How can we think of the gallery and the shop as equally important spaces?
When Craft Victoria moved into Melbourne’s CBD, we opened a shop for the first time. The ostensible reason was to generate income in order to keep our galleries open. But the shop soon took a life of its own and we discovered a new window on craft.
I remember the mercurial manager, Abi Crompton, saying to me, “You know, people buy art for themselves. But they usually buy craft for someone else.” Sure enough, the shop became a popular destination for all kinds of gifts—weddings, birthdays and corporate. It seemed much more than just a cash cow.
Our cultural system is designed to recognise work in galleries. Exhibitions gain our attention through openings, signage and promotion, entries into resumes, outcomes for grant applications, and a potential contribution to the creative field, especially if acquired by a state gallery.
On the other hand, the work in shops is relatively anonymous. You’d be lucky to find out even the name of the maker. Despite their lack of profile, craft products on the shelf are more likely to realise their full potential than those on the plinth. These products are not just good to look at, they also help us taste, listen, smell and touch. And most importantly, they make stories part of our everday life.
So if you made enough money from gallery sales, would there still be a reason to make work for the shop? I found a range of responses to this question.
The shop connects with the user
There are many makers who are committed to the shop. For Victorian potter Sandra Bowkett, it’s a mistake to presume that shop work is homogenous:
I strive to make affordable durable pieces where there is pleasure in both the making and using, and less about ideas and scale, although they are there. I do have the satisfaction of knowing every object is unique as does the user.
Yet, she does see the gallery shop as a desirable place for her work.
For the Chilean jeweller, Liliana Ojeda, “I like the idea of doing something that many people can enjoy”. Each has its place,
“The gallery is the place to show an artist unlimited splendour, the shop is a quieter place where anonymous and simplicity can emerge.”
For Melbourne jeweller Vicki Mason, the shop is more than a day job:
“I would still make work for the shop as I see bread and butter/product as democratic craft. All people need access to the handmade in whatever shape or form that may take… “
And New Zealand jeweller Mia Straka sees the gallery and shop as intertwined,
“Some of the small production series I make were first created as gifts for loved ones, or as off-shoots from exhibition work and I enjoy seeing them become a part of people’s lives with regular wear.”
Production work is pleasurable
For Perth jeweller Melissa Cameron, the production work is an important part of her creative routine: “The high of finishing a work, especially one that was conceived and executed at pace, is a rush that alone would still induce me to make smaller works.” Adelaide jeweller Jess Dare agrees, “The repetitiveness of retail collections gives me the brain space to think about new work whilst my hands are busy.”
Editions as production in the gallery
Yet for Sydney jeweller Bic Tieu, production work is necessary to support a gallery practice: “Ideally you want to succeed in selling your SHOP pieces so this can fund your exhibitions.” Melbourne jeweller Manon van Kouswijk offers a middle path with multiple works sold as editions exclusively in the gallery.
The studio movement in the West opened a space for craft that celebrated originality and uniqueness. This diverged from Eastern cultures that sustained more interest in works that were integrated into traditions and customs.
Ideally, we can have both: a plinth on which something new emerges and a shelf that becomes integrated into everyday life.
But as we saw with the recognition of front-line health workers during the COVID pandemic, our culture often overlooks those backstage who are involved in maintaining life. So what form of recognition can we offer that matches what galleries afford?
We try to strike a balance between art and product in the Garland platform. While sharing exhibition works, the writing format allows for recognition of the experience of the work in the world. The ethic of “living craft” draws on the mingei spirit according to Yanagi Sōetsu of objects that are “wholesomely and honestly made for practical use”,
In The use of function, Rob Barnard invokes John Dewey’s Art of Experience to argue that the full sensory potential of an object is only realised in use.
When we experience a sunset, we are not having a purely retinal event that centers on the changing color of the sun. We feel the temperature of the air and the smells that are carried by the breeze.
There are many other frameworks for recognising the value of production work. The master oversees the making of objects in the world, making sure that skills are maintained and that users understand the story of the craft. Thinker-makers can write, demonstrate and perform the use of objects. Open studio programs give users the chance to appreciate where their objects come from. And prestigious platforms like the Homo Faber Guide promote “artisans” who are known for their fine products.
On the Other Hand is an exclusive article for Garland Circle members.
Like the article? Make it a conversation by leaving a comment below. If you believe in supporting a platform for culture-makers, consider becoming a subscriber.