Once upon a counterculture, a potter toiled in his rural studio, turning clay scooped from a nearby riverbed into primitive but functional bowls. Occasionally, he sold a few of the nicer ones to peace-seeking ex-urbanites.
Twenty-five years later, the crafts realm bears little resemblance to the quaint scenario above. If that same potter remains in business, it's a safe bet he has a computerized mailing list, accepts major credit cards and aims his product lines and price points at the well-heeled buyers who frequent mammoth wholesale and retail craft shows.
Today, when the eighth annual Boston Buyers Markets of American Crafts opens, its founder, Baltimorean Wendy Rosen, can survey the scene and take a handsome amount of credit for turning a generation of babes in the woods into sophisticated, successful craftspeople.
As she puts it, "I created a vision and a viable marketplace." The four-day Boston trade show, featuring almost 1,000 exhibitors who work in clay, glass, wood, metal, fiber and mixed media, is one of several across the country orchestrated by Ms. Rosen and her company, the Rosen Group.
Though she is not the first marketing whiz to recognize the
financial potential of the contemporary crafts movement, Mrs. Rosen is certainly one of the most shrewd and most prominent. Her career began serendipitously at a 1982 craft show where a potter "poured her heart out" about the difficulties of making a living. Instantly, she saw a way to enhance the potter's future -- and thus her own.
Within weeks, the former Towson Times and Messenger business manager and Baltimore Magazine advertising sales representative had printed new business cards and rushed to the assistance of a "community struggling to become an industry."
Finding a niche
As her strictly wholesale business grew, Mrs. Rosen says she worked to create a niche between the gift show market, which mainly appeals to wholesale buyers specializing in inexpensive items, such as licensed super hero mugs, and the high-end market, represented most conspicuously by the American Crafts Council Craft Fair, whose wholesale and retail shows (including an annual Baltimore show) caters to big spenders. Buyers who come to Mrs. Rosen's shows represent Nordstroms, Saks Fifth Avenue and the Nature Company, as well as galleries, mail order catalogs, specialty stores and interior design firms.
Under Mrs. Rosen's tutelage, the artisans who sold their wares at her shows became business people first, artists second. Not only could they build an armoire, they could balance the books, pay bills on time and produce work of consistent quality. At Mrs. Rosen's suggestion, the craftspeople also dressed themselves up, turned craft show stalls into modular mansions, graced with oriental rugs, gleaming crafts, Mozart on the sound system, and their own venerable presence.
Just like Disney World
Mrs. Rosen models her approach on that of Disney World designers: "What we do is exactly what they do. You are presented with a controlled vision of what you think the world should be. That's what presenting craft is all about . . . taking all the positive aspects of American culture and galvanizing them into a concept."
Although Baltimore artist Sandy Magsamen no longer shows her work at the Buyers Market, she praises Mrs. Rosen's vision and attributes her own success in part to her marketing skills. "I think she insists on focusing craftspeople not only in looking at their craft as art but as a way of life," she says. And Mrs. Rosen follows through, "She does her job which is bringing the buyers in."
From her suite at the Mill Centre, a former Hampden cotton mill converted into a sunny warren of studios and offices of which she is part-owner, Mrs. Rosen presides over a minor empire. Not content to focus on the exhaustive business of running huge trade shows in Philadelphia and Boston, she will soon be touting her new book, "Crafting as a Business," on the QVC shopping channel with Phyllis George, spokeswoman for the Year of American Craft 1993. Mrs. Rosen also is collaborating with the Walt Disney company to establish an award program for artisans creating one-of-a-kind crafts with Disney themes.
This September, the Rosen Group is presenting a craft business institute, billed as "a one-stop opportunity to gather the latest information in pricing and product development, accounting, public relations, display and lighting ideas, computer technology and more." And in October, Mrs. Rosen's company will release a new magazine, American Style.
Mrs. Rosen freely admits, she can't rest on her laurels. "I'm
vertically oriented," she explains. "One year [my craftspeople] had a horrible problem with travel agencies, so I created my own. . . . The controller in me likes to have responsibility for every part of a person's experience, from freighting crafts from show to show to day care at the show."
Mrs. Rosen, 39, speaks quickly, dousing her speech with marketing lingo. For her and her sister, Laura Rosen, vice president of the Rosen Group, business is all in the family. The sisters are married to brothers Marc and Steven Rosen, part owners of Mark Downs, a retail office furniture store.
And family business has been good. Revenues for the Rosen Group average $3 million annually, Mrs. Rosen says. As for Buyers Market exhibitors, Mrs. Rosen likes to cite the case of Tabra Tunoa, a California jewelry designer who started on the street. After she first started showing at the Buyers Market eight years ago, her staff has grown to 75 and sales have reached $4.5 million.
Lauded for her organizational skills, Mrs. Rosen doesn't get unanimously high marks for her artistic standards. "I'm very much in favor of what she was doing . . . creating a market for craftsmen where they no longer have to be on the university circuit or get another job to do their thing," says Nancy Press, an independent craft curator in Baltimore. But first and foremost, "Wendy's thing is marketing," Mrs. Press says. "She could market anything." In other words, Mrs. Rosen's aesthetic goals take second place to her financial goals.
She, of course, would disagree, insisting that she uses strict criteria that precludes manufacturers or sub-par artisans from exhibiting at her shows.
Thanks in part to Mrs. Rosen's marketing innovations, the question of what makes a craft a craft is constantly debated among craftspeople themselves. In the Crafts Report, a "business journal for the crafts industry," the issue has provoked an emotional dialogue among contributors.
In a recent issue, an irate glass artist sarcastically insinuates that the line between craft and manufacturing has been blurred beyond distinction: "If it acts like a manufacturer, talks like a manufacturer and looks like a manufacturer, then it's a crafts person."
But Michael Monroe, curator of the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, which specializes in American crafts, takes a catholic approach that allows for "lots of different definitions of craft.
"The romantic notion of it is of an individual who gets an idea, sketches, and executes it from the very beginning to the very end. Perhaps that's the most idealistic kind of view of what it is to be a craftsman. The reality of the situation is that it's not necessarily possible in today's climate," Mr. Monroe says.
"As the crafts movement gets older and has many more practitioners, in order to produce work and be creative, individuals have had to become very sophisticated marketers," he says. "It's a matter of survival, pure and simple."