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The foundation years of Craft Australia - the 1970s

Jane Burns, the founding Director of Craft Australia in 1971 until 1992, provides an insider's view of the development of the then Crafts Council of Australia with its steering committee of prominent craftspeople, designers and writers and how they challenged and extended crafts in Australia. It is argued that this vision of support for studio practitioners earning a living from craft has provided greater opportunity for more people to participate and explore craft.

Jane Burns

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2011 marks 40 years since the establishment of the Crafts Council of Australia, more familiarly known as CCA.  In the 1990s it changed its name to Craft Australia and in 2003 changed its location from Sydney to Canberra but, the continuity of its story and its importance in the arts in Australia is of significance and is worth reflecting upon. 

Its establishment in 1971 predated the Australia Council by about six months and therefore predated the original Crafts Board, the official Federal government’s craft funding and policy body. The CCA was not a government organisation, it was founded by craftspeople and designers as a resource, promotion and advocacy organisation.  It was always intended to be what is termed ‘at arms length from government’ – funded by government but independent in its policies and programs. Over time it has worked closely with the Crafts Board and inevitably has had differences of opinion with the Crafts Board.  Its independence has been very important and has allowed it longevity and to be a very effective voice for contemporary crafts.

A steering committee of prominent craftspeople, designers and writers
The short explanation of CCA’s foundation is that in the mid-1960s a Steering Committee of prominent craftspeople, designers and writers in Sydney decided to act on their desire to see a national craft organisation. 

The aim of the original steering committee members in 1964 was to change the environment from mediocrity to one of excellence. Marea Gazzard stated that the intention was

to get good people in different fields together so that there would be a cross-fertilisation of stimulation and interest, and more excellent craft would be the result.
(Grace Cochrane, The Crafts Movement in Australia, 1992, p. 113)

The Steering committee was made up of a range of practitioners including ceramicists Marea Gazzard, Les Blakebrough and Joy Warren, gold and silver smith Helge Larsen, designer and textile artist Heather Dorrough, Moira Kerr and interior designer Mary White.  

The preponderance of potters in the early years of CCA naturally changed as other studio crafts and facilities became more established.  

Expansion of studios and development of craft opportunities
The establishment of the Craft Council of Australia coincided with the expansion, funding and resourcing of studio equipment in art departments at technical colleges, development of craft opportunities ‘at an alarming rate’ (Grace Cochrane, ibid., p. 202).

  • By the early 1960s the jewellery and silver-smith course at RMIT in Melbourne was taking full-time students and 25 students graduated in 1963-4 with the Governor-General Lord Casey visiting the staff-student exhibition in 1966.
  • In 1963 Tasmanian School of Art was established as an autonomous body.
  • The East Sydney Technical College in the National Art School was upgraded to a three year diploma course in ceramics.
  • The South Australian School of art moved to a purpose-built home with Meg Douglas in charge.  Meg was later president of the Craft Association of South Australia from 1967 to 1972.
  • In 1968 the Western Australian Institute of Technology was established offering art and design courses alongside the technical colleges. 
  • In 1969, Ray Norman joined Sturt Workshops, Mittagong, NSW as head of the metal and jewellery workshops.This Craft Centre has a very proud history from the 1940s and continuing today.

In the 1970s a range of studio craft centres were established, including:

  • Browns Mart community craft centre in Darwin in 1972,
  • the Jam Factory Workshops in Adelaide in 1973,
  • the Cuppacumbalong Craft Centre near Canberra in 1975 and
  • The Glebe Estate Workshop in Sydney in 1975. 

In Victoria, the Potters Cottage at Warrandyte, Montsalvat at Etham and Dunmoochin were, like Sturt some of the first places associated with studio crafts practice.    

Exhibitions and a new status for craft
Group exhibitions played a prominent role in representing studio craft to the general public and gave a public face to the extent of influence of the CCA.  The first biennial exhibition of CCA Steering Committee was in 1967 at the Australian Design Centre in Sydney and 3280 people came to visit. Works in silver, tapestries, wood, glass, ceramic, jewellery, embroidery and weaving were selected from submitted entries.  The exhibition Craft 70s at the Art Gallery of NSW with 78 works was the gallery’s third travelling exhibition which toured all states and New Zealand.  In 1972 the Industrial Design Council winner was a textiles work.   

In 1973 the National Gallery of Victoria Clay + Fibre exhibition of sculptural forms by ceramicist Marea Gazzard and textile artist Mona Hessing received widespread reviews and generated lively debate.  One reviewer stated ‘they declare a new imagination status for their objects’ (Patrick McCaughey in Grace Cochrane, ibid., p. 201).

