When the American Craft Council fled the high rents of Manhattan for lower cost, art-friendly Northeast Minneapolis in 2010, in the throes of the Great Recession, it was the start of a reinvention for the organization, which was then almost 70 years old.
Not one member of the New York City staff came along for the ride, so when the ACC opened its new headquarters in the Grain Belt Brew House, an historic yellow-brick building at the foot of the Broadway Avenue Bridge, the second-floor offices were soon filled with 18 new employees from the Twin Cities business, nonprofit, media and arts communities.
“When we all came from our different backgrounds,” recalled Pamela Diamond, an entrepreneur who became ACC’s director of marketing and communications, “the first thing we all did (was say), ‘We have a 70-year-old startup, here. Let’s have fun.”
ACC is currently celebrating 75 years since its founding, and in March, as staff prepared for the annual American Craft Show in St. Paul — returning to RiverCentre April 7–9, with an April 6 preview party — they also reflected on what has changed since the move to Minneapolis. It’s been almost seven years since they “hit the reset button,” as Executive Director Chris Amundsen put it.
Amundsen said the cost savings realized in the move allowed the organization to reinvest in its programming and take on “the graying of the field,” one of the major challenges then faced by ACC.
“The artists are getting older, the audience is getting older,” he said. “How do you start to reinvigorate that? Because craft is very central to many people’s lives, and the lifestyle of craft really does talk to many different age groups and many different cultures across our country.”
At that time, the world of craft was already undergoing a significant shift. Websites like Etsy helped artists reach new audiences online, while at the same time “craft” became a marketing buzzword. National pizza chains were suddenly touting their “artisan” pies, and heritage clothing brands were on their way from boutiques to department stores. Craft was entering a renaissance.
It was in this environment that Monica Moses, formerly the Star Tribune’s executive director of product innovation, took over as editor in chief of American Craft. The bimonthly magazine had been, under some of its previous editors, a bit snooty; it was the kind of publication that would drop a reference to the 19th-century art critic John Ruskin without any explanation, Moses said.
“It was kind of an insider’s magazine, I think, and I’m this compulsive populist, so I wanted to open it up to the world,” she said.
It worked. Circulation among subscribers and ACC members jumped 25 percent three or four years into Moses’ tenure, and American Craft has twice taken home the award for the best non-profit magazine in its category the national Folio: Eddie and Ozzie Awards competition.
At the same time, ACC’s new Minneapolis crew set out to refresh the American Craft Shows, which each year attract an estimated 45,000 shoppers and browsers to temporary marketplaces in San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore (the big one) and St. Paul. In an attempt to draw in new and younger audiences, they introduced new programming to make the shows “more experiential,” as Diamond put it.
First came Make Room, a program that invites local interior designers in each of the four cities to create room vignettes that incorporate craft show goods, helping visitors to imagine the home decor objects in a modern home setting.
Home decor was a segment of the craft shows that had tapered off over the years, in part because the wares are difficult and often costly to transport. As artists making decorative objects sat out, the shows tipped in favor of jewelry and wearable fashion. But the introduction of Make Room helped the shows to regain their equilibrium, Diamond said.
This year, the Make Room program at the St. Paul ACC show includes several Minneapolis designers, each decorating their space with a specific decade in mind: Ashley Schultzetenberg (the ’90s), Victoria Sass (the ’70s) and the team of Aimee Lagos and Christiana Coop (taking on the 2010s). Joining them are Neal Kielar and John Mehus of MidModMen Studio in St. Paul who, playing to their strengths, have chosen the ’60s for their design inspiration.
Another new program introduced since the organization’s move to Minneapolis, Hip Pop, was intended to give emerging artists an easy way to test out the craft shows before hopping onto the ACC circuit full time. Hip Hop gives those new-to-ACC artists — often young, but not always — a lower-cost entry into the shows, where they share a booth with other emerging craftspeople and learn the ropes of selling to craft show customers.
“It helps these artists get in front of an established audience that knows what they’re looking at and build a market,” Diamond said. “And it’s teaching you not only to know how to make a beautiful object. You need to figure out how to merchandize it, you need to talk to people, you need to be on social media a couple of times a day, you need to be putting your marketing materials together.”
Many early Hip Pop participants, including Minneapolis jewelry maker Betty Jaeger, have since graduated into their own spaces at the craft show in St. Paul and even travel to the other shows on the ACC circuit.
Other American Craft Show programs introduced in recent years include Style Slam, which invites local stylists to work with the jewelry and clothing sold on the exhibition floor, and Let’s Make, ACC’s name for the maker-led experiential learning stations that give show-goers a feel for the skill and labor that go into craft. Diamond said people who understand craft means quality and authenticity are more likely to consider it an investment — something worth displaying in their homes, or wearing on a finger, for a long time.
“I think American craft has really just started to reestablish itself,” Amundson said. “People are starting to understand what craft is. It’s not Popsicle sticks and glitter glue. It is something that is fine art.”
American Craft Show in St. Paul
When: April 7–9. Preview party is 6 p.m.–9 p.m. April 6.
Where: St. Paul RiverCentre, 174 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul
Info: One-day passes are $11. Tickets to the preview party start at $75 in advance or $85 at the door. craftcouncil.org