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Art gets modern at this year's American Craft Council Show

When the show opens at the Baltimore Convention Center today, visitors will be able to check out many of their old favorites — people like Myers who have been coming here for years, selling everything from notepaper and ceramics to cutlery and wall hangings. But there are also 126 brand-new exhibitors scheduled to show up. And with their eyes firmly on the future, show organizers are introducing several new concepts this year.

Chief among them is "Hip Pop," in which emerging artists new to the craft-show scene will receive their own specially marked exhibit space. Organizers hope this will enable not only newer, less traditional artists to feed off one another, but help attract the curious to sample what they're doing and maybe invest their time and money in something different.

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"They love exchanging information," says Pamela Diamond, marketing director for the American Craft Council. "They get to speak to a group of people who appreciate these things — and it really doesn't matter what age they are."

The council, which sets up shows nationwide throughout the year — Baltimore's is the second-oldest, behind only Minneapolis — gives these newbies three years to see if they can make a go of their artistry. Some may decide there's not enough consumer interest in what they do, Diamond says. But many will find they enjoy the lifestyle and, more important, that there's an audience for what they do.

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"We give them three years to get established," says Diamond, noting that at least one aspect of whether they're successful or not is pretty easy to gauge. "People vote with their money," she says.

Mary Raivel, who lives in Otterbein, started fashioning her own bronze and silver jewelry about five years ago, after taking classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Baltimore Jewelry Center. She'll be part of the inaugural "Hip Pop" program at this year's Baltimore show, and praises the concept for drawing new blood into the artisan scene.

"I've been going to this craft show for many years as a customer," says Raivel, 49, who works as an environmental attorney in the state attorney general's office when she's not designing jewelry. "I don't know if I would specifically say that you have to attract younger people, but I will say that I just kept seeing the same old things. Basically, you just need some fresh ideas, and it does seem like they're making an effort to bring newer emerging artists in."

Adds Myers, 46, who works out of a studio at Clipper Mill, "It's important to get a younger audience involved in the small studio movement."

The council is also introducing an exhibition called "Let's Make: Inspiration Stations," in which visitors will be invited to assist in the making of a piece, and maybe gain some insights into how these artists take their ideas and give them physical form. In addition, this marks the third year local designers will participate in "Make Room, Modern Design Meets Craft," in which they design rooms around a specific theme or piece of art.

"I think the ACC is working really hard to attract a younger generation; they have to," says Susie Brandt, a faculty member in MICA's foundation and fiber departments. "I tell the kids to go down and check it out, and the kids who go down are really excited about it."

A former board member of the council, Brandt says the chief deterrent for her students is the price of tickets to the show ($14-$16 per day). But the council does provide some free tickets to be distributed to MICA students, she says.

In many ways, shows like this weekend's tap into the prevailing zeitgeist, says the council's Diamond. Doing things on a smaller scale is very much in today, she notes. People like using natural materials or found materials that don't require manufacturing. At a time when natural ingredients are all the rage, and the importance of small businesses is always being proclaimed, craft shows are attracting an ever-increasing audience.

"We're part of a whole movement," she says. "The '80s and '90s were about collecting — more is better, the fancier, the better. There was a straight line of affluence going through this country.

"But when the recession hit, people started questioning what was really important to them. It became more about small businesses, about always being very responsible about what you're making. The DIY movement, that small entrepreneurial business attitude, it's been very strong for the last 15-20 years."

And there are plenty of cutting-edge new techniques and ideas out there, Raivel notes. Artists are working with new kinds of fabric, found objects, different types of plastic. One of her instructors at the Baltimore Jewelry Center has pieces that she made from sheep gut.

New technology, including 3-D printers, has opened all sorts of new possibilities for the creatively minded.

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That said, not all the stars are aligning for young artisans looking to make a living — or at least a comfortable sideline — off their skills. When she started some 20 years ago, Myers notes, gold was under $400 an ounce, and silver was going for $4 an ounce. Now, gold is going for more than $1,200 an ounce, while silver is about $17 an ounce.

"It was just really, really affordable to get a jewelry line going when I was young," Myers says. "Today, it's more expensive to just do everything. Those factors have really contributed to a decline in young folks … taking the plunge financially."

Still, Diamond says, people of all ages keep coming to her group's craft shows, both as exhibitors and customers. Maybe it's because they do a good job of attracting them. Or maybe, she acknowledges, there's just something in the artistic muse itself.

"Artists continually break new ground," she says. "That's who they are."

If you go

This weekend's American Crafts Council Show at the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St., will showcase more than 650 of the country's best crafters. Hours are 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $14-$16 per day ($5 after 5 p.m. Friday), $34-$36 for a three-day-pass. craftcouncil.org/baltimore.

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