A formal national organisation with state representatives
A catalyst to establish a formal national organization with state representatives was the invitation in 1964 to participate in the first World Crafts Meeting in New York. The impetus for a national organisation meant that there was a requirement and a focus on supporting the establishment of state craft associations.  Public meetings were held leading to the founding of Craft Associations in each state by 1971.  The priorities of the state craft associations set the patterns for many years: meeting rooms, exhibitions, workshops and, in some states this also extended to a shop and membership facilities.

A funding submission by the CCA was made to the Federal Government in 1971 when John Gorton was Prime Minister. To CCA’s enormous surprise and delight, a grant of $12,000 was made ‘under the counter’ so to speak, through Project funding of the Australian Council for the Performing Arts.  Not the most usual beginning for the national craft organization.  The CCA made up of t wo delegates from each of the states was formerly launched in July 1971.

An insider’s view
As CCA’s administrative head from 1971 until 1992 I had the privilege of the unique perspective of an insider’s view.  To do justice to the huge range of programs undertaken by CCA would need book-length writing and in fact the official history has been written by Grace Cochrane in her 1992 publication The Crafts Movement in Australia: A History, New South Wales University Press, 1992.  I must here recall only a few of the highlights in the litany of stories which make up the ‘ouevre’ of CCA. 

From the start the role was clearly but simply seen by the founding delegates (the Founders) in terms of the organization being able to make all areas of the life of the studio craftsperson easier.  Against the background of the late 1960s and early 1970s in Australia, this meant putting in place systems and opportunities which were not then known. 

First priorities – craft and design
The Founders meeting set priorities as follows:

  • To bring together Australian craftsmen and designers, encourage a high standard of craftsmanship and widen interest in the crafts
  • To hold meetings, discussions, lectures, exhibitions, and to publish
  • To establish an index of Australian craftsmen and their work, and a library
  • To encourage establishment of craft and design training facilities
  • To exhibit and promote abroad the work of Australian craftsmen and designers and introduce overseas crafts to Australia
  • To promote the interests of craftsmen and designers
  • To participate in the international crafts organization, the World Crafts Council, by representing Australia

The use of the term ‘craftsman’ jars now somewhat to 21st Century ears as being not politically correct, but that’s how it was then.  I find both interesting and refreshing the differentiation between ‘craft’ and ‘design’ which the Founders made in the above listing in light of debate, in the mid-1990s and currently, about whether such studio practice should all be termed design. It was so clear to the Founders then that studio craftspeople in Australia were not widely recognized and the way to change this was to ensure that they had a collective voice through their own crafts organization.

CCA started with a staff of one, increased to three in the first two years and in the mid 1970s rose to fourteen.  Everyone was learning on the job.  The term ‘arts administration’ was new and courses in arts management were not to appear for some years.  Optimism and good will was infectious and the craftspeople who were elected to the Council unstintingly gave of the time away from their studios to engage in policy and planning.  It was one of those rare experiences where the clean slate was presented to them and they had the opportunity to write on it as they wished to bring about best results.

 The story has been told elsewhere that when I was called back by the Steering Committee for a second interview, as I thought, about the job of Executive Officer it was in the apartment of Mary White, doyenne of interior designers in Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s and one of the chief architects of CCA.  Mary was a formidable personality.  She had come from northern NSW to Sydney to establish herself as an interior designer and had also begun The Mary White School of Art specifically to offer opportunity art school training to those country people who did not meet existing art school entrance requirements.

The members of the Steering Committee were gathered and I listened with great interest as they tussled with the problem of Grace Brothers having somehow mislaid an exhibition they had sent to New Zealand.  That sorted they gave me a warm welcome and departed. 

I asked Mary White if I could stay behind to discover what was to happen next.  She seemed surprised that I needed to be told as it took a moment for her to realize that I had not grown up with the ideals of the craft movement.  ‘Well’, she said, ‘practical things first. Find premises, preferably in the centre of Sydney, with low rent and space for holding small exhibitions’. 

Mary White and Heather Dorrough miraculously transformed rooms at 27 King Street, Sydney into the smartest of offices and we covered a refectory table in purple vinyl to become one of the most famous boardroom props of its time.  I quickly understood that I was participating in making long held dreams a reality.   It was both an exhilarating and at times a daunting prospect but never dull and always personally and professionally rewarding.

