Founded in 1897, the oldest crafters’ organization in the United States is finding ways to adapt to the changing times. In 2016, the Society of Arts + Crafts moved their retail operation from Newbury Street to Seaport. This past January, due to environmental circumstances beyond anyone’s control, the nonprofit has decided to restructure, placing a greater emphasis on strengthening their largest event, CraftBoston, and emphasizing advocacy within the broader arts community.
But then, as if those internal organizational crises weren’t enough, the Coronavirus hit. I spoke with Brigitte Martin, executive director of the Society of Arts and Crafts, about what’s next as we all attempt to navigate these uncertain times, and the unique strengths of artists and crafters that will help us get through it.
CraftBoston has been intended to be a twice-annual event, held in May and December, at which local artists and vendors go through a juried process to sell their wares and connect with other creators. Though it was a difficult decision, Martin, who formerly directed the Furniture Society and has led the SA+C for a year, said there was no other option but to cancel the spring event, planned for May 15th-17th, after gatherings larger than ten people were banned in Massachusetts and many other states to halt the spread of the Coronavirus.
However, even in difficult times, the SA+C’s first concern is still for the wellbeing and livelihood of the artists in its community, who are often hit hardest in times of crisis.
“The artists were given two options,” Martin said. “They could either receive a full refund [for the spring CraftBoston deposit] or could apply their fees to the holiday show.” That show, planned for December, is still expected to go on as scheduled in order to provide a place for artists to sell their work and connect with their community.
“It’s much more than a market,” Martin said. She’s thrilled to be in her position, even in these times of crisis. In fact, she doesn’t see the Society’s recent upheaval, from closing down their space in the Seaport district to canceling one of their largest events, as losses at all.
“It just wasn’t working for us,” she said of the Seaport retail location, which didn’t provide much visibility for the organization’s public-facing events. On a broader note, “When things go bad, it’s an opportunity to do your best work.”
She also emphasized that for such a historically important organization, composed of supporters of the arts, the most important part of the Society’s mission is being of service to its people and providing the connections they need to survive, especially in these desert-like times when not much is selling. “The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts,” especially for glassblowers and furniture makers, whose work requires more than one person to create.
In this community, she said, “People help each other until they bleed.” She then cited the example of a former board member who received food stamps, but still promised 10% of her income to the nonprofit’s fundraising efforts. “People always go above and beyond.”
Martin went on to note she could not remember a time a crafter in need had gone without help from peers or a larger organization.
The work of artists also goes beyond simply making something beautiful or marrying older arts with newer technologies–ultimately, it’s about improving quality of life for all, something important to Boston’s spirit of innovation. Martin told me about a weaver based in NYC who wove Braille information about the color and type of item into the design so that visually impaired people can be empowered to set out their own clothing.
And in a time when we can’t seem to make enough masks to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, Stitch House, a local yarn shop based in Dorchester, is still taking online orders and has turned their attention to making masks, even hosting their own virtual sew-a-long through Zoom.
In times like these, we turn to artists to give us resources to survive and increase our quality of living. As Martin said, “We will get through it.”
Header image courtesy of www.societyofcrafts.org