The Art of Craft
Alumna Sarah Schultz heads the nation’s premier nonprofit dedicated to celebrating both makers and handicrafts.
When Sarah Schultz received a call in fall 2017 asking if she was interested in interviewing to become the next executive director of the American Craft Council (ACC), she was intrigued. The ACC is a revered institution, established in 1939 to support and champion handmade arts and the people who make them.
However, Schultz wasn’t sure if she was the right person for the job. She and her husband were living in New York City and Schultz (M.A. ’92) was working as the interim vice president of public programs and education for Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit that maintains and operates the High Line park on Manhattan’s West Side. She also was putting together shows for Mural Arts Philadelphia, the country’s largest public art program.
“I’m not a maker. I’m a curator,” explains Schultz, who studied art history and American studies in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. “I had to ask myself, ‘Why craft?’”
Before she moved to New York in 2015, Schultz had been the education director and curator of public practice at the Walker Art Center, where she produced programs that included artist-designed miniature golf and Open Field, a series of happenings that turned the grassy hill adjoining the museum into a creative commons. When she got the call from the ACC, her career lens was focused primarily on contemporary fine art, not quilting or glass blowing or carving spoons out of wood.
To determine if her museum experience could translate into running ACC, Schultz made herself answer that “Why craft?” question. The exercise convinced her not only that she dearly wanted the job, but also that she was well suited to the needs of an organization devoted to the intersection of art and everyday objects.
“What I realized is that craft has always infiltrated my life,” she says now, gesturing around her airy office in ACC’s headquarters in the former Grain Belt Brewery in Northeast Minneapolis. “Whether it was my grandmother teaching me how to knit and that kind of social and personal bond that gets created in skill sharing, to the gifts I’ve given and received, or things I’d acquired because they were beautifully made and wrought.” As an avid cook and gardener, Schultz realized she’d always valued quality materials, even if they were simply flour and plants.
That eureka moment made Schultz realize that crafts are everywhere—not just in her life but also in the lives of every living person. “If you are interested in engaging the broadest number of people in a conversation about why making matters, why creativity matters, craft, I realized, was the perfect place for me to be.”
AT A TIME WHEN the popularity of DIY has given rise to everything from pubs specializing in artisan pale ales to the hundreds of thousands of candles and candle holders sold on the online site Etsy, crafts and crafting are indisputably on trend. “There is such a phenomenal interest right now in the handmade and the idea of the authentic object,” says Schultz.
Why we yearn for experiences and items that are rooted in traditions that stretch back centuries may stem from our increasingly digital existence, say Schultz and other craft experts. “We are in a place in history where you can get everything on Amazon or at Target,” says U of M art history professor Jennifer Marshall. “Craft matters now because in a world where you can punch an app and get something instantly, we have become alienated from how things are made.”
ACC relocated from New York City to Minneapolis in 2011, almost seven years before Schultz took the helm. Schultz says the move came from a need to reduce the organization’s overhead expenses, as well as a desire to be more inclusive of regions beyond the country’s major metropolitan areas. The Twin Cities was an attractive option in part because there is such an established craft community, including Northern Clay Center, Textile Center, and Foci — Minnesota Center for Glass.
The U certainly contributes to that craft culture too, from legendary Regents Professor and ceramic artist Warren MacKenzie (see Minnesota Alumni’s profile of MacKenzie in this issue) to the Weisman Art Museum’s extraordinary collections and the Goldstein Museum of Design’s extensive catalog of handmade apparel, jewelry, metal work, and textiles—some of which date back to the late 1700s.
A number of small-scale initiatives at the U also honor craft, including a dye garden of plants, which includes indigo, zinnias, and amaranth, used to add color to linen, cotton, and wool. Located between the Rarig Center and Wilson Library on the U’s West Bank, the garden was the brainchild of Art History doctoral student Colleen Stockmann (M.A. ’17), who is focusing her studies on the history of artistic practice, a topic that is central to why crafting resonates with today’s makers.
“Craft helps us reconnect with our bodies and our hands,” Stockmann says, citing a BBC News report in late 2018 that said an increasing number of today’s medical school graduates don’t have the manual dexterity to sew stitches. In addition to craft’s physical benefits, Stockmann praises the practice of making for helping people prioritize the process over the end product. “These hobbies don’t necessarily require a finished aspect,” she says.
That insight will come as welcome news to the legions of knitters with half-completed sweaters stashed in their knitting bags. And it is central to how Schultz sees the mission of ACC, which is to cultivate a culture of making, whether by hosting national craft shows and conferences, sponsoring grants and awards, or publishing American Craft magazine and the journal American Craft Inquiry.
“All kinds of research [shows] how making reduces your stress levels and increases social bonds,” Schultz says. She also believes craft helps people navigate life, and that establishing a craft ecology that nurtures makers and artisans and the small businesses that sell their work is crucial.
“I think making also helps us understand the world differently,” she says. “Because when we engage with materials, we start to think more about where our things come from, who made them, and what it took to make them. That’s really important because we become more conscious about the things we make and produce, which then has tremendous impact of the environment, on the economy, on social relationships, on justice.”