IN 1977, A FEW HUNDRED ARTISTS EXHIBITED CLAY pots, hammered silver earrings and quilted wall hangings at the first Baltimore Winter Market of American Crafts.
Grateful that their four fuzzy slides had met jurors' approval, some artists likely did no more than spread wares on an Indian print bedspread and await customers.
Little did they imagine the sea change ahead.
This week at the Baltimore Convention Center, 700 artists at the 30th annual show will display objects, many of them mixed media pieces formed from combinations of gemstones, glass, wood, fiber, metal, synthetic, electroplated materials. Instead of submitting slides to jurors, they e-mailed digital images. And the bedspreads have been replaced by eye-catching displays that may have cost thousands of dollars.
Freshly branded, slickly promoted and rechristened the Baltimore Fine Craft Show, the American Craft Council's annual event has traveled far from its counter-cultural origins.
The back-to-earth spirit that revived the modern craft movement in the 1970s has given way to a polished professionalism critical to the survival of handmade crafts, says Reed McMillan, director of shows for the American Craft Council in New York.
"We joke that where you used to be able to put a little sandwich board out and people would come, now we have very sophisticated marketing and advertising campaigns and a whole staff devoted to PR and marketing," McMillan says. With the availability of mass-produced, well-designed plates, flatware and furniture at Target, Pottery Barn and other outlets, craft artists also have "huge amounts of competition," he says.
That pricier, handmade objects still offer appeal is a "real testament to the growth of our community -- that it's still alive and thriving and young people are joining the ranks," McMillan says.
A slew of new materials, techniques and a more generous definition of craft that blurs the lines between design, art and architecture has also transformed the field.
Artists are turning out work that doesn't fit into any one category of craft or art, says Dian Magie, executive director of the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design in North Carolina. "I think right now what we're seeing with students in universities -- they do not want to be pinned down. They want to try all the mediums and see what fits. Often it's more than one medium. That is where the whole field is changing. Craft shows are an expression of that change [or] growth."
And yet, certain verities apply to both ancient and contemporary craft, as David Revere McFadden observes in a 2000 catalog essay, "Artifice and Authenticity: Defining Craft." McFadden, the chief curator for the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, maintains that finely crafted objects, whether created for utilitarian or symbolic purposes, share the "potential for expressing aesthetic values through an attractive and satisfying design, the beauty or rarity of materials used in their fabrication, their innovativeness and uniqueness, or the sheer excellence of their workmanship."
For Edward Kidera, a self-taught Woodbine artist whose metal mailboxes, large Asian-inspired bells and furniture will be exhibited at the Baltimore show, viewing his pieces through the lens of "art" is a way of meeting his own high standards. "I do like to think of my work as being art," says Kidera, who recycles discarded oxygen tanks and other castoffs in his work.
"Although a good portion of my stuff is functional, what tends to make it art as opposed to just craft is that I'm constantly trying to make it different," he says. "I'll make a chair that's very usable, but doesn't look like any other chair I ever made."
To support themselves, though, plenty of show veterans have had to make the transition to production work.
Talya Baharal and Gene Gnida create sculptural jewelry from copper, bronze and silver in their Rifton, N.Y. studio. The couple fabricate one-of-a-kind pieces as well as "studio multiples."
That's a compromise, but a slim one, Baharal says. "I would love to only make one-of-a-kind pieces and never worry about how am I ever going to repeat this so that it still retains its vitality, but is not schlocky, either. It's so much more difficult," she says.
Barbara Heinrich, a goldsmith based in Pittsford, N.Y., first exhibited at the Council show 20 years ago as an invited student. As demand grew for her gold brooches and rings, Heinrich has gravitated from creating singular pieces to production pieces cast from molds. "Production changes everything," she says. "In the beginning, every single piece was 100 percent handmade and everything was a new design. I started from zero."
Changing methods to meet demand hasn't prevented Heinrich from achieving success at the highest levels of the craft world, including representation by galleries that participate in the Sculpture Objects & Functional Art (SOFA) exposition, an ultra-exclusive annual craft show in New York and Chicago.
A moderate number of artists participating in large shows graduate to SOFA's rarified realm. The commercial elements of huge, less selective craft shows discourage groundbreaking work of that caliber, McFadden says. "I know that I'm going to see before I get there," he says of the Baltimore show and others like it. "These people who do craft fairs are also business people, who are flogging their stuff. They had to become marketers, suss out what the market will bear, and also more aware of market trends."
Artists able to sell their work exclusively in galleries are perhaps "a little bit freer of that," he says.
Another flaw of the larger shows: Good craftsmanship doesn't guarantee a good sense of design, resulting in well-made but unattractive pieces, McFadden says. An artist may be brilliant at blowing glass, yet makes ugly goblets, he says. Such artists would be wise to "take basic design courses."
Under those circumstances, "You have to ask, what is it that would draw you back to a craft show today?" McFadden says. "On the positive side, there is always the possibility of seeing some new talent who has just arrived on the scene who does great work. On the down side, you tend to see the same uninteresting stuff multiplied many times."
Few can afford the kind of museum-quality work that takes craft to a new dimension, a factor that fuels the market for less original and less expensive objects. "It's a real struggle to find that balance, I agree," McFadden says. "I don't want to pay necessarily $200 for a wine glass ... I think it's hard to find those wonderful objects relatively low in price."
The Council's Reed McMillan views the quality of craft as a continuum from street fair offerings to choice galleries where one-of-a-kind objects may sell for astounding sums. Within this framework, he doesn't take issue with McFadden's critique of craft shows. A collector himself, McMillan says he is "very picky" about the objects he collects.
But if he were a craft-show devotee with only $40 to spend, "I'm going to find the best thing I could find for that price," McMillan says. "If you love something and it speaks to you, it doesn't matter if it's a collector collecting at a very high level, in the five or six figures, or if you're in the market for the most beautiful coffee mug [you] can find. "
Over the 19 years they've participated in the Baltimore show, Baharal and Gnida have acquired a following that has become well acquainted with their craft. "They fall in love with the form and the approach of the material, rather than it being about an investment in gold or diamonds," Baharal says.
The two artists have displayed work at the high-end SOFA show in the past. Although she would prefer to concentrate on the one-of-a-kind work found at SOFA, Baharal says she would miss the Baltimore Fine Craft Show. It is "somewhat more egalitarian, not as elitist," she says. "And you know what, that's rather nice."
IF YOU GO
The American Craft Council's Baltimore Fine Craft Show will take place from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St. Admission: $12; $18 two-day pass; under 12, free; free for ACC members. 800-836-3470 or craftcouncil.org / baltimore.
Philosophies to keep in mind at the Fine Craft Show:
What makes a successful object? "I think that it really comes down to nuances in design. How do you develop that eye? What's good balance? What's bad balance? What does line and shape and color do to affect [the piece]?" Reed McMillan, director of shows for the American Craft Council
Do you have a measure for judging worthy craft? "I think art that we're creating now, 100 years from now, people will say, 'Wow, that's beautiful.' " So much of the stuff that's out there, a couple of hundred years from now, people are going to [say], 'What?' " Edward Kidera, metalsmith with work in the Baltimore show
Describe the challenge of taking craft to a new level. "There are anonymous pots made 2,000 years ago. They're fabulous, elegant, beautiful. It's the rare individual who does and that's the person our museum is most interested in. They help write the history of art in our time." David Revere McFadden, chief curator, Museum of Arts & Craft