These Artists are Making It

Fionola Meredith finds out more about the Craft NI new scheme

It’s evident that there’s a significant and growing public appetite for high quality, design-led craft. Craft fairs, where customers can experience at first-hand the sheer diversity of contemporary craft and applied arts in the province, are one way that crafts-people can bring their work to the attention of their market. But turning a satisfying hobby – or even a degree in design - into a viable business is the real challenge for Northern Ireland’s designer-makers and crafts-people.

That’s where Making It, a business start-up scheme, comes in. An initiative of Craft Northern Ireland, the new regional agency set up to support crafts-people and raise the profile of high-quality craft and applied arts, Making It provides designer-makers with the assistance they need to get a firm foot-hold in the craft industry.

Successful applicants to the scheme are placed in host organisations which have a particular commitment to nurturing contemporary craft and applied arts. These include National Trust properties, further education colleges, arts centres and universities. There, the craftsperson is offered financial and professional assistance – the skills and tools they need to establish an economically viable business.

On the financial side, a £6,000 grant is available over the two years as maintenance support, while the maker may also be eligible for up to £1,500 towards travel and transport (including relocation costs). That’s in addition to the rent-free workshop or studio space.

The maker is offered access to administrative and IT facilities, and to exhibitions and selling events, as well as the opportunity to participate in marketing and business skills programmes. Craft Northern Ireland hopes that up to 22 new craft and applied arts businesses will be established by March 2008.

‘It’s all about raising the profile of craft in Northern Ireland, as well as creating a template for others to follow,’ says Philip Magennis, Arts Officer with Antrim Borough Council, and one of the Making It Project Co-ordinators.

‘Both host organisations and makers apply for the programme, which is funded through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s National Lottery Special Initiative for Crafts. The challenge then is for Craft Northern Ireland to marry up like with like, depending on the facilities that each host organisation can offer’.

It’s easy to see how the placement allows designer-makers to explore and develop their business ambitions. But what’s in it for the host organisations? How do they benefit from the presence of a craftsperson in the workplace?

According to Craft Northern Ireland, a resident designer-maker can bring a new creative dimension to the host organisation’s programme of work, as well as sharing first-hand creative skills with the organisation’s staff, students, clients and audiences. Wendy Elliot, of the National Trust - another Making It Project Co-ordinator - says, ‘the hope is that we are supporting a new, fully-fledged business’.

Elliot was instrumental in installing Genevieve Murphy, a paper designer, at Castle Coole, the National Trust property in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh. She adds, ‘housing a craftsperson also adds a new dynamic to our property, an extra interest factor’.

At a wider level, the Making It scheme is intended to boost Northern Ireland’s cultural infrastructure by supporting a big increase in the number of designer-makers currently active here. Beyond that, it’s about raising the profile of Northern Ireland as a region which values cultural activity – perhaps even establishing the North as a centre for innovative contemporary practice in craft, design and applied arts.

The first wave of Making It residencies began in January 2006, running to December 2007. Jewellery designer Rachel McKnight, from Lurgan, was one of the new recruits to the programme, hoping to develop her entrepreneurial skills. She was placed at the Newry Institute of Further and Higher Education.

A graduate of the University of Ulster, McKnight had no previous business experience. She says that, for her, the key challenges involved in starting a craft business are ‘finding the people or retail outlets to buy my work; finding the time to do all the jobs that I have to do in my business; but also finding the time to develop new work.’

Her placement at Newry Institute has allowed McKnight to experiment with new technology that may enhance her production capabilities. In return, she plans to develop her own workshop on the campus, offering part-time courses to students of the college.

Ceramicist John McKeag has worked in the craft pottery sector in Northern Ireland for a number of years. The Making It programme offered him a residency at the Clotworthy Arts Centre in Antrim, where he is in the process of installing a special sodium kiln, the first of its kind to be built in Ireland. For McKeag, starting his own craft venture means taking responsibility for ‘designing, making, marketing, selling and managing a business … and striking a balance between work and family life’.

Elizabeth Ruddock, a Portadown-based textile artist, was assigned to the School of Art and Design at the University of Ulster campus at York Street in Belfast. Ruddock already had strong links with the School, having graduated from there in 2005 with a first class honours degree in Fine and Applied Art. In fact, she got a taste for the pleasures of creating and marketing her own work at the University of Ulster graduate show.

‘At the show I achieved immense satisfaction from selling almost my entire exhibition and also receiving several commissions,’ she says. ‘This was a key driving force for me to pursue my business venture and embark upon the chance for success.’ After her stint on the Making It scheme, Ruddock hopes to be able to have her own studio, complete with specialist equipment that will allow her to develop her work still further. Her other ambitions include running public workshops from her own studio, and completing a major public commission.

The Making It programme is all about picking up on the potential of Northern Ireland’s most vibrant and innovative designer-makers, and equipping them with the entrepreneurial skills to turn that talent into a fully-functioning business.