A focus on studio crafts people – the ‘Crafts as a Livelihood’ policy
Memorable policy deliberations which exercised the minds of the Crafts Council delegates at the outset dealt with distinguishing the needs of vocational professional craftspeople or studio craftspeople and designers from those people who did not rely for their living on their craft practice.  There was some support for (what was termed in house) ‘the big bulge’ of craftspeople who regarded their work more as a hobby than a livelihood. However, it was felt that it was vital that support be given to vocational craftspeople as this would lead to a wider understanding in the general public of the importance of the studio crafts.

The ‘Crafts as a Livelihood’ policy led the Council into discussions about the priorities this would place on the State Associations and interaction with their communities.  Initially the state associations were loathe to re-order their priorities to favour the comparatively few vocational practitioners.  However, the CCA argued that whatever programs were set in place specifically for the studio craftspeople, the ‘trickle-down effect’ would advantage everyone. 

The statistical studies subsequently carried out for The Australia Council by Professor David Throsby confirmed that in each discipline of the arts there are large numbers of amateur practitioners and support for them is vital but it is the vocational practitioners who must be the focus of public systems and policies.

As Grace Cochrane observed in her book, in the 1970s, the significance of studio practice and the relationship of crafts to art, design and Australian society needed to be better understood.

Craft represented an alternative to modernism - redefining content, emphasizing skills and processes which were the opposite to the then focus in art on imagination and ideas.  At the same time, while many crafts people chose to continue communities of traditional practice (as did some painters and sculptors), others explored new ideas and forms within clay or fibre or jewellery. By the 1970s the shift from anonymous artisans towards studio practice identified with an individual practitioner was well founded.

CCA as an organisation
Naturally enough the overall workload of the CCA as an organization fell into clusters of activity.  There were:

  • the policy options for the Council to work out
  • practical systems to be set in place
  • information systems about studio craftspeople and the crafts generally to be made easily accessible
  • the national and international networks
  • the entrepreneurial activities in promotion and selling of the work of studio craftspeople
  • the publications responsibility, and
  • important lobbying activities. 

Today in 2010 some of the priorities have altered but Craft Australia still carries on all these roles, perhaps in new and different ways given the digital age in which we live.  Fundamentally what was required then by the craftspeople of the 1970s and 1980s remains as a requirement of their own organization today.

In those early years CCA:

  • established a register of studio practitioners
  • collected resource material
  • provided information of national interest
  • represented Australia on the World Craft Council
  • lobbied for better access to training courses, and
  • lobbied for a government inquiry.

Aboriginal craft projects
From the early 1970s and for a decade, there was also a close association of CCA with the funding of Aboriginal craft and other projects.  The Crafts Board of the Australia Council and the Office of Aboriginal Affairs (later the Department) worked with CCA which acted as the manager and bank for many of the projects that were devised.  This arrangement continued even after the formation of the Australia Council Aboriginal Arts Board in 1973. Contacts included the Hermannsberg potters community, the Ernabella weavers, Bagot Pottery in Darwin, Tiwi Pottery and Tiwi Screen Printing.  This arrangement continued until the formation of the Australia Council Aboriginal Arts Board in 1973.

Individual potters such as Thanakupi from Weipa near Cape York Queensland, and Eddie Purantatameri from Bagot Pottery and John Bosco Tipiloura from Bathurst Island (Nguiu) in the Northern Territory also came to be well recognized with individual studio practice. Eddie Purantatameri and John Bosco Tipiloura built the Tiwi Pottery at Nguiu.

Biographical Register and Slide Library
The CCA Biographical Register of crafts people, and the Slide Library which were begun simultaneously, were both essential in every way. The chain effect of one person telling another about the organization gradually allowed a fantastic card register to be begun. The chalk and cheese nature of systems then and now is illustrated in the following description.  The cards were of the Kalamazoo invention with a cunningly arranged number of holes through which steel spikes could be pushed and hey presto, you could isolate all the Victorians in a flash.

Slide images of current work, mostly taken by the craftspeople themselves, accompanied the biographical information. This was the procedure until the late 1980s when the nationwide computerized database known as Craftline was pioneered by CCA with Crafts Board funding, and all the records from the cards were transferred. 

This was at the beginning of the computer revolution and the transition was far from smooth but like most revolutions it paved the way to a new and wonderful world.  Though the notion of a physical Slide Library has now been superseded, Craft Australia has digitized the images of the work of the 1970s and 1980s and is now beginning to make these universally available via Flickr.

Library, Resource Centre and Index to Craft Journals
The CCA Library of craft journals, books, films, slides, and research programs on all aspects of the contemporary crafts began with establishment of the Resource Centre in 1976. 

