International Folk Art Market: Impact Ripples Worldwide

Market leaders act globally to help make villages sustainable

The two high-energy women are nearly always thinking — and acting — globally, asking themselves questions like: What more can the market do to ensure a dignified and sustainable living for folk artists?

Or: How can we link market artists with other organizations that help provide the things they and their communities need, such as medical care or clean water?

Or: Can we collaborate with people we know in India or Mexico or Africa to encourage the development of new markets for folk artists and craft workers?

With the sixth annual market six weeks away, a thousand details are intruding on these big thoughts. More than 150 artists from nearly 50 countries are expected in Santa Fe for what has become the world’s largest folk art event of its kind.

But presenting the actual event is only one mission of the year-round organization.

Since the last market, Cerny and Espinar have been working with board and staff as well as the state Department of Cultural Affairs, community leaders, volunteers and donors to produce a five-year, 43-page strategic plan that clarifies the organization’s goals and its long-term objectives.

The group received $25,000 from the Fieldstone Alliance to develop the plan and worked with a facilitation team from ChangeMatters in Takoma Park, Md.

The plan, just off the press, calls for assembling an artists council to ensure market participants will play a role in planning future markets. It aims to develop new partnerships leading to the creation of collaborative startup markets around the globe. It includes a plan to collect more data on artists and their communities to further assess the impact of the event on their enterprises. It envisions linkages with other nongovernmental organizations that will help artists access further aid. It is pursuing a renewed partnership with the Museum of International Folk Art here. (Cerny was its director for 15 years.) And eventually, it might expand the market in Santa Fe into a full week.

The market’s vision, according to the plan, is “a world that celebrates and values traditional art and cultures, where a dynamic global folk art market ensures a dignified, sustainable living for folk artists, who are essential to preserving cultural diversity.”

Survey: Market sales a big chunk of artists’ income

Despite a souring economy, the 2008 market was bigger and more popular than ever. Artists’ sales totaled more than $2 million — about $16,300 per booth.

But the market has always been as much about how the earnings sustain artists and their communities after they leave Santa Fe. For example, the 38 booths representing cooperatives in 2009 represent 16,000 artisans, 98 percent of them women, and the earnings will benefit 160,000 people.

According to a survey funded by the Kind World Foundation Fund, established by Gateway co-founder Norman Waitt, for about 18 percent of the artists, market sales represented between half and a third of their annual income, although one man reported that he also sells yak butter, digs caterpillar fungus and leads treks.

More than half of the artists said the market helped them introduce inventory to new markets, and 50 percent said their business is “more organized and efficient.”

Artists said they planned to use their earnings to build a showroom, “beef up school fees and funeral scheme reserves,” donate to the UNESCO school of carpet weaving, set up a textile museum in Luang Prabang and support a primary school.

“They’re beginning to see themselves as business people,” Espinar said.

The only thing the artists would like to see change at the market is lunch. They say they don’t eat sandwiches, and it would be “nice to have rice for lunch.”

New markets emerging around the world

One of the key goals in the plan, and one the market leaders are actively pursuing, is to help develop new markets around the world.

During a trip to India last fall, Cerny and Espinar met with the mayor of Delhi, representatives from the country’s crafts council and other leaders to discuss ideas.

The plan is not to replicate the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, however.

“We’re not airlifting our market to somewhere else,” Cerny stressed, or “trying to create a worldwide chain that we own. What we want to do is partner with other parts of the world to do startup markets.”

These markets would share their objectives of entrepreneurship training, empowerment, intercultural understanding and heightening the profile of folk art culture internationally.

And, at least initially, the market, which has its own artist-selection process, would remain in charge of vetting new markets because that is “the heart of the market,” Cerny said.

Both Cerny and Espinar are believers in the self-employment development model espoused by people like Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.

“We regard artists as international dignitaries,” not the low-level crafts people they’re often considered at home,” Espinar said.

Local crafts markets give new artists “a place to begin,” draw tourists and promote sustainability of microenterprises — unlike old models that follow cheap labor around the globe.

Leaders aim to keep market lean, rely on volunteers

Despite global plans, the market’s strategy is to stay lean. The current staff numbers five, and there are four additional people on contract to handle publicity, finance and an internship program.

This year’s budget is about 5 percent under 2008. And instead of a big fundraising event and its high overhead, the market held six smaller, lower-overhead parties in people’s homes or community centers.

Their model will continue to rely heavily on volunteers — including an intern from Yale this summer — for virtually all aspects of presenting the market. “We get what we need by creating partnerships,” Cerny said. The value of the labor contributed to last year’s market was about $760,000, she said.

They’re also hoping to get a seat at the table this fall at the Clinton Global Initiative’s big annual meeting for nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations seeking funds and funders. It has already gotten $35,000 through a CGI “commitment” by the Kind World Foundation Fund, which paid for the artist survey and to bring three cooperatives to this year’s market.

Both Cerny and Espinar are optimistic that 2009 will be as successful as 2008, although they have alerted artists that there will be “price sensitivity” this year. But visitors will still see a mix of affordable arts and crafts as well as items that will be selling for thousands of dollars.