50 Years of Craft ACT

50 Years of Craft ACT

It was in July 1970 when the Canberra Art Club met to discuss a proposal to establish a branch of the Craft Association in the ACT, and in late 1971, Craft Association of the ACT (CAACT) was confirmed as a corporate member of the Crafts Council of Australia. John Scollay was initially elected president, later followed by Solvig Baas Becking, and both played an instrumental role in the formation of the organisation. Margaret Vanduren was appointed the first Executive Secretary in 1974 on a part-time basis.

In its first year, the association started a series of experimental workshops to help raise the standards of work made by members. Many other activities organised by CAACT had an educational element, and studio tours were first held in 1972 and again in 1974. Involvement with the formal primary and secondary education systems was also very important, and in 1974, CAACT was approached to provide teachers, advice and support for teaching a variety of in-service courses.

In 1975 the organisation started looking for its own premises. As there were few exhibition spaces in Canberra, it was agreed that an exhibition venue should be an important focus for the organisation. The old Horse Era Museum in Watson provided an appropriate space for the new Craft Centre and the organisation moved there in early 1977. It was then that Meredith Hinchliffe took over the position as Executive Secretary and became the organisation’s first full time employee.

In 1978 the organisation changed names to the Crafts Council of the ACT. By 1979, the organisation had introduced classes for the community in spinning and weaving and eventually several other craft techniques. During this period, the Crafts Council of Australia arranged for many national tours of leading national and international craftspeople to visit the ACT giving lectures and workshops.

Exhibitions became a regular feature for CAACT, with the first being held at Narek Galleries in Griffith, and subsequent exhibitions held at the Canberra Theatre Gallery. Once the organisation had its own premises and developed a gallery, a strong exhibition program was developed which included work of members, theme exhibitions, historical exhibitions, and exchange exhibitions with the Northern Territory. These provided an important public profile for the crafts in Canberra until the mid 1980s.

Throughout this early period, CAACT was involved in a number of large events. In 1974, they organised a community craft day in Civic, while CAACT and the Crafts Council of Australia were involved in Australia ’75, a National Festival of Creative Arts and Science held in Canberra. In 1976, they organised the Fly a Flag project for Canberra Week, and continued to be involved in Canberra Week and then the Canberra Festival for many years, as well as being part of Craft ’85, a two-day craft fair held in Commonwealth Park.

The organisation’s involvement with the formal primary and secondary education systems also continued to be important, and the Craftsmen-in-Schools program started in 1983 and ran for four years.

In 1994, Jenny Deeves was appointed as Executive Director and she remained in the position until April 2000. Then in 1995, the organisation changed names to Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre.

It was in 1998 when the then Chief Minister announced the relocation of Craft ACT to the old Ainslie Public School in Braddon. In 1999 another announcement advised the organisation would be relocated to North Building in London Circuit, above Canberra Museum & Gallery, creating a new arts precinct around Civic Square. The Watson premises closed on August 20, 2000 and the new premises opened on October 13 that same year. Crafts for Christmas was the first exhibition held in the new galleries.

In April 2001, Catrina Vignando was appointed to the position of Executive Director, and she remained in the position until 2003. Barbara McConchie was then appointed to the position, and she left in 2009 to take on the role of School Manager at the ANU School of Art. Avi Amesbury was appointed in her place in 2010. In 2016, Dr Rachael Coghlan was appointed Executive Director, a position she held until mid 2021.

Over the years, the projects and activities of the organisation have increased in their sophistication, and have evolved to involve more professional artists. Two projects undertaken in 2006 and 2009 involved members of the Kosciusko Huts Association and the staff of Namadgi National Park. Memories in Place: art in high country huts, interpreted the role and cultural importance of heritage and the environment, in particular three historic high country huts located in the Namadgi National Park of the ACT.

In 2009, an artist in residence pilot project provided two residential periods of five weeks each to two artists, while in 2012, an international project with the Tree Museum in Canada enabled four artists from Canada and two from Australia to travel on a reciprocal exchange program. In 2013, Michael Brennand-Wood became the first international artist in residence, while Ceretha Skinner was the first indigenous artist in residence. Craft ACT’s artist in residence program in partnership with ACT Parks and Conservation continued to go from strength to strength over the years, and has expanded to include strong collaborations with, ANU Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Australian National Botanic Gardens and national cultural institutions.