The CCA Resource Centre produced a wide range of directory and information booklets which were the essential tools for studio craftspeople and also for the wider audience wanting to explore some of the writing and thinking on the contemporary crafts.  Annotated Bibliographies on glass, wood, metal, were researched and published.

Beth Hatton was the CCA Librarian responsible for researching the Index to Craft Journals 1979-1983 and 1984-1988.  The Craft Journals Index  provided reference through European, North American and Australian journals to authors, specific craft subjects, studio names and trademarks, craft education, crafts competitions, law and taxes, health hazards, conservation, significant conferences.  While it is easy now to see these books as of another century, they contain a wealth of information which makes them as useful now as then as research tools.

Australian Government Inquiries and Reports
This comprehensive research and publication role was made possible by recommendation of the Committee of Enquiry into the Crafts of Australia which reported its findings to the Whitlam Government in 1975.  It was a fully fledged enquiry chaired by the prominent commercial gallery owner, Kym Bonython , and with Felicity Abraham as its Director.  Over a two year period it had researched all aspects of crafts practice and it did with absolute thoroughness everything the CCA Steering Committee Members dreamed about prior to 1971 when setting down its wish list. 

The sure footed way in which the Crafts Council of Australia and the Crafts Board of the Australia Council together undertook most major exhibitions, film, education and research programs in these years was a direct result of this Enquiry. 

In 1978 when David Williams completed his Crafts, Education and Training Report for the Australia Council, he was able to identify practices and ideologies in the crafts, and document the institutions, training courses and qualifications which formed the basis of many consequent policy decisions.

In 2002 the Myer Report, or to give it the official title The Contemporary Visual Arts / Craft Inquiry revisited many of the original research areas and the resulting Visual Arts/Craft Strategy is on-going.

Independent research and publications
CCA also commissioned independent research. Examples are the study by Murray Walker and Peter Emmett on Colonial Crafts of Australia which resulted in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria and in 1979 the book Pioneer Crafts of Early Australia. 

Craft Australia , the journal which began twice yearly with CCA in 1971 and became quarterly, colour, perfect bound in 1976 was the principal tool to promote Australian contemporary crafts to the general public through news agencies and to generate discussion and debate.  Editors of Craft Australia were: Joy Warren, April Hersey, Michael Bogel, Ken Lockwood, and Robert Thompson.

As well, a series of Craft Australia Yearbooks and one-off monographs allowed for more detailed concentration on one medium.  It was always an unspoken tenet of CCA policy making that its activities would be characterized by a ‘showing the way’ philosophy, and when/if a viable other provider of the service came along, the CCA would vacate the field to concentrate on other things.  Craft Australia gave way to Craft Art International edited by Ken Lockwood.

Crafts Council Gallery, Sydney
CCA had a hands-on learning approach to professional practice in gallery operation and established its own Crafts Council Gallery at 113 George Street, The Rocks in 1979 with Pam Gullifer and then Ace Bourke as its first directors.  Peter Emmett was the Director when CCA moved with the Crafts Council of NSW (now called Object) to 100 George Street in the early 1980s.  This initiative like the Export Strategy was a logical extension of the Crafts as a Livelihood policy.

Another logical extension of the Crafts as a Livelihood policy was the introduction of Craft Expo.  Project Officer, Richard Heathcote planned this major initiative with the flair and finesse of a master entrepreneur and put the logistics in the safe, inspired, and totally professional hands of architects, Esther and Trevor Hayter. 

Workshops and lectures program
From 1972, when the artist Arline Fisch, an American jeweller working with woven wires and body plates, toured Australia, CCA hosted a comprehensive workshop and lectures program by invited international artists and brought a large number of significant people and exhibitions to Australia. The Crafts Council of Australia Fellowship program allowed some of these people to spend up to six months here to tour and also to take up residency in Colleges of Advanced Education.

When Nicholas Vergette, the renowned British potter, visited Perth in 1971 as a guest of the Australian Society for Education through the Arts (ASEA), he spoke of crafts as the synthesis of creativity, sensitivity, the need to express and imagine in combination with activities to construct, organize and symbolize. (Grace Cochrane, ibid., p. 124) Vergette was present at Sturt Workshops in 1971 for the historic declaration of the CCA Constitution.

Lobby and networking activity
Space here does not permit any reprise of the full history here, and it is already outlined in the Grace Cochrane book, but this picture is incomplete without reference to the lobby and networking activity of CCA. 

