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Crafts Council Executive Director Rosy Greenlees OBE
15th November 2017

Crafts Council: Q&A with Rosy Greenlees OBE

Rosy Greenlees has been the Executive Director of the Crafts Council for over a decade and received an OBE this year. During her tenure she’s seen the “most incredible transformation” both in the Crafts Council and in the craft world more generally. As head of the organisation, she’s worked tirelessly to promote the idea that craft skills are vital to so many industries – from bio-engineering to building – and has fought to give people hands-on experiences of craft, making it more relatable and accessible. “There is no point in showing work if no-one sees it or understands it,” she says.

With a background in curating, Rosy developed the Mayor of London’s first culture strategy before joining the Crafts Council and also founded the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Enterprise. Her current role includes devising ways to support thousands of UK makers, leading events that reach around 3 million people and championing craft education in schools. To top it all off, Rosy is also the current president of the World Crafts Council. Hers is a very impressive CV.

With Collect – Europe’s leading get-together of top international craft galleries – coming up at the Saatchi Gallery in February, we wanted to go behind the scenes with Rosy to discover what she’s getting excited about. Also stay tuned to hear more about plans for the Crafts Council’s new permanent exhibition space, plus tales of an unexpected monkey.

Hey Clay! is a national celebration of clay through free pottery sessions across the UK.

You joined the Crafts Council in 2006. How has the organisation and craft more widely changed over that period? 

We have re-envisioned the Crafts Council from being a building-based organisation in London to a truly national organisation. Now we tour exhibitions, loan works from our collection, host professional development events and deliver participation projects across the country working in partnership with hundreds of organisations. We have established craft as a creative sector sitting alongside design, architecture, fashion and so on, with research and policy papers to demonstrate its social and economic contribution. At the same time craft has seen a great surge in its popularity, from knitting circles and craftivism through to the use of craft skills in science and technology. The recession has encouraged people to look for fulfilment beyond fast fashion and consumerism and craft values speak to that.

Craft skills contribute a whopping £3.4bn to the UK economy. Why do you think they are still so undervalued, especially in schools? And what can be done to turn the tide?

I think people tend to default to conventional ideas of craft and don’t always recognise it when they see it. In schools and education generally we have seen a decline across all creative subjects with education policy focusing solely on academic subjects. It is hugely worrying given the fast growth in the creative industries and all the experts say how important creativity is for our future workforce. 

Craft in particular can be perceived as practical but not intellectual. Our mission at the Crafts Council has been to demonstrate how craft expertise and material skills contribute to economic development and social wellbeing. For example our report Innovation through craft –opportunities for growth shows how craft skills contribute to innovation in science and technology. This could be bio-jewellery, smart textiles, embroidered surgical implants or glass moulds used in the growing of cells. These are incredibly useful skills whether you want to be a surgeon – after all sutures are stitches – an engineer or a textile artist. 

Secondly, we launched an Education Manifesto for Craft and Making bringing together a very wide range of organisations and voices to say how important craft education is. As part of the delivery we are working on the ground in schools to create those opportunities for children to experience making and to meet makers. This experience is so important in firing young people up to pursue a career in craft. Potter Alison Britton talks about her passion for the medium arising from when she first picked up a piece of clay at the age of nine and willow sculptor Laura Ellen Bacon made tree houses as a child. Both demonstrate how these early experiences are fundamental to ensuring we have a new generation of makers.     

Tell us something we definitely won’t know about the Crafts Council or your role…

I am very excited about a major project we are working on. We are fundraising to refurbish our ground floor to create a public space. We will use this to display works from our national collection of 1,600 objects and to create a space for events and film screenings. When you are a national organisation you can be all over the country but people don’t always see what you do. The new space will be a fantastic showcase for us and a place for the craft sector to come together. What people won’t know is that in the rich life of our HQ, Claremont Chapel, the space was once a workshop for dental equipment and the owner had a pet monkey which would roam about the workshop. We don’t plan to replace the monkey but we do plan to make this a really exciting and interesting place to come and experience craft in the future.

The Woman's Hour Craft Prize. 12 finalists show richness and variety of craft practice in the UK.

How has your background in curation influenced your strategy at the Crafts Council?

Curation is all about having a vision and clear strategy for an exhibition and articulating that through the careful selection, positioning and juxtaposition of works.  I think the intellectual rigour of what we do and that we present work in as creative and high quality a way is enormously important. My background in curating temporary public art projects has also informed my work.  When you are approaching the subject not in the context of a neutral gallery space but in a public space, you have to think about how it interacts with the public, the history and architecture of the environment and of course issues like planning and transport become relevant. I have always been interested in art and culture in a broader economic and social context.  There is no point in showing work if no-one sees it or understands it so the intersection of what we do with the public is very important. I see that being even more important in the future. Everyone is a curator now and we must reflect that in how we work as an organisation.  

What’s the best bit of your job?

I am very lucky to be out and about visiting studios and going to events. It is an incredibly interesting time to be in this field. The most rewarding moments are seeing the transformation that can happen through craft. For example, makers who have been on our professional development programmes say what a difference it made to them, or a teacher reports that there has been an increase in the number of students wanting to take GCSE craft courses having been involved in our schools programme.

Flourish. A two day conference presented by the Crafts Council to ignite creative business ambitions.

What one thing are you most looking forward to seeing at Collect? 

I am delighted that we have 30% new galleries and I’m really looking forward to seeing what they bring to the fair. It is the first time we have had South Africa represented with the Ubhule Art Collective showing with 50 Golborne and there are some really interesting new combinations of materials showing such as fish leather and ancient oak.

You’ve selected designer Jay Osgerby to lead Collect Open 2018. Why Jay and what will he bring to the show?

As one half of the design duo Barber Osgerby, Jay Osgerby is an incredibly successful designer and has a great empathy and understanding of craft and making. We like to involve external people in the selection of our work – we have fantastic experts in the organisation but it’s part of our ethos to have someone like Jay who brings a different mindset and approach. It keeps Collect fresh and shows that our horizons are wide and not limited by definitions of craft, design or art. 

You only have to look at The Great Pottery Throw Down or the number of books on ceramics published this year to see that pottery is having a moment. What is it about the current climate that lends itself so well to a rekindled love for pots?

Ceramics is, I think, part of a wider interest in making which also includes media like knitting and sewing. People are now looking for experiences and the process of making and firing a pot is incredibly exciting and dynamic. I think people are reacting enthusiastically to that. You can make something really simple with limited knowledge and experience an enormous sense of pride and self-esteem in being able to say ‘I made this’. We have seen this in our weekend Hey Clay! event which invites the public into ceramic studios all around the country to have a go. But through The Great Pottery Throw Down people are seeing that to do this well, you have to put an enormous amount of time and effort into it.

At the same time you see more ceramics in art fairs like Frieze. After a long period dominated by the conceptual the art world is looking toward craft and seeing its potential whether that is in the work of contemporaries such as Grayson Perry or Edmund De Waal or one of the most influential 20th-century ceramic artists, the American Ken Price.

Installation view of UK Pavilion, Form + Motion at the UK Pavilion for the Cheongju Craft Biennale
Read our recent interview with the Creative Director of the Crafts Council Annie WarburtonFor more information about the Crafts Council, visit its website www.craftscouncil.org.uk.
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