Arts and Crafts Ability to Uplift?

ngos unemployment Financial sustainability arts and crafts
Friday, 17 February, 2012 - 15:22

Arts and crafts have the potential to create jobs, lift people out of poverty and also sustain their livelihoods, especially in South Africa where unemployment is currently sitting at 23.9 percent

The arts and crafts sector is a major employer of probably one of the most diverse ranges of workers and designers, across all sectors of our population. As unemployment deepens, and people are exploring business ventures of their own, this sector is becoming a more interesting prospect, for them to either join an existing production unit, or else open up their own business. Fine art and design graduates are also eyeing out this sector, as people are spending more time at home, and spending more money on bespoke work for their homes, to make them unique and special spaces. Umcebo Design is now moving towards World Community Arts Day, so a discussion around the creative sector, and its ability to provide meaningful employment and incomes for people, is particularly relevant.

Given that 17 February is World Community Arts Day, those involved in social justice, and community upliftment, will again consider if art and craft can create jobs, and in the process, lift people out of the grinding poverty that so many find themselves in. My own personal experience tells me that the answer is yes to both questions. I would caution though, that based on my experiences, one should be mindful of the following. When reflecting on this potential to bring about change.

Firstly, you must enjoy the hard work. By this, I mean that you must be the kind of person, who really loves the process of making art and craft, and when you are not making it, you dream about making it. The process of creating it must be a reward in itself.

Umcebo Design works with many crafters and fine art students from local institutions (on work integrated learning placements). Almost immediately, I get a sense of who is going to be successful, when I speak to them about their process of creating, and their plans and dreams for the future. The ones who are obsessed with being good technicians and perfecting their skills, and who want to be in charge of production, no matter how big their organisation gets, are the ones who will succeed. Those who want to hand over production and not ‘get their hands dirty’, tend to be the people least likely to succeed and grow their art and craft business. They are obsessed with becoming the top two percent of the market in as short a time as possible, and essentially washing their hands of what they see as the ‘dirty’ work of art and craft. They do not really enjoy the process of making and creating, and essentially see it as a ‘necessary evil’ or ‘stepping stone’.

Secondly, and a point that leads on from the above. You have to be flexible as an artist and crafter in order to succeed, and to employ yourself and possibly others. So often, I come across people who have very rigid ideas of what is appropriate and suitable work for themselves. In general; your ability to create an enterprise, a job for yourself, and jobs for others, hinges on you being flexible. Some days you may have to be anything ranging from a hands-on crafter, to a conceptual designer, to a marketing expert. Often funds are tight, and there may be an additional workload in your organisation, where it was not anticipated. You, and any employees, or partners you may have, need to role up your sleeves and ensure work is made, clients are happy, and new orders come in.

A third and final point is that art and craft can create work, if it is backed up by good solid design that is constantly evolving and ‘on-trend’. You need to be someone who respects and acknowledges other peoples intellectual property, but who is always taking the creative temperature of the market. If you become dogmatic, frightened of change and ungenerous; in all likelihood you will fail.

In conclusion, I started an art and craft project in my classroom, when I was a special needs art and craft teacher. I saw the power of art and craft to uplift and excite some of the most marginalised members of our society. We therefore went on to register and run a Trust for eight years. After that we evolved the Trust into a self sustaining entity, with myself as a Sole Proprietor, and the other artists and crafters as independent business people and service providers.

My experience has taught me that art and craft has a valuable role to play in the creation of employment, and the upliftment of society. We have to realise that we will only succeed if we love the work we do, are willing to adapt to a very challenging world, and are constantly growing ourselves as designers. Art and craft has the ability to transform the lives of every section of our society. The responsibility is on us to start taking this sector seriously, and encouraging the right kind of people to go into it. Politicians need to also abandon their preconceptions of who an artist or crafter is, and what they should be making.

Art and craft needs to be supported and encouraged, and the artists and crafters need to be serious about the process of creating. With these inputs in place, the sector will fly, and instead when a child comes home and announces they want to go into a creative field, parents will celebrate, and be proud, as opposed to feeling that their child’s life is ruined, and that they will never have any money, or a happy and productive future.

- Robin Opperman is creative director at Umcebo Design.

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