In July 1970, the Canberra Art Club convened a meeting to discuss a proposal to establish a branch of the Craft Association in the ACT and to meet Marea Gazzard who outlined the aims of the federal body and the role of the state branches.  A steering committee was formed, and the first general meeting was held on 30 September 1970, with architect John Scollay elected as president.  The second annual general meeting held in late 1971, confirmed the constitution and registration of the Craft Association of the ACT as a corporate member of the Crafts Council of Australia. 

In 1978 the organisation changed its name to the Crafts Council of the ACT. In 1995 the most recent name change to Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre Inc. With the change of name came a new strategic plan addressing the need to relocate to a more central, accessible and visible location.

John Scollay and other committee members never viewed the Association as a club, operating at a social level – although social events were important fund raising opportunities.  From the beginning they developed a process for assessing members for status as a ‘craftsman’ member.  Four categories of membership were agreed for individuals: craftsman, craft designer, craft maker, and teacher (arts, crafts or related fields of design).  This system remained in place – with some amendments – until 1979 when a review was held and eventually it lapsed in the mid 1980s.  A process of accreditation was reintroduced in 1993.

Other principles established by the first committee included the importance of exhibitions, involvement in education at all levels, and community engagement and these continue today.

The annual exhibition became a regular event, with the first being held at Narek Galleries in Griffith, and subsequent exhibitions held at the Canberra Theatre Gallery.  Once the Association had its own premises and developed a gallery, a strong exhibition program was developed which included work of members, theme exhibitions, historical exhibitions (for example The Crafts of War, with almost all objects coming from the Australian War Memorial) and exchange exhibitions with the Northern Territory.  These provided an important public profile for the crafts in Canberra until the mid 1980s,

In its first year the association started a series of experimental workshops at its meetings, “to get people thinking”.  At a time when there were few formal courses at a tertiary level, raising the standards of work made by members and group members was vital.  In 1974 the committee arranged a ten week design course entitled “Surfaces and Design” primarily for practicing craftsmen, with a second held in 1975.  Members who had attained craftsman status held specialised workshops and ‘craft technique sessions’ to assist other members.  In 1975, a successful workshop was held with Hiroe Swen and, as response was overwhelming, it was repeated.  Slide and film evenings were held to inform and provide inspiration to members.

The Crafts Council of Australia arranged for national tours of leading national and international craftspeople, many visited the ACT giving lecturers and workshops.

Involvement with the formal primary and secondary education systems was very important.  In 1972 a seminar was held on “the teaching of environmental arts in secondary schools” and one aim was to explore the ways in which professional bodies concerned with the arts can assist.  In February 1974 the Teachers Resources Centre – of the (then) new Interim Schools Authority – approached the association to provide teachers, advice and support for teaching a variety of in-service courses. 

The Craftsmen-in-Schools program, started in 1983 ran for four years.  In 1985, for example, seven craftspeople worked in ten schools in weaving, ceramics and papermaking.  An earlier grant enabled two craftspeople to go to Woden School (a school for mildly and moderately mentally and physically disabled students) for ten weeks. 

In 1979, a year after moving to the ACT Craft Centre at Watson, the organisation introduced classes for the community in spinning and weaving and eventually several other craft techniques. 

Many other activities organised by CAACT had an educational element.  Studio tours were first held in 1972 and again in 1974.  A prime “aim is to demonstrate to the people of Canberra not only the craftsman’s work but the craftsman AT work, showing the varied techniques and processes of the crafts; by broadening the knowledge of the public, its appreciation of the crafts becomes possible.” 

The aims of Craft ’85, a two-day craft fair held in Commonwealth Park in November that year, included awareness-raising in the community of craft as a valid, fulltime occupation and to enable the public to see a wide variety of contemporary craft.

The organisation engaged with the community from the beginning.  In April 1974 a community craft day was held in Civic.  The organisation organised the Fly a Flag project for Canberra Week in 1976, and continued to be involved in Canberra Week and then the Canberra Festival for many years.  In 1974, it participated in Sunday in the Park, where for many years crafts activities and markets were regularly held.  

