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Ever since 1971, Craft ACT has played a vital role in growing and sustaining high-quality studio practice and craftspeople in Canberra, meaning this year, they celebrate their 50th birthday.
In its earliest days as the Craft Association of the ACT, a small but committed group would meet for social and creative connections in the garage of a committee member and present an annual members’ exhibition in the Canberra Theatre Centre.
It wasn’t until six years later in 1977 when Craft ACT had its first proper office and gallery space, and gained its very first full-time employee: Meredith Hinchliffe. While Meredith had no specific experience in the arts, she had strong secretarial skills and was hired as executive secretary.
With help from the ACT government, Craft ACT secured a space in Watson at what is now the Watson Arts Centre. Initially, they had very little furniture—Meredith brought in a bean bag to sit on—and that part of Watson was considered ‘the end of the earth’, so much so that Australia Post didn’t even deliver there.
But they grew quickly, fitting out the office and starting classes in spinning and printmaking. In that first year, they also added a ceiling, walls and fixed the floor on the large adjoining space, which became their gallery, where they were also able to hold workshops. The Canberra Potters Society also moved in not long after and developed the left-hand wing of the building.
Meredith says it was a great time for craft in Canberra, and Australia’s craft scene as a whole was incredibly active.
“The Crafts Council of Australia brought out artists that were craftspeople and they toured around Australia, bringing a higher sort of expertise,” says Meredith.
“There were a lot of Americans who came out who were dodging the draft, and they were pretty high standard artists, and taught at the various institutions. So we really benefited by these travelling craftspeople that were touring around Australia. They were terrific teachers, and they really inspired people into new ways of thinking and new perspectives.”
Meredith stayed with Craft ACT for nine years, and it launched her career in the arts. As well as being a long time supporter of craft in Canberra, she is a generous donor and tireless advocate, and she has been an art reviewer for the past three decades.
By the time Barbara McConchie was appointed Craft ACT Executive Director in 2003, Craft ACT had moved into the Civic Square location which the organisation still calls home today.
It was a move that helped raise the professional profile of the craft artists in Canberra at the time, giving them a space to exhibit right in the heart of Canberra.
Barbara remembers it as a great collaborative time for craft, not just in Canberra, but across Australia.
“All the state and territory organisations would meet regularly, and I think there was a real strength in that body of people who were able to discuss change and movements in the field of craft and design that allowed everyone to be across a national agenda. So there were things happening that were making it much more nationalised, not just regional, and that was great,” she says.
“One of the things that I was very excited about was raising the discussion about craft not being seen purely from the point of view of what was traditionally known as, for example, the ceramicist or glass artist or textile artists. I was very much interested in the crossover between ideas that were often seen in contemporary art, but were happening in craft, where a lot of craft artists were beginning to merge some of their practices, but also to recognise that some elements of contemporary art were based on craft practices as well.”
During her tenure, Barbara ran a number of exhibitions that highlighted this idea, drawing in film and performance art amongst other disciplines.
She also launched the Namadji Huts residency where artists installed art in huts at Namadgi National Park. It was also during this time that Barbara started planning to introduce a retail arm for Craft ACT.
“The shop was a way to bring more income to artists on a regular basis rather than just through exhibitions,” says Barbara.
“So having a retailer gave them more options in terms of their practice. And I was really amazed and delighted at the take up of the store. I still like going to the shop and checking it out, and these days I can also visit the shop online.”
For the past five years, Rachael Coghlan has been the proud custodian of Craft ACT, joining as CEO and artistic director after many years working for national cultural institutions.
“I loved my time with the national institutions but wanted to connect more directly to the artists themselves. And it just felt really important to me to do something that was a little bit more grassroots, for our community,” she says.
“At the National Museum and at Old Parliament House, I had collaborated with Craft ACT and thought they did beautiful work and were amazing people. So I was so happy to be offered the position, and I’ve just loved every minute of it.”
One of Rachael’s biggest passion projects has been the DESIGN Canberra festival. When she started with Craft ACT, the festival was in its early days and a small event, attracting audiences of around 26,000. By 2019, they had grown the festival to an event that welcomed 114,000 people over three weeks.
“It’s been wonderful to just really embrace that beautiful and collaborative design platform, to be a true celebration of all that’s great about design in Canberra, and bring different collaborators together to create new installations, opportunities and works. It just gives me great, great pride to see how that’s grown, and how it’s supported the wonderful members of Craft ACT,” she says.
“The festival also helps artists to make a living from their practice. Last year, we generated around $210,000 in income for artists, and all of that money goes straight to artists. And that means they can keep practising their craft.”
Celebrating their 50th birthday this year makes Craft ACT one of Australia’s longest continuous-running membership organisations in the visual arts. And looking to the future, Rachael believes the sector as a whole is looking bright, in spite of the challenges of the past year.
In lockdown, Rachael and the team designed a new website and online shop which helped them reach larger and more diverse audiences for Craft ACT exhibitions and retail sales.
The organisation is also earmarked to move to the Kingston Arts Precinct which will mean space for a bigger gallery, shop and workshop, and more collaborations—locally, nationally and globally.
“The art scene in Canberra has been around for many decades, but it feels like Canberra is now getting a better recognition for having this really vibrant, creative community of makers, artists, designers and craftspeople, and that it’s a really distinctive part of our city’s identity,” says Rachael.
“I always joke that Canberra is dismissed as just roundabouts and politicians, but actually, there’s this thriving, really closely connected community of artists in this beautiful city of design. Craft artists in particular are naturally very collaborative and like being part of a creative community.”
“I feel so lucky to be the current custodian of this treasured organisation, paying respect to its history and see artists get greater visibility, not only in Canberra, but internationally too. One of our exhibitions, Glass Utopia, showed at Venice Glass Week last year and has been invited to the next Milan Design Week, the world’s largest design fair. We’ve come a long way from a garage in suburban Canberra.”
About Craft ACT
Craft ACT: Craft + Design Centre is a non-for-profit membership-based organisation that supports artists, craft practitioners, designers and makers at every stage of their careers.
With a gallery and a shop overlooking Civic Square (near the Canberra Theatre), this cherished arts organisation turns 50 this year.
A limited-edition F!NK jug will be released in May and the full program is available at craftact.org.au
Feature image: Craft ACT 40th anniversary in 2011 with some of the many women who have shaped the proud history of Craft ACT including Barb McConchie (bottom, left) and Meredith Hinchliffe (fourth from right). Photo: Art Atelier Photography.