The year 2013 marked the celebration of Canberra’s centenary, and in the previous year, Craft ACT was appointed administrator for Centenary of Canberra – a legacy of design project. The organisation managed a competition to design and manufacture the official memorabilia to commemorate the Centenary of Canberra.

Craft ACT presented Designing a Capital: Crafting a City, an annual program of exhibitions and events that probed and explored the contribution of craft and design to the culture and heritage of the national capital. The organisation also developed a partnership with Canberra CBD Limited to undertake the curatorial management of the Centenary Time Capsule and associated exhibition. The Time Capsule was later gifted to the people of Canberra.

As part of Selling Yarns 3: Weaving the nation’s story, the premier national forum for Indigenous textile artists in the country, Craft ACT partnered with ANU and presented a conference, market day, workshops, an exhibition and associated events. Also in 2013, Craft ACT won the Creative Partnership Australia SME Award in NSW and ACT, which recognises the outstanding relationship between business and the arts across Australia, acknowledging the partnership between Craft ACT and Bradley Allen Love Lawyers.

It was in 2014 that Craft ACT launched DESIGN Canberra, a four day festival in November that brought artists, their work and practice to new audiences. It included exhibitions and installations, a market, open studios, lectures, and tours. The event greatly exceeded any expectations of a festival in its inaugural year, drawing 24,000 visitors to over 100 events presented by 460 participants, firmly establishing itself as an important event in the ACT design calendar. The event expanded to 9 days in 2015, then a full month in 2016, with over 170 events, and a higher level of international engagement. The break-out success of this year’s event was the Living Rooms program, where open homes were held each Sunday of the program, giving the public access to acclaimed architecturally designed houses. By 2017, DESIGN Canberra had increased to more than 200 events, and attracted an audience of 94,455 people. This same year, the inaugural national design writing conference, Object Subject, led by New York Times design critic Alice Rawsthorn was also introduced. In 2019, a highlight of the festival program was a visit of the acclaimed installations of Berlin-based design team Plastique Fantastique soon after their successful appearance at the Venice Biennale.

DESIGN Canberra has continued to attract high attendance numbers, and increase its partnership and collaborations over the years. In particular it has meant Craft ACT has built strong relationships with the diplomatic community in Australia.

Like most events world-wide, DESIGN Canberra 2020 had to make some changes due to the global pandemic. But throughout November more than 200 events, exhibitions, talks, tours, collaborations, and artists’ studios still went ahead and showcased the best in design, through a blend of COVID-safe and online events. A series of keynote talks and discussions explored the possibilities of a post-pandemic world. The first week of DESIGN Canberra 2020 coincided with the first week of NAIDOC week, and the festival also featured participation by a record number of Indigenous artists. The new DESIGN, Anytime program of self-guided tours, online exhibitions, and articles was also launched. 

Over the years, Craft ACT has continued to have a comprehensive exhibition program, showcasing the work of recent graduates and early-career artists right through to high acclaimed practitioners, and bringing national and international exhibitions to the Canberra community.

In 2012, Craft ACT was the only Australian venue for the Spanish Travelling Exhibition Foodjects: Design and the New Cuisine in Spain. 

The Flagging our future exhibition in 2014 saw students from the textile, industrial design and fashion faculties of the ANU, University of Canberra and Canberra Institute of Technology repurpose Centenary of Canberra flags and banners to create new art works and design pieces.

In 2015, Stepping Up: The Australian Ceramics Triennale, was a sell-out success, incorporating a four day conference with masterclasses and a market day and associated events, and attracting 400 delegates from across the globe. That same year, Body Illumination was a unique collaborative dance and musical performance held in association with BODYWORK: Australian Jewellery 1970-2012

The first exhibition of the year for 2017 was History Repeated, with Craft ACT joining forces with the Corning Museum of Glass, New York, inspired by glass history, current makers and its future.  The international theme continued with Code X: which featured the best work of 40 international bookbinders paired with the best work of Australian bookbinders to demonstrate how traditional craft skills are used to produce vibrant contemporary works.

