Art and Crafts and Change

09/14/2021
by Tina Manzer

It’s going to happen. As this issue of Art Materials Retailer was being printed, the boards of AFCI and NAMTA were approving the final documents of their merger agreement. They hoped to open the voting process on September 8, and “once out, the vote needs to be open for a minimum of 20 days,” reported Leah Siffringer, NAMTA’s executive director. “Both associations must meet their quorums with two-thirds voting to approve. 

“Right now we are anticipating a positive vote by September 28, followed by the filing of all the paperwork by October 15,” she added. “While none of these dates are set in stone, things are moving along smoothly.”

When the Association For Creative Industries and the International Art Materials Association announced their plans in June, art-industry guru and longtime NAMTA member David Pyle wrote, “Sign me up,” and presented three reasons why the merger made sense. He noted its practicality, the lessons that members of both groups could teach each other, and how an integrative approach to creative products meets the needs of today’s art-making and crafting community. 

David also wrote, “Wow. This has been percolating since the early 2000s. It seems like the stars have finally aligned.” 

A divided history

Twenty years ago, when merger rumors first began circulating among the members of the Hobby Industry Association (HIA), the Association of Crafts & Creative Industries (ACCI), and NAMTA, the reaction among art-materials retailers was less than enthusiastic. At issue was their perception of an up-start industry called crafts. 

“We think of art supplies as fine artists’ materials of superior quality,” explained one art supply storeowner in 2001. “The tools of Rembrandt and Picasso are steeped in the tradition of thousands of years of making great art with ground pigments, brushes made by hand, etc. We consider art materials to be sensual and inspirational.

“Craft supplies, on the other hand, mean Styrofoam balls, feathers, birdhouses and wreaths. We think of crafts as a ‘new’ 20th-century, project-oriented hobby. Admittedly, we are biased against this category.” 

That opinion wasn’t unusual at the time. The Art Materials Retailer article in which it appeared included similar comments from other art-store owners. They argued that art and crafts each had completely different audiences, and one group would never need the products used by the other. They figured that traditional art materials stores could and should concentrate on “artists” while other stores, including the new kid, Michaels, duked it out for “crafters.” 

Two strong craft groups

Meanwhile, HIA and ACCI were celebrating their successful crafty identities in 2001. During ACCI’s annual midyear show, its 25th, “members acknowledged the show’s rich past while introducing 21st century ideas presented with special displays,” reported AMR. The “Designs for Living, Turning House into Home” display, for instance, showcased the latest trends in home décor. Another display showcased cake decorating products. “Twenty-five cakes will be created by some of the top pastry chefs in Illinois using Eat-able Art, a new line from Color Workshop.” 

HIA’s convention & trade show in 2001 was the association’s 60th. It featured 1,100 exhibitors and encompassed 300,000 net square feet at the Anaheim Convention Center. Fifty product categories were represented; they ranged from balloons and party supplies to wedding accessories and wood crafts; and from computer software to ribbons and rubber stamps. 

Nearly 10,000 people attended the event that January. A popular session called The Generic Product Workshop highlighted “Adventures in Paper Crafting” with hands-on instruction. 

Three years later, ACCI and HIA did merge to become the Craft & Hobby Association. In 2017, CHA rebranded as AFCI Its trade show was renamed Creativation to best reflect its renewed focus on creativity. 

Well, 

there was one voice of reason among the art store retailers I interviewed in 2001. It belonged to Claudia Myers from Spokane Art Supply. A master at handling change (“disruption” today), she started running her family’s business in the early 1980s, 30 years after her parents founded it. Computers were upending the art supplies business, but Claudia managed to steer her ship toward growth and innovation. She was ahead of her time, and became NAMTA’s first woman president in 1999. Her comments 20 years ago about the art/craft divide are worth repeating today.  

“Craft has come a long way, and is maturing with categories requiring the same degree of discipline, technical knowledge and skills as traditional fine art applications,” she wrote then. “The difference between craft and art cannot be defined through materials but by the process. In short, a traditional artist creates from a self-directed vision. Craft creations are looked upon as ‘copy projects’ accomplished not by imagination but by step-by-step instruction.

“It is the attitude about process that has given fine art an elitist image. By association, art materials stores can suffer from an image of being elitist, too, and not appeal to a more diverse base of creative consumers. 

“We sell more units of two-ounce craft acrylic than all our tubes added together. Not everyone using paint wants a lesson about fat over lean, or mixing inorganic versus mineral colors. They want blue paint ‘this shade.’ 

“Most of my ‘craft’ customers take exception to the term. They are artists and designers, they are artisans and craftspeople, they are decorative painters.

“I’m in business to sell to creative consumers. It is not my right to judge whether materials they use are for art or craft. It is my job as a successful retailer to provide the consumer with what they demand.” 

Today, Claudia is retired from active art store duties, and Spokane Art is being managed by her husband Victor Davis and her son Craig Marshall. “We have been able to ebb and flow with ALL the changes in 20 years,” she told me recently. “When the state mandated complete closure of non-essential business for more than a month last year, our relationship with colleges and our wonderfully loyal customers kept us going.” 

A way to rebuild

I imagine that the various retail subgroups of our one new trade group are wondering where they’ll fit in; if they’ll lose their identity as a specialist in yarn, or fine art materials, or papers and pens, or fabric. After a year and a half of disruption, though, we are all due for a reinvention; a chance to be better. To me, the merger facilitates that. “Despite the many recent challenges, we are all encouraged with the overall growth of creativity and with the ongoing increased demand for creative materials we are witnessing,” said Namta Board President, Steve Chamberlain, in June. “I feel confident that our future together remains bright.” 

Added AFCI Chairman Jim Scatena, “The new association will blend the best of AFCI and Namta into an efficient and exciting new association. This merger is good for the long-term future of the creative industry.”

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