This article was published 7/10/2017 (738 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s a week after moving day and more than 450 boxes full of the Manitoba Craft Museum and Library’s 10,000-piece collection line the pristine white walls of a recently renovated space on Cumberland Avenue — the location of the new C2 Centre for Craft.
Instructions such as "this side up," and "very fragile," followed by exclamation points, arrows and underlines, are scrawled on many of them, making very evident the care and patience needed to transport the massive amount of historic craft from its old home on Kennedy Street.
The process has not been without its delays and frustrations, curator Andrea Reichert says.
But mostly there is a sense of excitement as Reichert offers a tour of the nearly finished space the museum and library now shares with the Manitoba Craft Council; both are not-for-profit organizations that seek to promote, develop and advocate for craft in the province. Manitoba is currently the only province that does not have a permanent facility dedicated to contemporary craft — a statistic the two groups can’t wait to change.
"When we asked our membership what the priority should be, it was visibility, it was more space for them to show their work and interact with the public," says Tammy Sutherland, director of the craft council.
"Winnipeg does have a number of galleries but it’s amazing how many galleries pop up and then just die. So it’s really critical for artists to have a venue.
"And I also think space is a public sign of what’s important to us... the visibility of having a permanent space is also important in terms of connecting with a really broad public."
The C2 Centre for Craft has been in the works for nearly five years, when the people at MCML decided they had outgrown the space at 183 Kennedy St., their home for a decade. The search began for a new location, and after seeing venues that were either way above budget or within budget but too far gone to repair, they came across 1-329 Cumberland Ave. and the potential was immediately evident.
Timing was on the group’s side as the MCC was also looking to find a permanent spot again after closing in 2006. Sutherland says the MCC had recently reached the point where growth was substantial enough to warrant finding a new permanent space, but doing it alone was not an option for the small organization.
A partnership was born.
"We’re bringing the historic and contemporary into one space," Reichert says.
"And officially it’s one block out of the Exchange District... Being central to the arts was a really important part of what we wanted to be. When we were on Kennedy, we were kind of out in a no man’s land for arts and heritage. It felt like we were surrounded by dentists and lawyers."
Adds Sutherland: "To be able to take advantage of the relationships we have with other groups, to take advantage of events like First Fridays and festivals going on, I think is an important synergy."
The C2 Centre for Craft includes a gallery, a shop, a workshop area and a library with more than 3,500 books and educational resources on both historic and contemporary craft and also includes a hands-on area, where visitors can try new techniques.
The main gallery — named in honour of Shirley Richardson, a project supporter and financial donor — will have a new exhibit approximately every two months and will be a shared space curated alternately by both groups. The first exhibit, Best, will open later this month and highlight some of the best pieces the MCML has in its collection. The shop is also a shared space that will sell items created by 30 different contemporary craft artists, 90 per cent of which will be locally derived.
The MCML and the MCC were responsible for raising about $200,000 to get C2 up and running and they were able to reach that lofty goal with the help of all three levels of government, grants, fundraisers and individual donors, including a game-changing contribution from Richardson, who has a long history of involvement in the Manitoba craft community.
Richardson says she was part of the Manitoba Craft Guild many years ago — her specific interest being quilts, though she says she’s never made one — and had been keeping her eye on the work the MCML was doing. She heard the C2 project was in the works and knew it would require financial support, so she stepped in to make sure the project was a success.
"I love craft — rather than art, my love is of craft," she says. "The craft museum has this amazing collection by artists in Manitoba and I felt it would be tragic if it were to go downhill because it couldn’t be looked after properly… Manitobans should be proud to have this history of craft that will now be taken care of."
Between the two organizations, there is a membership base of about 300 people, but the support coming from the greater craft community in Manitoba — both creators and people who appreciate what they create — far exceeds the relatively small pool of paid participants.
A strong example of this is Crafted — a show and sale held annually at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in partnership with MCC and the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association. In 2015, Crafted was held over two days and some 3,500 people attended, translating into more than $100,000 in sales for the craft artists showcasing at the event. Now in its third year, Crafted — which takes place Nov. 3-4 at the WAG this year — has expanded further, adding the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador and two artists from the Northwest Territories into the mix.
