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18 Oct 2017

Craft Guilds

The Hon. A.L. McLACHLAN (15:43): Guilds have existed in Europe for centuries as a means of bringing together like-minded souls to govern and promote their towns’ special attributes. Craft guilds represent occupational artisans ranging from tanners and bakers to drapers and coopers. Craft guilds came to have a profound impact on cultural life in Europe. Apart from their professional duties, guilds also played an important role in society by engaging in charitable pursuits, extending to building schools, roads and chapels.

Britain’s Art Workers Guild, for example, has operated since 1884. The principal criterion for entry requires members to be a designer, to which could be added a maker, but not the other way around. In what was considered a radical idea, given Victorian Britain’s rigorous class distinctions, the guild brought together fine artists, including architects, painters, sculptors and engravers, and artistic craftsmen such as stained glass makers, furniture makers and metalworkers, by way of example. Notwithstanding the guild’s founders being in their twenties, most were traditionalists, sharing concerns over the increasing mechanisation of their work. In essence, it was a true collective—individuals working together to advance the common interest.

In my view, the significance and appreciation of craftsmanship in the modern age has waned thanks to the enemies of craft such as materialism, consumerism and the machine. The Heritage Crafts Association in the United Kingdom has warned, for example, that only one master cooper, one clog maker, one denim maker and two scissor makers remain in the United Kingdom. The association has determined the following crafts to have gone extinct in the past generation: gold beating, and sieve and riddle making. What is more, crafts such as paper marbling, parchment and vellum making are considered critically endangered.

According to the Australian government’s Job Outlook website, 8,700 people were employed as visual arts and crafts professionals in 2015, with just 5 per cent living in South Australia. This is the smallest proportion of all the states, even Tasmania, which is home to an average of just 2 per cent of all Australian occupants. Furthermore, half of these artisans are only part-time workers in their creative field. In 2005, in response to similar trends, the French government established the Enterprise du Patrimoine Vivant label to reward exceptional French firms that employ traditional and artisanal knowhow and industrial techniques.

The French Minister for Crafts, Trade and Tourism may award the label to ‘any undertaking that has economic heritage consisting in particular of rare, renowned and ancestral skills which draw upon the mastery of traditional and technically advanced techniques, and restricted to a particular geographic region’. Globally successful brands such as Chanel, Champagne Bollinger and Baccarat have been awarded the five-year EPV label, as well as hundreds of smaller niche producers. Upon selection by an expert panel using stringent criteria, a successful firm is entitled to tax incentives, internationalisation, promotion and financing assistance by the French government.

In Japan, the government rewards mastery of particular artistic skills by designating an individual or collective as a Preserver of Important Intangible Cultural Properties. These Living National Treasures, as they are popularly called, are supported by a special annual grant, as well as training programs to educate successors in their craft.

South Australia is fortunate to have the South Australian Society of Arts, later the Royal South Australian Society of Arts, which was founded in 1856 by Charles Hill. The society has continued to pursue its central aim of promoting both the fine arts, as well as artistic crafts, for over 160 years. The JamFactory and Guildhouse also play a significant role in supporting aspiring artists through professional development courses, workshops and exhibitions. But more needs to be done. With the reduction of atelier-based pathways and vocational education courses, greater opportunities are required for the transference of crafts knowledge in this state. To succeed as an artisan nowadays, it is insufficient to be skilful at just the craft in question; entrepreneurial expertise is essential.

We must support the crafts with the same enthusiasm as we do with new technologies. Innovation hubs should not come at the expense of promoting craftsmanship in this state. To reinvigorate interest in craft-making in South Australia, guild-like professional development programs should be encouraged. We should look to Europe and Britain for the way forward. We should encourage our people to turn their heads away from computer screens and the virtual world and encourage them to once again use their heads and hands to express their imagination and talents. ‘Tradition is not the worship of the ashes, but the preservation of the fire.’

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