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The American Divide: Artisans from both side

McComb, Jessie F., a Fulbright Scholar, was in New Delhi for a year studying the lost wax casting process of the Bastar region in Chhattisgarh and the surrounding areas. Back in America, she is going to contribute to our website in a new series Letter from America. Ms. McComb received a BA in both Art History and Physics in 2003 from Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York. In addition to her interests in Indian folk and tribal crafts, she has worked extensively with Contemporary Indian Art.

From San Francisco to New York, there are thousands of urban and rural American artisans toiling away in both glamour and grime. Their workshops, skills and motivations often differ widely even though their crafts end up in the very same gallery display cases. While artisans from all places manage to survive in a high tech world, there are ups and downs to both sides.

Even though there are many craft galleries throughout America, many artisans still struggle to make ends meet. But through state and regional initiatives and economic development programs, even the most remote artisans are offered assistance to make their livelihoods viable. For example, the construction of the Kentucky Appalachian Artisan Center and the Kentucky School of Craft has encouraged economic development in the craft sector throughout the state. Both these institutes, as well as other around the US, offer artisans training in identifying target markets and strengthening their business skills. These topics, familiar to artisans in developing nations around the globe, often don't seem necessary for American artisans, but some artisans, both rural and urban, find this assistance necessary in order to succeed.

Of course there are two sides to the work of American artisans. Some urban artisans exhibit their art-like pieces in galleries in New York where collectors from around the globe can shop for high priced jewelry, glass and other handmade goods. These artisans can take advantage of a wealth of available resources that come with living in a city. Raw materials ranging from precious jewels to colored leather to silk ribbon are widely accessible at fairly affordable costs. There are also abundant markets where artisans can offer their goods for sale and expose new buyers and promoters to their craft.

These urban artisans also have easy access to rich sources of visual stimulation. New York artisans can browse at leisure the Museum of Arts & Design, which regularly hosts shows focused on contemporary craft, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. In addition urban artists can stop by any number of exceptional art and craft galleries to view their competition, gain inspiration and gather feedback from customers to incorporate in their next design endeavors.

As urban crafters become more a part of city life, the cities have extended assistance to continue the growth. For example the New York Foundation for the Arts organizes a program called New York Creates which assists over 600 regional artisans including many immigrant artisans. They are planning to host a weeklong event in Queens this autumn where full and part time artisans can exhibit their work at a minimal cost. The New York Foundation for the Arts hopes that this event will encourage not only sales for artisans but diverse collaboration as well. This initiative is paralleled by the Oakland Artisan Marketplace in California which offers venues for artisans to sell their products as well as additional business training.

So what exactly is the downside to being an urban artisan? With so many market venues, raw materials and design inspiration, it is hard to believe that there are any negative aspects. However, many city artisans have to deal with high rents for both their living and studio spaces as well as a higher cost of living. Also with a higher concentration of artisans living and working together, there is competition for venues, sales and customers. Also with changing business regulation, often urban artisans, as small businesses, suffer from new policies and laws which are prohibitive to them. So despite all the difference and challenges that both urban and rural artisans in American must face on a daily basis, it all seems to even out in the end. Artisans, from both sides, need dedication and passion to put them over the top and help them survive in the ever competitive craft world.



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