Craft Alliance/Alliance métiers d’arts serves to promote and foster Atlantic Canada’s vibrant craft sector through facilitating sustainable business opportunities for craftspeople. Bernard M. Burton, Executive Director of Craft Alliance, discusses the creation of the Alliance (originating from the Atlantic Craft Trade Show), its role and successes, and how craft producers/businesses can directly expand their professional careers.
Executive Director of the
Craft Alliance/Alliance Métiers D’Arts
When did you first become involved with the Atlantic Craft Trade Show?
BB: I took over responsibility for the Atlantic Craft Trade Show (ACTS) in May 2000. I had previously been with the Nova Scotia Designer Crafts Council and I had a background in production craft and retail, so the trade show was a natural fit for my background. At the time ACTS was managed by the four Atlantic provincial governments. The trade show has been around now for 37 years.
How did Craft Alliance come to fruition?
BB: The development of Craft Alliance came about in 2005 in a discussion with the provincial governments about how we could take ACTS to another level with more industry involvement and more pan-Atlantic cooperation. I was charged with figuring that out. We hired a consultant to study organizational models in Atlantic Canada—models of other organizations and trade associations that had both industry and government involvement. From there we consulted with the provincial governments and the crafts community across the region. We then developed a new model, an organizational structure and a development plan. We then had to get that approved by all four Atlantic provincial governments and secure funding and craft industry partners to move forward. That all took several years and in the spring of 2009, we launched the new organization – Craft Alliance. Our Board of Directors includes all the key craft organizations in the region. So, we are an organization of organizations: crafts councils, craft centres and craft colleges and we are all working collaboratively to develop and move the craft community forward. We are a partner with all Atlantic Canadian-based craft organizations to move the whole industry forward.
What is the range of craft makers/products represented by the Alliance?
BB: Our main focus is to develop marketing opportunities, businesses development and export potential for the craft sector. We primarily work with professional craft practitioners—those craftspeople who are working as businesses in a more formal environment or maybe just working to develop professional careers in craft. The type of craft varies from pottery, jewellery, metal, wood, textiles and apparel to home décor or giftware.
How has working with all four Atlantic Canadian provinces (government and industry) been beneficial?
BB: Well, we have always worked on an Atlantic basis. Even when it was just the trade show event, it was always Atlantic; however, at the time, it was a government driven activity with very little craft industry involvement. So, with the development of Craft Alliance, the craft industry has taken ownership of the trade show as an annual event, but we have been able to expand into other areas like regional training programs, export trade missions, educational missions and we have been able to investigate and explore new opportunities for the entire community. Because of that we are now developing a larger range and scope of activity as we move forward, strictly based on the market intelligence and resources we have gathered over the past five years.
I think the most positive aspect of what Craft Alliance has achieved is to bring together all the key organizations in the craft community in Atlantic Canada to work together in partnership, which has benefited everyone immensely over the past five years. While we are coming together to work on joint project and development for Craft Alliance, it has also helped many of the smaller organizations with challenges they may be facing in their own province or community whether it be fundraising, board development or just exchanging best practices. That is something that never happened prior to Craft Alliance.
It seems the Alliance is one of the leading organizations promoting an arts economy in Atlantic Canada. Do you think such a sustainable arts economy is possible (or already exists)? What can we doing better?
BB: A creative economy in Atlantic Canada has probably always existed in some form, maybe not in terms of how the creative economy is described today, but we know that the craft community here has a rich history especially in terms of producing functional objects for the home and life and at the time, much was born out of necessity in terms of craftwork like, quilts, rug hooking, knitting, pottery, blacksmithing, etc. I think we are seeing that it is sustainable as there are producers who are successful in the local market or who have chosen to go beyond Atlantic Canada and turn their craft business into a larger production business that employs others in their communities.
We still have to invest further in infrastructure in terms of resources to assist craft producers with getting to the next level, whatever that may be in their particular case. It may be getting to an international exhibition of their work or it may be expanding their studio to be able to produce more work, but whatever the situation or stage of a craftsperson’s career, there are often challenges at all levels in terms of what or where to go next and how to get there.
I don’t think a creative economy just happens because we decide one day, “Oh, let’s have a creative economy.” A creative economy evolves because of many factors: community engaged audiences, clusters of artists, built heritage, educational institutions, etc. It really is a frame of mind and evolves from within the community itself.
What have been some of Craft Alliance’s successes?
BB: Craft Alliance has been extremely busy on many fronts since spring 2009. We have a very strong and successful Incoming Buyer Program. This is a program where we sponsor retail buyers from across Canada and the United States to come to our trade show every February to see and hopefully purchase Atlantic Canadian products for their shops. Annually we have up to 20 buyers from outside Atlantic Canada coming to purchase at the show.
We have developed a workshop suite of programs that are delivered throughout the year across Atlantic Canada on topics that range from wholesale trade show, marketing, product development, exporting, licensing, trends and market development.
We have developed export training and trade missions related to expanding business outside Atlantic Canada. We have done trade shows in New York, Las Vegas, Orlando and many other locations in the USA. We have done educational missions to New York, Chicago and North Carolina as well as market exploration programs in Los Angeles, Ireland, Scotland and Iceland.
We have also been doing work in Cultural Tourism to see how the craft community can work collectively with other partners in tourism and related fields to create exceptional experiences for visitors to our region. We have participated in and conducted our own best practices missions to learn about how other regions are developing cultural tourism.
For a craftsperson not yet involved with the Alliance, what do you recommend?
BB: There are several ways craft producers can get involved. First, join your provincial craft organization. All four Atlantic provinces have a provincial craft council and these organizations exist to assist craftspeople with professional development. They are also a hub for networking, resources and funding opportunities. Craft Alliance does not have a paid membership—craft producers are members of the Alliance through participation. So, if they participate in the Atlantic Craft Trade Show or maybe one of our trade mission or educational sessions, we consider them part of Craft Alliance network. However, we are part of a larger cluster of organizations and craftspeople should start in their local communities.
Craftspeople need to know that there are programs, resources and opportunities in Atlantic Canada to expand beyond their local market. What we try to do is assess where that craftsperson would like to take their craft career and expose them to what is available in the marketplace and give them some options in terms of what and where they might direct their creative talents.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
BB: I think many craftspeople may not realize the extent to which there are opportunities within Atlantic Canada and beyond and I encourage them to contact their local provincial crafts council, craft centre or college and investigate what is possible.