“We’re not going to go down without a fight.”
Those were the words that began Craft Ontario’s recent newsletter to its membership.
And it was pushing an urgent message: the 86-year-old arts non-profit is in what it calls “high-alert-recovery-mode” as it tries to fundraise and advocate its way out of a big cash flow crunch. (Craft Ontario was founded in 1976 through the merger of the Canadian Guild of Crafts in Ontario, which dates back to 1931, and the Ontario Craft Foundation, founded 1966.)
“We need to be able to raise $250,000 throughout 2018” to stay open and deliver current levels of programming, says Janna Hiemstra, interim CEO of Craft Ontario. “And half of that has to hit by the middle of the year.”
In the age of Amazon Handmade and the One of a Kind Show, though, can Craft Ontario—which, like many craft-service organizations, has made retail a major part of its programs and strategies—really survive?
Financial Issues at a Head
Hiemstra notes that the financial problems Craft Ontario is facing have deeper, more complex roots than the continuing digital and corporate disruptions that have hit the craft sector.
“Craft Ontario has been struggling for a long time,” Hiemstra says, noting that the organization has run a deficit since 2008 and cut staff budgets roughly in half since 2012.
The situation became more dire in 2016, when Craft Ontario decided to close its longtime shop in monied Yorkville and roll it into a single admin-and-gallery-and-retail headquarters on Queen West, an area where Craft Ontario’s offices were already located.
“Why we are in this position right now is that over the course of 2016 when we moved we missed budget targets in pretty much all areas of operations—and we also went over budget in moving and renovation expenses that really cut down on our available cash,” Hiemstra says.
The result is that Craft Ontario is in need of a cash injection, even though it has been trying to cut back on costs significantly.
“We are trying to do all we have been doing since 2012, but with almost half the staff,” Hiemstra says.
What’s worse: “We opened this year with our lowest bank balance in over 10 years,” Hiemstra adds. And it’s just gone downhill from there over the course of 2017.
Craft Artists Concerned
This news has, understandably, left many artists and craftspeople concerned.
“Craft Ontario is very close to my heart and I have personally been so supported by the work that they do, especially during some of the most financially precarious and challenging times in my career,” says Lizz Aston, an artist and craftsperson who has exhibited at Harbourfront Centre and Nuit Blanche, among other venues, in an email. “Craft Ontario is a vital organization that acts as an incubator for young, emerging craft artists in the city as well as the province.”
Aston says this support comes from Craft Ontario’s exhibition opportunities, mentorship and grants, among other resources—ones particularly difficult to find in an Ontario gallery milieu that tends to focus on contemporary art more so than contemporary craft.
For example, since 2008, Craft Ontario has also published the quarterly Studio Magazine—Canada’s only magazine devoted to contemporary craft practice. It has also mounted unique exhibitions that meld contemporary art and craft, like this summer’s “Chromatic Geography: Natural Dyes in the 21st Century,” and it was a key collaborator on the first ever Canadian Craft Biennial, mounted at the Art Gallery of Burlington earlier this year.
“From a personal perspective, if it weren’t for the ongoing support of Craft Ontario and the relationships I have built through this community, I may not have had the support I needed to be doing the work I am doing today” Aston writes. “To lose this institution during a precarious financial time would be an incredible loss to the city, with the effects in the arts community felt far and wide.”
Others agree—especially on the point that Craft Ontario offers supports unequalled by the marketplace alone.
“I was recently dismayed by an academic paper in which the One of a Kind show was referenced as a marker of professional standard in the Ontario craft community,” writes ceramic artist Chiho Tokita in a letter of support. “What I fear will be lost is having an organization that can talk about contemporary craft in an informed way…to inform the general public about craft through our own language, rather than being interpreted by a for-profit retail market, or another discipline.”
A Call for Support
Hiemstra says Craft Ontario is pursuing multiple avenues to get over this financial obstacle and keep its doors open.
“We are working with our bank, we are trying to get a loan through the Community Forward Fund, we are going to different levels of government, we are trying it all,” says Heimstra.
The organization’s recent newsletter is also asking members and supporters to email firstname.lastname@example.org articulating why the organization matters to them. It is also asking supporters to spread the message that as a charitable non-profit, Craft Ontario can provide tax receipts for year-end donations.
Further, Craft Ontario is also urging supporters to buy from its shop. The organization recently started working with Shopify to improve its online store, and already has sold more through that venue in the past few weeks than it has in several months with its previous website setup.
“I think the main message for me is that Craft Ontario has had a really hard time and it needs to restructure, and we need support in order to do that,” says Hiemstra. “It’s not in anybody’s best interest for this organization to disappear.”
A clarification was added to this article on December 18, 2017, to indicate how Craft Ontario’s roots stretch back to 1931 and the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Guild of Crafts.