Crafting a vision

A conversation with Sarah Schultz, executive director of the American Craft Council

Sarah Schultz recently returned to Minneapolis to lead the American Craft Council. She previously spent more than two decades at the Walker Art Center. Submitted photo

After a few years on the East Coast, Sarah Schultz is back in Minneapolis, living just north of Lake of the Isles and commuting to work at the Grain Belt Brew House in Northeast.

That historic building houses the headquarters of the American Craft Council, and on April 2 Schultz officially started as the nonprofit’s new executive director. Schultz replaces Chris Amundsen, who resigned last year; he had led the organization since it relocated to Minneapolis from New York City in 2010.

Schultz just made a similar move, herself.

Most recently the interim vice president of public programs and education for Friends of the High Line in New York City and a visiting curator for Mural Arts Philadelphia, Schultz previously spent more than 20 years at the Walker Art Center. As director of education and curator of public practice for 14 of those years, she helped to produce popular programs like artist-designed mini golf and Open Field.

This month, the council hosts its American Craft Show in St. Paul, a marketplace for handmade goods that also pops up annually in San Francisco, Atlanta and Baltimore. In a phone conversation conducted less than two weeks before the April 19 preview party, Schultz talked about her vision for the American Craft Council and her relationship with craft.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Southwest Journal: What was it that attracted you to this opportunity with the American Craft Council?

Schultz: My career has really been dedicated to fostering and supporting creative practice and a creative life. I’m a strong advocate for helping artists, in particular, thrive and create work, and then really engaging audiences with contemporary work and contemporary practice, and making those connections between living artists and audiences.

This was a very, very exciting opportunity to do that in a somewhat related field but actually in a broader way. The thing that excites me about craft is that every community has craft practices. Craft is really embedded in our lives and in our daily lives.

And so the opportunity to join an organization that has a storied legacy of supporting the work — and then being able to pay it forward and think about the future of craft — was an incredible opportunity and one I couldn’t resist.

Tell us about your plans for the council. Where do you intend to focus your efforts?

First of all, I think that the work that has happened with the craft council over the years (since) it moved to Minneapolis and the ways in which it has expanded its reach is something really to build off of and to amplify.

I’m interested in really working with everyone to think about what opportunities artists need going forward in the future to make work: what the market place looks like and how artists are actually working today.

I intend to spend a good part of the next several months talking with artists about what it is they need. What are the issues they’re wrestling with, and what kind of work is being made today, and how can the ACC be responsive to the field and really following what artists are doing?

I’m discovering is there is not as much awareness ACC is in the Twin Cities as I had thought, so I think there is a tremendous opportunity to engage local audiences with the ACC and more opportunities to engage in and with craft and artists here, as well.

I spoke with your predecessor about the aging of the craft world, both artists and consumers, and ACC’s drive to reinvigorate the scene and engage younger and more diverse audiences. How well do you think the organization is doing that?

I think the organization has made some great steps in that direction. I think some of the things you see at the American Craft Show are part of invigorating that.

Like Style Slam (a program that pairs professional stylists with makers of clothing, jewelry and accessories)?

Style Slam. Hip Pop, the emerging artist program, I think has been really, really critical to introducing younger artists both to new audiences and also the opportunities that they have for actually developing a professional life around craft-making.

One of the things I noticed at the Baltimore show was also the degree of what I would call inter-generational mentoring that’s happening at the show, which I think is exactly the kind of match-making or convening that the ACC can help do: artists actually learning from each other.

Make Room, (a program that invites interior designers to display craft show objects as home décor, encourages) thinking about how craft not only integrates into your everyday life but how craft already is in your everyday life.

I think those opportunities to engage, to experience and to educate are a really important part of the show. This is not just about the marketplace; this is a full-spectrum engagement with craft.

We’re in this interesting moment where people are increasingly aware and conscious of the source of the things that they own and they buy. And that’s not just who makes it, but what goes into it, what is the material, where does the material come from. We’re reconnecting with the material world in a variety of different ways, both sensually or tactilely — as we become more virtual, more digital, we want more hands-on encounters — and I also think there’s a certain kind of consciousness about where things come from and who makes them and our concern about what we produce and what we consume.

There’s also just an interest among young people in the handmade. And I think that’s everything from handmade objects to craft beer.

As someone who spent decades at a contemporary art museum and is coming from the fine art world into the world of craft, how do those two areas overlap? What are the differences? What has that shift been like for you?

One thing I really learned in my years working in the contemporary art world is that there are in fact many art worlds.

There’s a lot of overlap between what we define as the craft world and the art world. And, quite honestly, this is an exciting moment for me to open myself up to a new world of artists or a new cadre of artists, but I’m not necessarily sure I see a difference of spirit and intent in wanting to make something and put it in the world.

The boundaries between these definitions and these disciplines are always blurring. It’s always dynamic, and it’s never static. There are a lot of contemporary artists who are very interested in craft-based practice, just as there are a lot of craft artists who are doing work that is non-functional or has conceptual underpinnings to it.

I don’t know if this is a generational thing or just generally in the culture now, but there is a lot of fluidity around definition, and I think younger artists don’t want to necessarily be pinned down as having a particular kind of practice, per se.



American Craft Show, St. Paul

When: April 20–22. Daily admission is $11 in advance or $12 at the door, and just $5 after 5 p.m. at the door Friday. Preview party is 6 p.m.–9 p.m. April 19. Party tickets are $75 in advance or $85 at the door.

Where: St. Paul RiverCentre, 174 W. Kellogg Blvd.



Making connections

American Craft Shows are more than just a marketplace. They’re also a place for makers to meet and interact, both with their customers and each other.

That’s a big part of the draw for Kaja Foat, who with her twin sister Zoë runs FOAT, an ecologically minded clothing business. They founded the company in 2001 and were early adopters of online sales and marketing, but Kaja said they’ve found that shoppers in this increasingly digital world really appreciate a face-to-face connection.

Southwest Minneapolis natives, Kaja and Zoë studied art in college and then moved to New York City to take jobs in the fashion industry. Working as yoga instructors on the side, they struggled to find clothes that didn’t lose their fit after a few minutes of stretching.

The sisters started making their own clothes out of a cotton-Lycra blend. Today, their basic yoga pant is made to order from 95 percent organic cotton, 5 percent Lycra fabric. That same material is used in other popular pieces, like their drop-crotch onesies.

The line long ago expanded beyond active wear to include one-off and limited-run garments ranging from ponchos to dresses, often incorporating reclaimed scraps from other projects

“As artists, we were always more interested in the no-waste section, because we had to be creative,” Kaja said. “We were making new things weekly.”

While Zoë is currently based in Charleston, South Carolina, Kaja works out of Northeast’s Northrup King Building. Both plan to staff their booth at the St. Paul show — one of about eight FOAT has appeared at in recent years, including American Craft Shows in Baltimore and Atlanta — and Kaja said they’re looking forward to connecting with other makers.

“I remember the feeling of setting up the first time and looking at all the amazing artists and thinking, wow, I was picked to be in this? I was so floored,” she said. “I feel like I’m around super-amazing artists that are doing the same thing I’m doing.”

FOAT founders Kaja and Zoe Foat. Submitted photo
FOAT founders Kaja and Zoe Foat. Submitted photo