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American crafts come of age

AMERICA'S great contemporary craft movement is growing up, and perhaps slowing down a bit. It may have become less boisterous and experimental, but it is more appreciated by that expanding army of collectors who are willing to pay good prices for what is uniquely beautiful and made by hand. And it has finally penetrated the coveted display space of major museums.

Crafts are a serious, high-level profession today for many thousands of highly trained people. They have long since ceased being homespun and ``artsy-craftsy.'' Many craftsmen have won mainstream recognition in the art world, and their work is priced accordingly.

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Hundreds of special schools, colleges, and universities offer craft courses today, and many grant degrees in craftmaking. Millions of people who buy crafts have discovered the satisfaction of owning a piece that has been made from beginning to finish by one pair of hands.

Still, the craft movement is in the midst of milestone events. The recent opening of the spectacular new quarters of the American Craft Museum at 40 West 53rd Street in Manhattan is adding luster and prestige to both craftsmen and their work.

After accolades of praise and weeks of opening receptions, the museum has settled down to a steady stream of visitors viewing its initial exhibition, ``Craft Today, Poetry of the Physical.'' This stunning survey display of 279 fresh and ingenious pieces in clay, glass, wood, fiber, paper, and metal, by both established and emerging craftsmen from 38 states, will be shown through March 22, 1987. After that date it will travel to major museums in Denver; Laguna Beach, Calif.; Milwaukee; Louisville, Ky., and Richmond, Va.

The American Craft Museum, owned and operated by the non-profit American Craft Council, has been a New York cultural entity for 30 years. Its present four-level space is in the new midtown E.F. Hutton office tower. Both the council and the museum were founded by the late Aileen Osborn Webb, who was the motivating force behind the craft movement for more than 50 years.

From the 1950s on, everything about the craft field burgeoned - crafts people, craft collectors, craft fairs and galleries, craft courses and conferences, and craft books.

``Now, the boom years when everybody was getting in on the craft act is over,'' says Lois Moran, editor of American Craft magazine, which reaches 220,000 craftsmen, collectors, and educators. ``The movement is not a robust youngster any more. It has settled a lot and become more serious. The audience has matured, too, and become more open and aware of the skills involved in fine handcraft. For craftsmen, I see it as a time for new ideas and of more sophisticated design.''

Carol Sedestrom, president of American Craft Enterprises, the Council's marketing arm, also declares that the big growth is over.

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The craft movement, she finds, ``has leveled off and a kind of realism has set in.'' The shakeout, she explains, has eliminated many of those who liked the romantic notion of making a living by producing handcrafts, but who were neither skilled enough nor persevering enough to last the long haul.

Still, she declares, the American craft tradition, which was almost lost with the advancement of technology, has been revived and is very healthy. ``If the movement has been stalled for a bit, the new American Craft Museum is going to put it in gear and move it forward again.''

Museum director Paul J. Smith says the 1980s represent a period of refinement and stabilization in the crafts rather than experimentation for its own sake. And Jack Lenor Larsen, a master weaver and textile designer and president of the American Crafts Council, contends that the craft movement has never been more dynamic nor far reaching in all its aspects as it is today.

Rose Slivka, editor-in-chief of Craft International, takes a different view. She sees no great invention at this stage, except perhaps in the field of furniture, and thinks ``too many of today's educated, polished, and competent crafts people are still drawing on the rich innovation and experimentation which characterized craft in the late '50s and 1960s.''

If enrollment is off in some schools, Marge Levy, dean of the school of art at the University of Michigan, says it has merely returned to ``normal'' after years of abnormal swell caused by young people seeking back-to-the-earth alternative lifestyles. Both Professor Levy and Professor William Daley, who teaches ceramics at the Philadelphia Colleges of the Arts, laud the quality and commitment of the talented young people that they meet in their classes. Both feel sanguine about the future teaching of crafts in degree-granting colleges and universities, and about the ability of their students to make a living in their field and to gain recognition as ``artists'' in craft media.

Other experts see a brighter future for crafts people, since so many have now mastered such marketing skills as inventory controls, quality control, and financing.

Toni Sikes, president of Kraus Sikes, Inc., publisher of The Guild crafts catalog, sums it up: ``After 20 years of working in relative isolation and mastering their art, craftsmen are coming out of the woods and turning to the business of doing business. They are learning to present themselves and their work and their ideas to a variety of markets in a professional way. They are becoming serious suppliers to the design and architectural fields, to the gift showrooms, and to manufacturers as a source of design ideas.''

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