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Floor Tiles, The Colour of Hair. Fabio Hendry and Martijn Rigters.
11th September 2017

The Crafts Council: Q&A with Annie Warburton

– By Anya

“The Crafts Council has always had an international outlook. It’s part of our job to bring outstanding British making to the global stage, and even more so now with the shifts in global politics: it’s all the more important to stay open.”

Brexit has given the work of the Crafts Council a new poignancy. “One of the huge strengths of the UK craft scene is its internationalism,” says Crafts Council Creative Director Annie Warburton. “The fertility and vibrancy of British design are fed by diverse viewpoints and influences.”

The Crafts Council is a charity funded by Arts Council England that sets out to champion contemporary craft practice both on the national and international stage. In 1971 the Crafts Advisory Committee (CAC) was formed to advise the government on “the needs of the artist craftsman and to promote a nationwide interest and improvement in their products.” In 1979 the CAC was renamed the Crafts Council and in 1982 it was granted a Royal Charter “to advance and encourage the creation and conservation of works of fine craftsmanship and to foster, promote and increase the interest of the public in the works of fine craftsmen and the accessibility of those works to the public”.

These founding principles remain the same today and with the bimonthly Crafts magazine, numerous prizes, open calls, and exhibitions dotted at various corners of the world, there is rarely a quiet moment for the charity.

At the helm of the Crafts Council is Creative Director Annie Warburton along with three other directors. Annie has gone full circle with the Crafts Council, starting her career in Dublin at the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland (DCCoI). She went on to work for a US publisher and launch a digital start up. Later she became CEO of ArtsMatrix and most recently she was head of partnerships at Creative Skillset, the creative industries’ skills council that works across the fashion, textiles, media and publishing industries.

With numerous Crafts Council initiatives in the pipeline, and twice as many already launched this year, we sat down with Annie to get the lowdown on her work for the charity. In the interview that follows Annie discusses how she went from reading philosophy and economics at Cambridge to becoming Creative Director at the Crafts Council, the importance of an international outlook, and what craft means to her.

Annie Warburton, Creative Director, Crafts Council

What does the Crafts Council do and what part do you play?

The Crafts Council is here to bring new audiences closer to craft through exhibitions, publications, events and talks. It aims to create opportunities for everyone, both newbies and professionals, to discover their talent and develop it to the maximum potential.  It’s always been in our DNA to champion the leading edge of craft – the new and experimental – and the highest standards of making. We spend a lot of energy challenging the erosion of art in education, giving young people the chance to discover their skills through our education programme, and championing the importance of creative and practical skills, not only for the craft stars of the future, but for everyone.

It’s my job to shape the direction of our artistic output – exhibitions, events, festivals and so on – working with an amazingly talented bunch of specialist colleagues. Often we join forces with partners, like Hull 2017 UK City of Culture or Picturehouse Cinemas, to get new projects off the ground and it’s part of my role to build those relationships. As I see it, as Creative Director, my job is as much to find ways to inspire others’ creativity as to set the course for our projects. It’s about building a culture where ideas flourish and bringing together people with different talents to make those ideas real.

Behind the scenes of how Silo Studio worked with local people in Hull to create these beautiful metal pineapples. Hull City of Culture 2017

Describe a typical day in the Crafts Council office?

The one thing typical of my working day is variety. It might start early with a breakfast event, occasionally something like this week’s Woman’s Hour Prize private view at the V&A, but usually it’s catching up one-to-one with a colleague from a partner organisation to hatch ideas.  A big chunk of my time is spent with people: developing ideas and planning an exhibition, project or event, or reviewing design proposals, plans or budgets. This year we’ve had many open calls and applications, from our film festival Reel to Real to A Future Made – so I spend a lot of time carefully looking at and selecting work with colleagues.  Then, of course, there’s the bread-and-butter management stuff – signing invoices, reviewing articles for print, preparing reports for funders or our trustees.  I do a lot of talks, presentations and writing which gives me a focus for reading, research and honing ideas.  Most evenings I’m back out and about at events – talks, exhibition launches and so on – making sure that I stay current and see as much work as possible in London and around the country.