In 2018, a collaboration between the University of Canberra and the University of Tokyo resulted in Kengo Kuma presenting an ephemeral architecture installation NAMAKO on Aspen Island, in Lake Burley Griffin.

The 2019 artists-in-residence exhibition, Terra celestial was presented in partnership with ACT Parks and Conservation Service and Stromlo Observatory and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

During 2020, Craft ACT was one of a few galleries to have presented a continuous exhibition program throughout the year. The artistic program was reimagined and upheld the quality of its exhibition program and expanded its reach through online content, virtual tours, and hybrid digital/in-person events. These included Emerging Contemporaries, which included works from the Honouring Cultures Indigenous Jewellery Project, and HOME:MADE, a collaboration with The Australian Craft and Design Centre network in selecting the most exciting early-career designers and makers from across Australia.

Also in 2020, Craft ACT’s exhibition Glass Utopia was invited to tour internationally to Milan Design Week and Venice Glass Week, and it premiered at Venice Glass Week in September 2020. While its planned premier at the 2020 Milan Design Week was stopped by COVID-19, it is scheduled to be presented at the event in 2021.

During its 50 year history, Craft ACT has also worked hard to help raise the profile of craft artists, and to engage new audiences in the appreciation of, and conversation about, contemporary craft and design.

In 2012, Craft ACT facilitated a collectors program that encouraged national, state and territory collecting institutions and collectors to acquire craft and design. In 2016, Craft ACT initiated a partnership with Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair and Bula’Bula arts for future exhibition and program collaboration.

In 2017, membership focused on professional development opportunities for members, resulting in the launch of several new programs, including a hands-on Instagram-focused social media workshop, studio sessions with photographer Brenton McGeachie. This same year, Craft ACT established a new partnership with the Indigenous Jewellery Project to increase support and representation of Indigenous artists in the artistic program.

In 2018, a crowdfunding campaign, with Creative Partnerships Australia, was conducted to raise funds to initiate a pilot Contemporary Indigenous Craft + Design Project, partnering with glass artist Jenni Martiniello and the Indigenous Jewellery Project to help create opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and raise the profile of contemporary Indigenous art. 

A new professional development program CO:LAB was launched in 2021 for craft practitioners to develop new lighting and encourage collaboration between architecture, craft and design. It was funded by four individuals who make up the Circle of Hands donor circle.

The annual exhibition program also remains at the heart of Craft ACT’s core business, championing local makers and putting their work in conversation with the best national and international practitioners.

Craft ACT is also committed to supporting artists to make a living from their practice, so to give members another income stream to sell their creations, Craft ACT has run a number of retail spaces for members over the years. In 2013, Pod pop-up shop was launched at The Lonsdale Street Traders in Braddon. Then in 2009, the Craft ACT shop was established to support artists in their professional practice and to provide visitors with the opportunity to purchase high quality, locally made objects of craft and design. A pilot off site retail outlet called AGENCY was trialed in Lonsdale Street, Braddon in 2015.

In 2016, the retail outlet returned to Craft ACT HQ in Civic Square to co-locate with the gallery, with positive response from customers and members. In 2020, when the gallery was forced to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new online store was created to grow online sales. Staff created a campaign promoting ‘hand-made, hand-wrapped, hand delivered’ to generate sales when the gallery and shop were closed. In 2020 during DESIGN Canberra alone, Craft ACT set a new record of over $210,000 in artist income generated.

2021 marks Craft ACT’s 50th anniversary, making it one of the longest continuously running visual arts membership organisations in Australia.

Craft ACT is generously supported by a community of collaborators, sponsors, and donors, and continues to set new records for membership numbers, with more than 400 ongoing members.

While the organisation has changed names and locations over the years, it continues its unwavering vision to embed contemporary craft, making and design at the centre of everyday life in Australia’s capital.

Written by Jil Hogan

Image: Zoe Brand, DESIGN Canberra 2017 signature artwork, work in progress. Photo: Jessica Di Scipio