Five Fingers, One Hand

Five Fingers, One Hand

2014 “Craft School Experience” exhibition

The 2014 “Craft School Experience” exhibition at SOFA Chicago showcased the work of artists who’ve taken part in programs at two or more of the participating craft schools. Photo: Jeremy Witteveen

Artists have long known the benefits of an immersive two weeks at a craft school such as Pilchuck, Penland, or Arrowmont. Now, with the launch of a nationwide marketing campaign, the whole world may know.

The campaign, dubbed the Craft School Experience, went public with a panel and exhibition at SOFA Chicago in Nov-ember and the debut of a website. It’s a joint effort by the directors of five craft schools – Jim Baker (Pilchuck Glass School), Jean McLaughlin (Penland School of Crafts), Bill May (Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts), Kristin Muller (Peters Valley School of Craft), and Stuart Kestenbaum (Haystack Mountain School of Crafts), working with Philadelphia marketing agency Social Impact Studios.

The message of the campaign: Craft-school training is unique because of the opportunity to be utterly absorbed in a chosen medium for days at a time. At a craft school, “there is little else for you to do besides immerse yourself in what it is you’ve gone to study,” glass artist Dante Marioni testifies on the new website. “You live and breathe what you’ve chosen to go there and do.” With that sort of laser focus, artists can make huge strides, gaining skills as well as a renewed sense of community and purpose. It’s an experience described on the site as “thought-provoking, inspiring, and sometimes life-changing.”

The campaign began in earnest in late 2014, but the seeds were planted almost three years earlier when the five directors met at the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, Texas, to compare notes about their challenges. For three days, they talked about funding, scholarships, diversity, and enrollment. “Out of that began to develop the vision for a joint marketing effort,” Baker recalls.

A few months after the meeting, McLaughlin conjured up that nascent vision, reminding the group in an email of the conversation they’d had. “I have this strong belief,” she wrote, “that we are barely scratching the surface of the people who might want to study with us.” She envisioned a campaign that would pitch the schools as special places, alive with hands-on learning, new friendships, and multiple generations. 

“We wanted to articulate what makes our style of education so strong,” she says. 

To do that effectively, the directors knew they would need money. McLaughlin took the reins and applied for a grant from the Windgate Charitable Foundation. After the group was awarded almost $170,000 in November 2012, they met again at Arrowmont in early 2013 to talk about finding a marketing partner. “We wanted a creative marketer or a firm that could help us communicate a nuanced message to a larger audience,” McLaughlin says.  

Enter Social Impact Studios’ founding director Ennis Carter, who calls her firm “a creative hub for promoting important social issues.” How is the experience of a craft school an important social issue? It’s part of a good life, Carter says. “Arts, education, mindfulness, and beauty are all part of that good life, and those are really encapsulated at these craft schools.”

Intensive meetings at SOFA in 2013 and at Penland in the spring of 2014 led to the notion of the Craft School Experience. The key word, says Carter, is “experience.” What the schools had to offer, she says, “wasn’t a product, it wasn’t an educational method.  It was actually the experience.” The slogan and logo were tested among craft school students and teachers over the summer, and the campaign came together.

Was it hard for the directors to collaborate, knowing that, in some sense, they are competing with each other for dollars and students? No, says May: “The idea is not to divide the pie into different-sized pieces, but to plant orchards, gather fruit, and bake a bigger pie.”

Arrowmont and Peters Valley have already seen increases in enrollment. And, overall, the buzz has been good. “People who teach and study at our respective organizations have commented how great it feels to them to see these organizations cooperating and collaborating with an interest in the development of the field as a whole,” says Baker.

And working together has been a joy, says Muller. “When we come together, there is an instant and wonderful creative energy,” she says. The campaign capitalizes on connections that have existed among the schools for decades. 

“Working together is really part of our history,” says Kestenbaum, who stepped down as Haystack’s director in May after 26 years but continues to work with the group as a strategist and spokesperson.

What’s next for the campaign are ads on social media, online, and in national and perhaps international publications; more audio interviews for the website; and, according to Carter, a video that tells the story of the five schools. The immediate goal is to attract more students of all skill levels to craft schools. The ultimate goal, Muller says: to “help shape the future of fine craft in America.”