An important early event in which CCACT and the Crafts Council of Australia were involved was Australia ’75, a National Festival of Creative Arts and Sciences, held in Canberra in November 1975.  A national exhibition, Craft ’75, was held in conjunction with this event, showing ceramics, textiles, metalwork and jewellery, as well as some early glasswork, and Aboriginal crafts. A national crafts prize added an item to the collection of the Australian National University; a crafts forum was held; workshops were run with demonstrations and community participation; a craft market was organised; and Peter Travis flew his kites from the lawn of the National Library of Australia.

The projects and activities of the organisation have increased in their sophistication, and arguably have involved professional artists more specifically.  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.  “The manifestations of this residency will emerge within their respective practices initially through a presentation of work immediately following their residencies, shown at the Namadgi National Park Visitors Centre, and in the long term as each artist realises new works that arise out of this experience and which will be shown in new exhibitions in the future.”  A day-long forum was held at the Visitors Centre with approximately 30 stakeholders attending. 

In 1975 the organisation announced that it was negotiating for its own premises.  As there were few exhibition spaces in Canberra apart from the Narek Gallery, it was agreed that an exhibition venue should be an important focus for the organisation.  From past newsletters, false starts for new premises became a feature of searches for an appropriate home.  Premises in Hall were selected in April 1976 and negotiations begun.  The old Horse Era Museum in Watson provided an appropriate space for the new Craft Centre and the organisation moved there in early 1977.

In 1992 a review of planning in north Canberra created a flurry of activity as it was thought the Council, plus tenants Canberra Potters Society and Canberra Gem Society, and the Batik Association may be moved.  In 1993 the retention of the premises for community use was confirmed, and the Management Committee announced its commitment to developing the gallery at Watson.  After three floods in 18 months, the underground drainage was replaced and upgraded by the ACT Government.

In due course, the Committee decided the organisation should have a presence in Civic, and in 1998 the then Chief Minister announced the relocation of Craft ACT to the old Ainslie Public School in Braddon.  In 1999 another announcement advised that 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, the same year.  Crafts for Christmas was to be the first exhibition in the new galleries.  The exhibition program was severely disrupted throughout these periods of indecision.

Craft ACT continues to have a comprehensive exhibition program, showcasing the work of local craftspeople and bringing national and international exhibitions to the Canberra community.

The Craft Association received its first grant in 1973 from the Australia Council.  $2,000 was given to each state towards secretarial and administrative costs.  Margaret Vanduren was appointed the first Executive Secretary in 1974 on a part time basis.  When the organisation moved to Watson, Meredith Hinchliffe became the first full time employee as Executive Secretary.  The position of Executive Director has remained fixed, and other staff numbers have fluctuated, with numerous position titles.  Jane de Stoop, who had been the Project Officer, replaced Meredith in 1986.  She resigned in 1988 and Joy Grove, who had been Executive Officer of the Crafts Council of the Northern Territory, was appointed in July that year.

Jenny Deves was appointed Executive Director in 1994 and in April 2000 she suffered a brain haemorrhage.  Catrina Vignando, who had been appointed Curator in late 1999, became Acting Executive Director and was appointed to the position of Executive Director in April 2001.  She left in 2003 to become the new General Manager of Craft Australia, which had relocated to Canberra. 

Barbara McConchie was appointed to the position and she left in 2009 to take on the role of School Manager at the ANU School of Art and Avi Amesbury was appointed in 2010.

The Presidents have all played an important role in steering the organisation.  Following John Scollay Solvig Baas Becking became President.  Both had played an instrumental role in the formation of the organisation, in the Crafts Council of Australia and Solvig served on the Crafts Board of the Australia Council.  On some occasions it was difficult to find full time craftspeople who were able to give the necessary time to the President’s role and members with other skills were drawn in.  However, professional craftspeople have always given their time and knowledge to ensure a sound base to policies put in place by the organisation.


©   Meredith Hinchliffe

May 28, 2011


Image: Helen Bodycomb, Transitions (2018). Photo: 5 Foot Photography.