This year, the Crafted organizers received more than 100 applications from artists to participate and more than 50 will be showing their work on all four floors of the WAG. In addition, a handful of workshops are also scheduled.
"We just work with so many great craft-based artists here that the idea had been tossed around for quite some time to host a craft fair," says Sherri Van Went, manager of retail operations at the WAG and an MCC board member.
"And the artists keep 100 per cent of the proceeds, so it’s a great way to support local artists and artists from the North."
Van Went says from the moment she mentioned the idea of hosting Crafted at the WAG, her co-workers and managers have been very supportive.
"I think we’re really lucky to work in an institution that encourages community interactions and creating opportunities for visitors to experience art in new and different ways... it’s been well-embraced here," she says. "It’s definitely become a favourite event at the WAG."
Aside from special events such as Crafted, the WAG takes pride in its sizable collection of craft — giving it the categorization of "decorative art" — which lives at the gallery year-round and includes everything from teacups to tapestries.
The most common definition of craft or decorative arts is functional objects that can have an esthetic dimension but are made to serve a purpose, such as bowls or jewelry or woven textiles. That differs from fine arts — painting or sculpture, for example, which don’t generally have a utilitarian function. And though those lines are blurring, there is still a stigma attached to the word "craft."
"It’s difficult because people mean different things when they say art or they say craft, and I think for a lot of people art is where the prestige is, it’s sort of the more important, the grander, and the real thing, the more expensive," says Steven Cochrane, a sessional instructor at the University of Manitoba’s school of art.
Making the distinction between art and craft is useful if only to decipher what the maker’s intentions were, he says.
"For instance, a beautiful, perfectly functional handmade teapot that does its job commendably: it’s handsome to look at, I like it, but I don’t think that it benefits necessarily by putting it on a pedestal and talking about it the way I would about an abstract sculpture," he says. "They’re trying for different things.
"The distinctions are useful, but not in the way people think. The minute you start thinking of one as more valuable than the other, that’s when problems are going to start happening."
The art versus craft debate is one that has been a conversational point in the industry for decades, maybe even centuries, and while many eyes will roll skyward after seeing it rehashed again, the distinction between the two is hazier now than ever before.
Cochrane, as well as the WAG’s chief curator Andrew Kear, note a shift is occurring and some artists are working with media traditionally used in craft to create pieces that lean more toward fine art in their lack of functionality.
"There’s still a division, or divisions are made, distinctions are made, between painting and ceramics, for example, but it’s at the stage that the distance between the fine art object and the craft art object begin to break down," says Kear, noting the WAG’s collection contains some of those genre-crossing pieces.
Cochrane hopes the C2 Centre for Craft will provide a more consistent and permanent platform for artists bridging the gap to share their work.
"Until now, the craft council has been doing really boundary-testing work, combining artists who use craft media and craft artists who are making sort of fine-art work… I think often those shows would be in Ace Art Inc., so there’s often a sense of like, ‘Oh, we’re going to let the craft in for a special event,’ like they’re interlopers," he says with a laugh.
"Or it’s craft trying to build itself up in a way to look more like art, to tick the right boxes, so I think having a dedicated facility will really let craft speak for itself, it’s in its own context, they can set their own terms and they can push those boundaries as much as they want. My hope is it will give a permanent home to showcase those kinds of works so that people will see the value in it."
And Reichert agrees; craft and heritage have long been the "poor cousins" of the art world, she says, but there’s no reason why anyone should undervalue them or view them as a lesser form of expression.
"Craft has played a really important role in our history, in terms of all the people who have come and traditions they have brought, and craft is part of people’s identity in so many ways," she says.
"It’s what comes out at holidays, what they wear when they celebrate… every culture has that element to it and people cherish those things that their grandmother made or mother made or father made, so it’s an important part that’s just not been included and that’s gotta change, and it is.
"Craft is one component of the visual arts that doesn’t have a home right now, and many people engage with that, whether they’re hobbyists doing any craft media at home (or) whether they’re professional crafts people. So many people knit or crochet or do woodworking, and there isn’t a place for that and I think it’s really important to fill that hole and provide that opportunity."
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.