Still from 'Craft of Carnival', Benjamin Wechanje, 2016.

Where did your interest in craft and making come from?

On a personal note, I’ve always loved dressmaking and used to get commissions from friends, which kept me in beer money in my early 20s. Life got busy and I make less often now but last month I got hooked on throwing pots when I joined a ceramics taster session at The Kiln Rooms in Peckham. Go back a generation or two and, like many people, my family was full of makers.  Professionally, I started out working on exhibitions at the Crafts Council of Ireland’s gallery, then in Dublin – showing works ranging from contemporary American quilts dealing with the LA riots to traditional Irish boats, and from experimental performances to commercial showcases.  It was a fantastic grounding in makers and making and ignited a long-standing passion for craft.

Among my close family, there are professional potters and milliners and my grandfather was originally a gilder. In the 1920s, he gilded the Statue of Justice on the Old Bailey. We have a photo of him kissing her giant lips, in the days when safety harnesses were deemed an irrelevance of course!

Gilders on Old Bailey’s Statue of Justice

Can you tell us a little about your academic and creative background? You read philosophy and economics at university, it’s not the most conventional route to a career in the arts!  

Philosophy is very abstract and of course, in many senses, craft is the opposite: material, physical, practical. As much as anything, though, philosophy is a training in clarity of thought and precision of expression, in making unexpected connections and constructing a story. I bring all of those into my job at the Crafts Council. My professional creative training was in theatre, in London and then Dublin. It gave me a good basis for my work at the Crafts Council. An awareness of the value of collaboration between creative fields, a focus on an audience’s experience, a determination that the show must go on, and finding ways to tell stories well all feed into how I approach my work today.   

The States of Play exhibition demonstrates how play shapes our lives and the world around us. How did you come up with the concept for the exhibition?  

We chose ‘play’ as the theme for the Crafts Council’s Hull 2017 City of Culture exhibition for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was a result of the rising acknowledgement of the importance of playfulness to human ingenuity and as a way of understanding the world. Play is getting interest and exposure in fields as diverse as business, neuroscience, tech and engineering. We wanted to explore the topic in all its breadth, not just the simple, joyful wonder of play, but also its more sinister and political sides. The show, therefore, takes in all angles. The other reason, and just as important, is that ‘play’ is a theme that everyone can relate to. We wanted to hook the exhibition around an idea that would draw in crowds and give us the opportunity to show how vibrant the contemporary craft scene is to people who are perhaps not so familiar with it. It’s a fun show – of course – but there’s serious intent too.

It seems to have worked as more than 31,000 people have seen States of Play since it opened in July. The show runs at Hull’s Humber Street Gallery for another three weeks so there’s still a chance to see what it’s all about.  And if you can’t make it to Hull there’s a feature on the show in the July/August edition of Crafts magazine.
States of Play. Initial Thoughts on Wonder, Mischer'Traxler Studio, 2016.

The Brown Betty teapot is on the cover of the new issue of Crafts magazine. What about the Brown Betty is so interesting?

Quite simply, the Brown Betty is the archetypal teapot. Its popularity, I reckon, is down to the combination of its familiarity – it’s been around for some 300 years – the comfort of the form, and the warmth of the Staffordshire red clay and its treacly, dark Rockingham glaze. It’s an object that speaks of family, conviviality, and, of course, place – it embodies a story of The Potteries. But really you should be asking Ian McIntyre – he’s the expert. Read about his story in the new issue of Crafts or, if you can visit his exhibition at the British Ceramics Biennale opening later in the month.

September/October issue of Crafts Magazine

The Crafts Council has just launched the Woman’s Hour Craft Prize in collaboration with the V&A and BBC’s Woman’s Hour. What’s the significance of introducing a dedicated crafts prize?

Unlike in other arts, the stars of craft aren’t yet household names. People can name Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal, and, with the success of the BBC’s Great Pottery Throwdown, Kate Malone and Keith Brymer Jones, but after that the list of familiar faces trickles away.  I very much hope that one of the big changes that the Craft Prize will bring is growing popular knowledge of a few more of the amazing makers out there.  There’s an astonishing range and breadth among the makers and works on show at the exhibition, from political work to installations, from functional objects to architectural-scale sculptures, and from jewellery to ceramics.  Without a doubt the exhibition – on at the V&A until 8 February and then touring – is going to open people’s eyes to all that craft can be.

