Making Leaders – Curating Maker Cultures

Plymouth College of Art in association with CraftNet, an independent network that promotes leadership and strategic development for contemporary craft. Convened by Paul Harper, CraftNet representative for the South West, and freelance researcher and writer on art and craft.

This workshop will address two parallel or interrelated strands. Firstly, it will explore the underexploited potential of craft makers as leaders and the value of creative maker practices in developing qualities that contribute to good leadership, not just within the contemporary craft world, but in wider work and social contexts. We will also look at an area where leadership in relation to craft, manifests itself clearly, in contemporary developments in maker ecologies – networks, clusters and communities of makers and the evolving phenomena of ‘maker spaces’.

Makers are perhaps not popularly considered the kinds of people who typically occupy spheres of leadership. Craft was (maybe still is) commonly associated with the romantic idea of the maker as a narrowly focussed specialist, perhaps somewhat taciturn in nature, deploying her or his on-going skill through (what are imagined to be) relatively stable practices of production and consumption.

Needless to say, the actuality of modern craft production - operating alongside pre-Fordist, Fordist, and contemporary post-Fordist expectations, philosophies, production technologies, and work and consumption regimes - often dictates a largely future-facing modus operandi in which makers are called upon to intelligently problem solve and innovate around technology, form, function, aesthetic meaning and (not least) social relevance. Adamson, in the ‘Invention of Craft’, for example, shows how during the development of industrial modernity makers often functioned as innovative leaders in specific fields of production. Marchand further emphasizes and explores the diversity and complexity of problem-solving strategies employed by contemporary craftspeople in ‘Craftwork as Problem Solving’, (the outcome of a 2015 Making Futures workshop); while Sennett observes how many of the essential features of craft practice constitute resources that can constructively influence (indeed, positively inculcate) more inclusive social relations.

To develop these reflections further: while craft making can afford a total absorption in, and unselfconscious enjoyment of, work, it is also outwardly directed - an unfolding engagement that not only fosters ingenuity and resourcefulness, but stamina and perseverance expressed in practical problem-based decision-making. As well as this tenacity and inventiveness, the making encounter simultaneously lends itself to subtle understandings of relational interdependence, empathy, equanimity, humility, and a certain generosity of spirit. Expressed through networks of fellow practitioners and friends, suppliers, clients, curators and audiences, as well as other employments, these qualities can encourage more organic goal orientated associations between selves and surrounding environments – human and non-human alike.

Collaborative leadership also plays a vital role in the complex task of facilitating creative clusters, or ‘communities’ of makers. As stated in the main ‘Aims & Themes’ text, a decisive factor concerning the theme of ‘crafting a sustainable Modernity’ and of promoting ‘a maker aesthetics of production and consumption’ are the networks (physical and digital) that help bring individual makers into constellations of maker groups that together can become mutually supportive maker culture sub-systems, thus establishing maker ecologies, with the potential to become maker economies. These cultural clusters not only allow for rich social and learning exchanges between participants, but also sometimes generate extra jobs to be undertaken within the ‘community’, as well as helping to develop audiences and consumers.

Ares Kalandides, the Managing Director of INPOLIS economic development consultants in Berlin, describes three levels to participation in such maker networks: 1) knowledge and information; 2) decision-making; 3) sharing in value creation. The first is the most common – and maybe easiest form of participation. Its principle is that knowledge is shared, not something exclusively held by experts. The second is more complex, as it’s the principle of democracy: everybody affected by a decision should somehow have a say in it. And finally the third one is the one we always forget: if there is any value created through such processes, this former always needs to be shared in some way. Full participation includes all three.

Taking this tri-partite schema as a departure point, this workshop therefore asks what might be the common and/or exceptional circumstances that dictate the success and difficulties facing such initiatives. For example, the 2015 edition of Making Futures featured keynote addresses that looked closely at the semi-rural/suburban north Californian ‘FIbreshed’ movement - a localised regenerative textile economy which brings together non GMO farmers with textile producers, designers and makers, and retail outlets. In this edition, Dr Bastian Lange, one of our Keynotes, will explore how collaborative maker communities and their alternative forms produce value as one expression of creative micro-entrepreneurs and small-scale designer-makers, and in doing so will reference the Berlin ‘alternative culture’ of auteur makers. It might be that each of these examples of maker-based clusters represents niche propositions entirely unique to their own immediate participants, contexts and social underpinning. However, is this entirely the case? Or might there be important generic factors, ‘lessons’ even, that can be learned and exchanged across formats that attempt to generate and sustain different maker ecologies?

The thesis underpinning this workshop then, is that makers might (and, indeed, frequently do) turn out to be uniquely adept creators of communities, organisations, cultures and institutions. This workshop will explore how the skills and sensibilities involved in creative making are perhaps particularly aligned to positive and constructive forms of innovative leadership that can be nurtured within maker-cultures, and which might benefit many spheres of human organization.

Presentations in this workshop will describe case studies that illuminate the two strands, sharing knowledge and experience and suggesting reproducible models, as well as exploring the critical context in which they take place. The aim will be to encourage discussion, to test our thesis, and to develop a better understanding of how maker cultures operate in the world and how creative work might cultivate positive and constructive forms of innovative leadership.