The renaissance of the contemporary crafts in the 1970s gave a new and fresh look to old held understandings of this sector of art practice and this had to be explained.  There was, and perhaps still is, a significant ‘town crier’ role of arts organizations which must say often and loudly what they want others to heed. 

CCA took a very prominent role in specific lobby activity, for example on sales tax, on tertiary training, on cultural policy, and involved other arts managers in establishment of a lobby organization which is now known as the National Association for the Visual Arts. 

As the strength of lobby increased, individual stories emerged of injustices which craftspeople were experiencing relating to their rights as artists.  The solicitor Peter Bankie undertook work on moral rights legislation particularly regarding integrity and attribution, and the flagrant examples provided to him by CCA of three separate textile artists, Mona Hessing, Margaret Grafton and Heather Dorrough were of great significance in this.

International networks
International networking was equally a priority and Australian participation through CCA in the World Crafts Council (WCC) was a particularly high point.  Both in the Asian Zone and on the main organization CCA Presidents with whom I had the priviledge to work– from Marea Gazzard  to Helmut Lueckenhausen, took prominent place.  

From 1964 when funds were raised from a craft auction to send potter Mollie Douglas to the first meeting in New York, CCA delegates were sent to the biennial WCC meetings.  In this way, Marea Gazzard was sent to Peru in 1968 and Les Blakeborough to Dublin in 1970.  In 1972 Marea Gazzard was elected as the WCC Vice-President for Asia and in 1980 she became President of the WCC. Amongst other international activities, the CCA also selected the Australian nominees for the International Biennale of Tapestry in Lausanne, Switzerland from the early 1970s (Grace Cochrane, ibid., p. 210) and organized Australian participation in the annual Faenza International Ceramic Concorso.  CCA also represented the crafts sector on the National Commission for UNESCO.

The logic in the minds of the CCA Founders of encouraging international exchanges was that this was an essential part of the CCA organizational framework.  The aim was to make possible a line of communication from the individual studio through the local specialist and state organizations to the national and the international arenas.  It was achieved.   As a result, the quality and range of craft work in Australia was strengthened and increased; invaluable personal and organizational networks were established.

Craft versus design debate, influence and engagement
In the last decade, the elephant-in-the-room has been the craft / design debate and some of the titles of the state organizations have changed to drop the word ‘craft’. The clear lines of communication between and with organisations  in Australia and internationally are now not so visible.

The activities of CCA and its influence and engagement saw increased travel, visits and exhibitions for crafts people as well as new collections, workshops and courses which both challenged and also extended crafts, in a way, which was not previously possible.

The emphasis on excellence provided greater access and opportunity for more people to participate and explore the arts.  The increased access and improved opportunitie for people to expore craft carried through to the 1980s.

Craft Australia, like its counterpart organizations in Canada, the United Kingdom, America, India, and other World Crafts Council countries, proudly retains the defining word ‘craft’ in its title. It therefore has the unique distinction of being central to the continuity of history of the renaissance of the studio craft movement in Australia from the 1940s to the present day.  It is a remarkable on-going history of advocacy, leadership and representation. 


Jane Burns, December 2010

Jane Burns was the founding Director of the Crafts Council of Australia from 1971 to 1992, later re-named Craft Australia in 2003..


List of Presidents / Chairs of the Crafts Council of Australia and Craft Australia

  • Marea Gazzard 1971-73
  • Marcia del Thomas 1972-73
  • Ian Sprague 1974-75
  • Rowen Lewis 1976-77
  • Sue Walker 1978-79
  • Robert Bell 1980-82
  • Michael Keighery 1983-86
  • Marion Marshall 1987-89
  • Helmut Lueckenhausen 1989-92 
  • Greg Daly 1992 -
  • Robert Bell - 2002
  • Margaret Kirkwood 2002-03
  • Kay Lawrence 2003-04   
  • Robyn Daw 2004-2007
  • Antonia Syme 2007 - 2011
  • Robert Reason 2011 -

Listen, look and play

Australian Craft and Design Network
The network of Australian Craft and Design Centres (ACDC)


1. The other members of the Enquiry were Fred McCarthy, anthropologist, Marea Gazzard, ceramic artist/sculptor, James Mollison, National Gallery Director, Eric Westbrook, ex National Gallery of Victoria, Dick Richards, SA  Gallery curator, Ian Templeman, Fremantle Arts Centre, Howard Tozer, professional jeweler and senior lecturer at Melbourne State College.  He was also the Deputy Chair of the Enquiry.

2. Editors of Craft Australia: Joy Warren, April Hersey, Michael Bogel, Ken Lockwood, Robert Thompson




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Updated: 9 February 2016