A set of rose-gold plated necklaces sits among the temporary displays in the new Crafts Council Gallery in London. Designer Courtney Durka’s jewellery is crafted from old bronze two pence pieces, circulated until the Royal Mint realised the bronze was worth more than the coins and replaced them with the copper-plated steel coins we have today.
Durka’s collection, Hidden Value, combines technical skill, artistry, upcycling and a good story; themes that have resonated throughout the Crafts Council’s own 50-year mission. Just as Durka repurposed the coins, so the Crafts Council has revived and remodelled its public gallery, ready to launch in March last year until Covid closed the doors.
The recycled coins were part of a swiftly assembled temporary graduate selling show, Future Edit, installed during the chaos of 2020’s decimated public programming. All the work on show shared a drive for inventive sustainability and is still viewable online.
Craft has never been more relevant. Months of confinement in our homes introduced or brought many back to the skills of making, with the well-documented mental health benefits it brings. Recent figures show that craft is a £3.4bn British industry, and the popular BBC1 television show The Repair Shop demonstrates the magnetism of skilful artistry with a human story.
The Crafts Council has a national mission to support makers and champion UK craft across cultural policy, industry and education. Its headquarters in Islington, north London, has served as a base for 20 years, but its gallery closed in 2006 following a decision to focus on regional partnerships and a dynamic loans service.
But like all public collections, the Crafts Council has to continually redefine and renew its purpose. The gallery now reopens after a decade in which the global art world’s distaste for craft collapsed. Craft historian Glen Adamson wrote that “the long-standing marginalisation of the crafts was just the art world’s way of practising sexism and racism”, and works such as Anni Albers’ textiles and Kara Walker’s cut paper silhouettes take their place in a belatedly expanded art historical canon.
Reversing the gallery closure allows the Crafts Council to join this clamour for craft and create a permanent base for its core crafting audience and attract a wider demographic. Correspondingly, the mission for the new gallery is to “make a home for craft” and operate as a venue for exhibitions, events and co-curation with the wider craft sector.
The building at 44A Pentonville Road has been repurposed many times, starting life in 1819 as Claremont Chapel, built for a congregation of more than 1,000 nonconformists. A sketch by George Scharf in the British Museum shows the chapel’s original interior with central pulpit and packed galleries, both long vanished.
We jostle for experiences in galleries today, just as the chapel thronged with worshippers, but it is hard to visualise the former rolling fields of Islington before they were snapped up by Regency property developers. One rural reminder is hidden underground – the chapel was built directly over a natural spring supplying drinking water for cattle on their way to Smithfield Market.
The chapel’s grand stuccoed exterior and listed iron railings welcome craft worshippers today. The entrance is raised from street level by a flight of steps whose elegance is undercut by the barrier they create for accessibility. A single platform lift is newly installed, but the long front courtyard needs
further work to create an accessible welcome and greater street connection.
The opening definition on the wall – “Craft is clay pinch pots made by five-year olds and extraordinary objects made by makers with years of experience” – gives a lovely human message, connecting all the displayed objects to our own innate desire to make things. It brought back childhood sewing lessons and the feel of felt, velvet, and wool in my own hands.
Crafting the space
Inside, the gallery is a generous-sized single room space. The clinical, white cube-style gallery of 2006 has gone and ceramic plaster walls create a warmer feel, along with the restoration of the chapel’s original parquet floors, British designer Sebastian Cox’s rattan furniture and a central Barrisol ceiling, creating the illusion of natural daylight.
The cafe and education rooms from 2006 are no more and the two upper floors have been rented out, so in some respects this is a slimmed-down version of the previous incarnation. But a welcome addition is the inviting study space for browsing 7,000 craft books on open shelving, a new home for an underused, important library resource.
Initiated in 1972, the Crafts Council’s collection provides an authoritative view of contemporary craft, from cutting-edge design to the crossover with visual art. It features makers Magdalene Odundo, Lucy Rie, Grayson Perry and Tatty Devine as well as pioneering recycled plastics by Jane Atfield, and an exact recreation of a pink, knitted pussy hat worn on the first New York Women’s March in 2017.
The new gallery will host temporary exhibitions, not permanent displays from the collection. After the previous gallery closed, the Crafts Council was no longer eligible for museum Accreditation, but a new application will now be possible.
Inaugural exhibition The Maker’s Eye would have greeted visitors in March 2020 before Covid intervened and is now rescheduled to open in June, until September. Leading craft makers, including Turner Prize winners Assemble, Christine Broadhead, Esna Su and Michael Marriott, originally selected work from the permanent collection, but 2020’s postponement created space for critical review in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Forward with grace
The Crafts Council appointed Christine Checinska to intersect the show with stories of makers of colour, who commented: “There have always been Black makers crafting powerful work but, somehow, they have been forgotten about, or left out, or not seen… Our arts organisations and museum collections have not always embraced Black experiences and expertise, but we must move forward with courage and grace...”
With a renewed commitment to equality and sustainability embedded in its core, once the doors can reopen, the Crafts Council Gallery promises a new chapter of engagement and activism in this re-energised space, hopefully ensuring that we can all be captivated by craft in the years ahead.