American Craft's new home

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 14, 2011 - 3:23 PM

A move from New York to the Twin Cities has refreshed a national organization whose annual expo opens today.

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Pamela Diamond, director of marketing and communication, Chris Amundsen, executive director, and Monica Moses, editor in chief of American Craft magazine.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Silk jackets, twig furniture, jazzy ceramics, one-of-a-kind necklaces, stylish cutting boards. For the past 25 years the American Craft Council (ACC) has brought chic handmade fashion and interior design to the Twin Cities via an annual expo whose current incarnation opens Friday at St. Paul's RiverCentre. More than 240 artisans from around the country will be on hand, selling everything from high-end decor to cute kid's wear, garden gewgaws and a whole new category of fun stuff for under $100.

While the shopping options will no doubt brighten a lot of homes and wardrobes, the expo's three-day boost to the local economy pales in comparison to the long-term impact of the ACC's decision to relocate its headquarters from New York to Minneapolis last year. The move was prompted by the dicey economy and ever-escalating costs of doing business on the East Coast. Since setting up offices in the former Grain Belt Brewery complex in northeast Minneapolis, the nonprofit organization has hired a staff of 14, all Minnesotans. Three more staff members, based in Brooklyn, organize and run craft shows staged annually in Baltimore, Atlanta, St. Paul and San Francisco.

"It's been pretty much of a whirlwind year," said executive director Chris Amundsen, who signed on last April after 15 years in various leadership positions at United Way.

Because only the Brooklyn staff was held over from the previous administration, Amundsen and others frequently describe the current ACC as a "70-year-old startup." That's because 1941 is the somewhat arbitrary and ambiguous moment at which two earlier craft organizations merged and began to evolve into what is now the ACC. Watch for high-craft birthday cakes on display throughout the expo.

The ACC has a current membership of 23,000 and an annual budget of about $5 million, of which 90 percent is income from shows, membership dues and advertising revenue. The final 10 percent is donated. Besides publishing a bimonthly magazine, the organization maintains a vast library of books (64,000), exhibition catalogs (7,000) and periodicals documenting the studio craft movement. And it runs "school to market" programs that give college and university craft students an opportunity to show and sell their products in professional settings.

Refreshed market

While expo attendance and sales dropped in 2009, they began to rebound last year and are expected to continue improving this year, ACC officials said. Specific figures weren't available, but the St. Paul show typically attracts about 10,000 people during its three-day run.

"I think the downturn in the economy was an opportunity for our industry," said Pamela Diamond, the council's marketing director. "When people have a finite pocketbook, they figure out what they value most. And when you couple that with the sustainability movement and the idea of buying something handmade in America," there's a huge potential market for fine crafts, she said.

One of the organization's chief membership benefits is American Craft, a handsome periodical whose advertising and editorial content has expanded substantially in the past six months as the economy picked up steam. It aims for a lively mix of interviews (woodworkers, fold-out book artist), new products (string chairs, custom apothecary jars) and feature stories on everything from handcrafted bungalows to felted lampshades, collars made from rubber gloves and crafts produced by Japanese-American internees during World War II.

"Because the magazine has been around so long, I haven't redesigned or done anything dramatic," said editor in chief Monica Moses, a former deputy managing editor at the Star Tribune. Her goal is lively and accessible writing, dazzling photography and diversity in everything -- geography, media, age and artists' occupations. "We would love to draw not only people who know craft history and studio crafts, but people who just like to decorate their homes and want to be more creative in their lives. We see craft as something that is part of a bigger picture of authenticity and sustainability, the human touch, quality over quantity. We think there is a matrix of values that craft plays into."

Doesn't that sound a bit like Martha Stewart's vision of a handcrafted paradise?

"Maybe. I hadn't thought about it like that," Moses admitted. "If I had to say how we're different from Martha Stewart, I'd say we might see more subtle ways to be more creative."

mabbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431

  • AMERICAN CRAFT COUNCIL SHOW

    What: More than 240 American artisans, including 43 Minnesotans, will sell handmade jewelry, clothing, furniture, ceramics, glass, pottery, tableware, garden tools and other ornaments.

    When: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.

    Where: RiverCentre, 199 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $12; free for ages 12 and under. www.craftcouncil.org

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