to understand what’s happening in the world of craft and what’s happening in the wider world, to make sure what we do is relevant to the current world and that we are leading on major schemes.
“So, for example, we’ve had an exhibition up in Hull, the City of Culture, that has been going over the summer which was looking at the theme of playfulness in craft and making, but also as a way of understanding the world, a way of problem solving.
“So part of my role is to generate creative ideas but just as much to create an environment where other people can be as creative as they have the potential to be.”
And if there’s one way Annie – and the Council – can help foster this creative space, it’s by giving as much help as possible to people just starting out in the industry.
She added: “I like to support people who are starting out in the world of craft. We have a scheme called Hothouse which supports makers when they are within three years of setting up in business.
“It’s a professional development programme looking at every aspect of their creative practice and their business.
“We do bite-size workshops around the country including marketing and photographing your work, pricing it and so on. We are going to be expanding that side of our work. So I think part of our job is bringing craft to the public but also about supporting people with talent to make the most of that talent.”
A growing industry
Supporting people with talent certainly seems to be one of the factors helping the craft industry to grow, and more and more people are carving careers out of making things they love. But what are the other factors fuelling a burgeoning UK crafting scene?
She said: “Going back to ten years ago and the economic crash, it woke us all up to thinking we don’t all have jobs for life. People thought: This is my life – my one life what am I going to do with it? What am I passionate about? People started to realise that working for someone else and the perceived security that comes with it is actually a bit more precarious than they thought. So if you had always been hankering after doing your own thing then now was the moment to do it.
“And I think craft connects us to ourselves and to each other, as well as the world around us. There is also an increased consciousness of the environment, of ethics and how things are made. People are understanding much more about how products are made and produced and they want something with a little bit more authenticity, with a story behind it, to know the provenance and to know that something hasn’t been created in unethical conditions or exploitation and a rejection of the blingy glitz of the luxury industry.”
The rise of social media is also seen as a driver for the increase in interest in crafts, with various platforms allowing people to post images of what they make.
Annie added: “Social media allowed people to get their work out there more – so the influence of craft is spreading.
“There is a global sharing of not only work but skills. One of my favourite stories is the furniture maker Sebastian Cox and Laura Ellen Bacon, who is a willow weaver but makes these amazing sinuous sculptural pieces from willow. She is one of our Woman’s Hour Craft Prize finalists. But Seb and Laura, five years ago, had been following each other on social media, and had been mutually admiring each others work for quite a while. So, through social media they met up and subsequently collaborated on a commission for Clerkenwell Design Week which was called The Invisible Store of Happiness.
The idea behind that was that when you are making something you are storing up happiness and joy in the thing you are making. They didn’t know each other and they then met via social media, collaborated and created something fantastic.”
The future’s bright
So what next for Annie and the Crafts Council? Together, they have a packed programme of events and she is rightly proud of what they have to offer.
Annie said: “We have got tonnes on. We had a show that opened in South Korea at the Cheongju Biennale – international exhibition of craft. The exhibition form + motion is the idea that when you make something you are actually capturing a gesture of the body in the object. There is a really exciting range of work there from very intricate precise embroidery to some beautiful singing vessels, by a silversmith called Adi Toch, that respond to voice and sound, they’re quite extraordinary.
“There is also a work by a maker called Esna Su who weaves various different material but her work is all about migration and the refugee crisis, so some of these works are tackling really serious topics. We are also collaborating with with the BBC and the Victoria and Albert Museum in the Women’s Hour Craft Prize – the winner of which will be announced in November.
“There are very few famous craft makers, at the moment, that you can name, perhaps Grayson Perry, and the Pottery Throwdown’s Kate Malone and Keith Brymer Jones. After that the kind of people who are well known in a popular way start to peter out.
“So I am hoping the Woman’s Hour’s Craft prize will actually start to change that so people will be talking about someone like Laura Ellen Bacon, who I mentioned earlier, or Karen Hartley who is showing a handmade bespoke bike in that exhibition.
“The brilliant thing about craft is it can deal with deep philosophical ideas, but it can also be really accessible because it is about stuff in our everyday lives. It’s about furniture, it’s about plates, it’s about glass vases, it’s about scarves or woven blankets and it’s about the stuff that’s around us in an everyday way but stuff that has been made by hand and with a great deal of care. It’s everyday stuff but that’s what makes it so special.”
Annie Warburton: CV
- Annie read Economics and Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.
- Started her career in Dublin at the Crafts Council of Ireland.
- Goes to work for a US publisher.
- Launches a digital startup.
- CEO at ArtsMatrix.
- Head of Partnerships at Creative Skillset (the creative industries’ skills council).
- Creative Director of the Crafts Council.
Annie is also Fellow of the RSA and an Associate of Newnham College, Cambridge.