The winner of Woman's Hour Craft Prize will be announced 5th November 2017.

Woman’s Hour Craft Prize finalists montage

How do international shows such as A Future Made and Cheongju help makers hone their practice?

One of the huge strengths of the UK craft scene is its internationalism. Britain’s art colleges draw in students from around the globe who often go on to set up their own practice here in the UK when they graduate. The fertility and vibrancy of British design are fed by diverse viewpoints and influences. The Crafts Council has always had an international outlook. It’s part of our job to bring outstanding British making to the global stage – and even more so now with the shifts in global politics: it’s all the more important to stay open.

Programmes like A Future Made, – which brings experimental new work to the inaugural Tresor art fair in Basel this month, – and Form + Motion – the British Pavilion curated for the Cheongju Craft Biennale by our Head of Exhibitions, Annabelle Campbell –  not only give us the chance to profile outstanding British makers on the world stage, but also enable those makers to forge new connections with curators, collectors and fellow artists from around the globe.  With our executive director, Rosy Greenlees OBE, the current President of the World Crafts Council, the time is ripe to be strengthening connections around the globe.

Thor Stool by Adam Guy Blencowe. One of the selected artists who will exhibit in the A Future Made programme taking place at the TRESOR contemporary craft fair.

Can you tell us a little about the forthcoming Basel exhibition The New Materiality?

Makers have always experimented with new materials, techniques, tools and forms. The Crafts Council Collection is full of examples: from Tord Boontje’s garland Wednesday Light, which became a Habitat bestseller, to Geoff Mann’s animated films using ceramics and glass. Or take Jane Atfield whose experiments with recycled materials (also in The Craft Council Collection) are being taken forward by a new generation with Smile Plastics.

It’s always been in the Crafts Council’s DNA to push forward the leading edge of craft and The New Materiality (opening at Tresor, Basel, on the 20th September) is no different.  The show brings together seven leading makers taking an innovative approach to materials, using them to communicate ideas and research, from commenting on the refugee crisis or the future availability of raw materials to exploring new ways of dying textiles in a sustainable way. Just like the makers we’ve shown in the past, there’s no telling exactly how this group’s work will go on to influence design more widely but going on past experience, we’re pretty sure that it will.

Modular Mechanics Armchair, James Shaw. The New Materiality showcase will open at TRESOR contemporary craft fair on 21 September 2017.

Tell us about October’s Make:Shift:Do festival of making and why it’s important?

The idea behind Make:Shift:Do is to throw open the doors of maker spaces over the course of a weekend to give everyone – particularly children and young people – a chance to try their hand at craft-meets-digital mash-ups.  It’s for anyone who’s heard of 3D printing, CNC machining or electronic textiles and wants to find out what they’re all about.  Think of it as a weekend-long national festival of craft and tech.  It’s part of The Craft Council’s wider learning programme which, as well as festivals like this, includes sessions in schools and a national network of Craft Clubs.

One of the most difficult aspects of my job is that it’s been such a fight to get successive education ministers to value creativity and culture in schools. We’ve seen steep declines in the uptake of creative subjects at schools – a 50 per cent drop in those taking Design and Technology GCSE – and we’ve lost half of all craft courses in universities over a seven-year period. So our education programmes and Our Future is in the Making, the Anthony Burrill-designed education manifesto we launched at the House of Commons, are vital in inspiring the next generations of designers and makers. Talent is everywhere but opportunity isn’t. We want to change that. Beyond that, craft connects us to ourselves, to each other and to the material world around us.  There’s little more satisfying than the power to make and we think everyone should have a chance to discover that.

MAKE:SHIFT:DO – A nationwide programme of craft and innovation workshops, 27-28 October 2017
Take a look at the Crafts Council’s website for a full list of events taking place over the coming months. 

Read our previous interview with Annie Warburton on the Woman's Hour Craft Prize here.

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