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Art Market

How Craft Became an Art Market Force

The dividing line between fine art and craft has been unraveling for decades. Once closely guarded by art historians, curators, and critics—who, as the scholar Terry Smith once put it, typically dismissed craft as “intimately associated with the hand, touch,” while associating art with headier pursuits like “ideas, suggestions, concepts”—the boundaries separating painting, ceramics, weaving, drawing, glassblowing, printmaking, and other processes and practices are now porous if not completely antiquated. This is plainly clear from visiting most major art museums where, increasingly, textiles share wall space with abstract paintings and glass, and clay sculptures sit on plinths alongside bronzes. In the past decade, this leveling of artistic disciplines has also reached the art market, with collectors, galleries, fairs, and auction houses embracing craft.
According to “The Market for Craft,” a report released last year by the Crafts Council, a nonprofit promoting craft art in the United Kingdom and internationally, the total value of craft objects sold in England alone more than tripled over the course of the last 13 years, going from £883 million ($1.7 billion) in 2006 to over £3 billion ($3.9 billion) in 2019. Craft’s transition from the devalued fringe to a major force in the art market mainstream has been fueled by a convergence of factors from within the art world and beyond.
For one, artists who have long specialized in materials like textiles, ceramics, and glass—many of whom, not coincidentally, are women—have been getting recent recognition for their contributions to contemporary art, receiving representation from important galleries and support from tastemaking collectors. This includes revered textile artists like and ; ceramicists like , , , and ; and glass sculptors like and . Inversely, more and more artists trained in conceptual art, painting, photography, and other disciplines have begun to adopt craft materials and techniques, from , , and creating large ceramic sculptures to turning her trademark self-portraits into tapestries, or video artist making surgically strange glass sculptures.
“The fact that a few craft artists have broken through to the fine arts field, like , or the other way around, like , while attaining art star fame, has probably played a part” in the growing interest in craft, said Joakim Borda-Pedreira, the director of Oslo-based RAM Galleri, which focuses on artists working at the intersection of art, craft, and design. The gallery is participating in the upcoming 17th edition of Collect, the annual fair of England’s Crafts Council (opening February 26th and happening, for full disclosure, exclusively on Artsy), for which he’ll be showcasing ceramics by Danish artist and Norwegian artist Tulla Elieson.
This recognition of craft in the contemporary art market has also taken retroactive effect. “We see a re-evaluation of modernist crafts, such as ’s ceramics and ’s jewelry, which was very overlooked in the past by art historians and museums,” Borda-Pedreira continued. Ceramic works by Picasso came to auction 361 times in 2020, and that was a relatively slow year; the record price for his ceramic work was set in 2018, when one of his sculptures of his pet owl Ubu sold for $2.4 million at Sotheby’s.
Still, as Borda-Pedreira explained, looking backwards has its limits: “Since it is difficult to acquire that historic material today, the logical step is to look at what is being made in the contemporary field.”
In addition to changing attitudes among art market gatekeepers, another key factor fueling the craft boom is the changing of collectors’ tastes and habits. In an earlier era, a collector of prints might not have deigned to consider buying a weaving, just as a collector of ceramics would likely have been laser-focused on her niche—say, pieces made by a specific historic pottery in a specific decade or style—and uninterested in other objects. But today’s younger generation of collectors tends to have more omnivorous appetites and fewer hang-ups about collecting across categories.
“You still see the ‘one thing’ collectors, but you also see people who are really blending art, design, and objects,” said Becca Hoffman, the director of Intersect Art and Design, which operates fairs in Chicago, Aspen, and Palm Springs, and is currently holding its boutique Intersect 21 edition on Artsy. She noted that the domestic confinement brought on by COVID-19 has also played a part: “People are investing more in objects that bring them joy in the context of their home.”
Dealers participating in Intersect 21—which features 21 galleries from the Middle East, North Africa, and California—are showcasing craft and design alongside painting, photography, and other media. Jeddah-based gallery ATHR, for instance, is showing irreverent embroidered works by British-Lebanese artist and beaded textile compositions by Saudi artist , among others. The virtual booth of Marrakech’s Galerie SINIYA28 includes Morrocan artist ’s boldly and playfully embroidered photographs. And West Hollywood–based Edward Cella Art and Architecture’s presentation includes three of American artist ’s exquisite porcelain tondos.
For Hoffman, the range of materials, styles, and identities reflected in the fair’s offerings aligns with the openness of the collectors Intersect caters to. “We want to support new collectors who might become purists or who might be completely open and equal opportunity,” she noted.
“Craft is really accessible—it’s really open-hearted, and it’s inclusive,” said Isobel Dennis, the director of the Craft Council’s Collect fair. “It stands for something, it means something—that handmade quality, that expert experience—that skilled person that’s behind the object.”
The 17th edition of Collect features plenty of objects by craft artists melding both traditional and newfangled skills or materials. The presentation from Italophile London gallery MadeInBritaly, for instance, will include otherworldly 3D-printed ceramic vessels by Andrea Salvatori that evoke both scientific models and high-concept patisserie. Another London gallery, House on Mars, will be featuring among its offerings a suite of playful objects by English plasticsmith Zoe Robertson, who granulates and reforms remnants of her previous works to create tactile sculptures. And as part of its presentation for the fair, Ting-Ying Gallery will be offering intricate sculptures that the Irish artist assembles from found ocean plastics. Appropriately, the objects evoke undersea life forms, from seaweed to shellfish and anemones.
Works with an ecological dimension—whether through the use of sustainable materials or transformation of found objects—are one of the recurring motifs at Collect this year. And that concern with sustainability and environmental responsibility may be yet another clue to help explain craft’s appeal to younger climate-conscious collectors. As Borda-Pedreira put it, “Craft is in its very nature anti-consumerist, anti–mass production, and sustainable.”
Dennis also highlighted younger generations’ anti–mass production values as a force behind the craft market’s expansion. She noted the important gateway function performed by interior designers, fashion houses, and home goods retailers, who, through their collaborations with craft artists and championing their work with larger audiences, have helped nurture an appreciation for their work among new collectors.
“It’s so important for all of us that that younger market is coming up, and that a younger generation of collectors is being inspired,” she said. “Even for people who don’t yet have the budget, it still means they can think: ‘When I do have a bit of budget, I know who I love, I really, really want to go for this, and this is who I’m going to invest in.’”
Benjamin Sutton is Artsy’s Lead Editor, Art Market and News.