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We love getting crafty, but there’s no money in the kitty

On February 21, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released a new data set on the cultural participation habits of ordinary Australians. It’s a fascinating snapshot into our cultural and artistic hobbies and pastimes.

According to the ABS, more than 4.7 million of us participated in at least one cultural activity in the 12 months before the bureau interviewed them, during 2010-11. More than a million participated in three or more activities.

And what was the most popular activity? Crafts. No less than 10% of the Australian population engaged in what the ABS calls “textile crafts, jewellery making, paper crafts or wood crafts” in that 12 months, or about 1.7 million people. “Glass crafts, pottery, ceramics or mosaics” accounted for another 294,000, taking the total for craft practice to just under 2 million Australians.

The data is surprising because it overturns many of the common misunderstandings about what are the most popular cultural activities. According to the ABS, 950,000 of us played a musical instrument, including singing, while dancing accounted for 652,700 and “performing in a drama, comedy, opera or musical” accounted for 279,200. In other words, craft is roughly as popular as all the performing arts put together. Writing, another popular activity that many Australians love, accounted for 840,800 — less than half the figure for craft.

The figures are not completely unexpected. Some inkling of the rapid growth of craft participation had been hinted at in previous ABS data. The bureau’s “Work in selected cultural and leisure activities” series is a different data set to the freshly released numbers and cannot be directly compared. On the other hand, it has been collected six times since 1997 and so gives us some idea of trends over time. Between 2001 and 2007, jewellery making grew exponentially, from 25,000 to 193,000, while the more general category of crafts (not including jewellery) nearly tripled, from 396,400 to 960,800.

In general, the ABS data tells us that visual arts and crafts are by far the main aspect of ordinary Australians’ every day cultural participation. If you combine the figures for visual arts, crafts and screen-based activities such as filmmaking and photography, close to 4 million Australians are participating annually.

These figures should have big implications for Australian cultural policy. After all, one of the goals of the government’s new National Cultural Policy discussion paper explicitly states the policy should “enable more people to access and participate in arts and culture”.

Given that, it’s curious the Australia Council, the nation’s peak cultural funding and policy agency, has just decided to defund Australia’s national craft body, Craft Australia. The organisation is an advocacy and research body that helps to encourage craft in this country by linking practitioners to resources, networking with craft and design centres and conducting and publishing education and research on the sector.

That’s all over now. After 41 years, the organisation is winding up. As Catrina Vignando told Crikey yesterday: “We’re tracking to shut down by April.”

Staff now have the melancholy task of archiving and storage, particularly of the organisation’s four decades worth of documentation and library materials, so that, as Craft Australia explains, “the historical and visual archives of the Australian studio craft movement that we have collected over the past 40 years are not lost to the sector”.

Several weeks ago we covered the defunding of dance company Leigh Warren and Dancers. That company was given several years of “notice” by the Australia Council’s dance board before its defunding. Craft Australia was given no such warnings: it was simply notified its funding application was not successful. There was no warning beyond a form letter sent in November 2010 to every organisation funded by the Visual Arts board, setting out the conditions for the 2012-15 round. Craft Australia in fact features in the Visual Arts board’s sector plan for 2011-13.

Craft Australia estimates the Australia Council has reduced funding to the craft sector by as much as $940,000 since 2002. This action will exacerbate the trend. Of the $1.2 million saved by the Australia Council by defunding the peak body, some $800,000 will not return to the craft sector but has instead been parcelled out to newly funded visual arts organisations within the Visual Arts board. The Australia Council is in fact drawing up a new craft strategy, but Craft Australia won’t be involved. “We’re shutting down,” Vignando confirmed.

Craft Australia’s funding was raised in recent Senate estimates hearings, when Greens Senator Christine Milne pressed Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele on the details of the organisations’ defunding. “Given the Australia Council’s ongoing work developing a strategy for craft, is it not an odd time to be defunding the national craft organisation?” Milne asked.

The category was assessed on merit,” Keele replied. “It is a very competitive category. Unfortunately, in that group of applications, Craft Australia’s application was not successful. We do not fund based on non-excellence; we fund based on excellence, and they did not meet the board’s need for that.”

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  • 1
    (the other) HR Nicholls
    Posted Friday, 2 March 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Never mind, there’s still plenty of money for fatcat art.

  • 2
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Friday, 2 March 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Honest (possibly dumb) question. If craft is considered to be a *cultural* pursuit, then what about other building hobbies, eg model aircraft, model railways, building/modifiying plastic kits? As far as I am aware none of these receives Australia Council funding. So what’s so special about craft?

  • 3
    east jack
    Posted Friday, 2 March 2012 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    LOL Sorry but can’t say I care at all about a body called Craft Australia losing funding to supposedly “advocate for craft”. Why does it need “advocacy”? I’m more surprised they ever got funding in the first place given how tough it is for vital non-profits out there to get enough guvvie support. I had a bit of a look at their website and read their “goals” - which seemed about as vague as you can possibly get. Looks like they cater for professional craft people more than anything. Seriously, “advocacy”? How long they been running that line? And who DID get the funding instead? Surely that’s the more important issue. But interesting stats nonetheless.

  • 4
    Posted Saturday, 3 March 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    As a long time crafter (and some time teacher) of the paper craft variety, I can honestly say that Craft Australia really offers nothing to the average Aussie wanting to do craft. East Jack is completely correct in pointing out that it is for people who want to do craft to make a living.

    And yet even the professional crafters in my hobby field who supplement their income with teaching have never received grants or any kind of assistance from Craft Australia. They make their money on Etsy with pieces and products, and by teaching in the States. If you can get onto a design team with a reputable supplies company, the lifestyle can be quite rewarding.

    In all seriousness, if the Australian Government wanted to do something in the paper arena, they would look at small business assistance for the quickly declining number of stores in Australia that sell these products (usually under the moniker of scrapbooking, though the better ones do a lot more than that) and undertaking to assist with getting some Australian products on to the US market… there is only 1 Australian company even making these products and selling into the US, and its in Geelong!

  • 5
    LJG..............
    Posted Saturday, 3 March 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Have to say I’m with East Jack on this one - and craft is about the only hobby I participate in. It’s a bit like some of the Health charities that just “raise awareness” and stop there.

  • 6
    John64
    Posted Monday, 5 March 2012 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    I want free money for doing things that I do for fun. To which Government Department do I complain?

  • 7
    David More
    Posted Monday, 5 March 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    So easy to be hard, but it’s hard to be easy…

  • 8
    Moving to Paraguay
    Posted Monday, 5 March 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Craft, like photography and water colour painting, is an art form with a strong popular base. I’m sure the popular pursuit of craft will continue without government support for a representative organisation.

    However, craft is a serious dimension of our culture. It is our capacity to use skills handed down through generations to make things from the materials around us. As far as I know, all major countries of the world have a national crafts council. Australia risks going further down the road of a passive consumer nation with the loss of a national focus on its craft capacity. This is particularly important in dialogue with the Asian region, where craft is seen as a key to national identity.

    It has been part of the function of government to protect its treasury of knowledge through institutions like libraries, universities, museums and archives. Craft is a living heritage that depends on the active exercise of skills to stay alive, just like languages.

    I think government is well justified in supporting this as a part of our national interest.

  • 9
    laura ingalls
    Posted Monday, 5 March 2012 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    What Moving to Paraguay said. Absolutely.

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