Bennington Plays Pivotal Role in Crafts History

Shoppers explore the wares of crafts people who create everything from jewelry to housewaresLate in the 1960’s, The Northeast Regional Assembly of the American Crafts Council moved its flagship enterprise, the Northeast Regional Craft Fair to Bennington. Their initial show was held in Stowe, VT and was called “Confrontation.” Seemingly everything in the sixties was a confrontation: civil rights marches, peace parades, multiple murders of political leaders (two Kennedys, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King). This was the era women went braless and people openly smoked “grass” in the streets. There were revolutions worldwide, from Paris to New York City, Peking to Tokyo, the world was in a tumultuous uproar. The Beatles, The Stones, and Bob Dylan all crooned “the times are a changin” fueled by anti-Vietnam war fever and abundant LSD at universities.

American Craft Councils early Northeast Craft Fairs, from the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Even the prim and proper American Craftsmen’s Council felt the reverberations; in 1969, they changed their name to “American Crafts Council” so as to provide a bigger umbrella. That same year, the Crafts Council moved their “Confrontation” to Bennington and called it a much more commercially viable “The Northeast Regional Craft Fair.” The venue was Mount Anthony High School. Inside the lobby and the gym, down the corridors, craft booths were arranged in rows. These were the “chosen few,” the elite craft designers, many of whom were teachers at universities and famous craft schools like Penland in North Carolina and the Rhode Island School of Design in Rhode Island. While their craftwork was cutting edge contemporary, these artisans were sartorially sedate.

American Craft Councils early Northeast Craft Fairs, from the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Outside on the playing fields of the high school, the dress code was noticeably different. There were hundreds of craft exhibitors, all arranged loosely in rows, up and down the grassy field. Some had pop up tents and tepees, others built structures from wood, metal, cardboard, and plastic. Meanwhile, many craft booths were set up on blankets, with wares strewn casually here and there. Many of the exhibitors played guitars, nursed babies, and sipped wine or beer. While the scene was representative of many public gatherings in the late sixties, the craftwork displayed and sold was of very high caliber, even in this outdoor crafts bazaar component of the Craft Fair.

As is the case to the present day, craft festivals were vital markets for the craftspeople. At this show, there was a Wholesale Day – a day when only buyers from shops and galleries were allowed entry. This was Thursday when the buyers ordered products for future delivery to their stores. (In the early years, many of the larger craft shows had a “wholesale day, only for buyers.” The first wholesale only craft shows began in the 1980’s and these events were limited to bona fide, documented owners and buyers representing businesses; the general public was not allowed.

Back then the real money was transacted Friday through Sunday when the crowds swelled to more than 5,000 on any given day. Craft sales were brisk. The traffic gridlocks were memorable as Mount Anthony High School was not designed to accommodate a large influx of automobiles. Getting onto and off Route 7 created major congestion, even at the traffic light at the four corners, patience was stretched. However, hotels and restaurants were jammed packed for the weekend and the show contributed mightily to the local economy.

This was the beginning of an era which lasted up to the naughts of the new millennium. 72,000,000 million baby boomers arrived, seemingly out of now where. They craved “cool” things. They went to craft shows to buy: decorative objects for their homes and offices, personal adornments like jewelry and clothing, functional crafts for the kitchen and dining, sculpture for the garden and patio, and unique gifts for friends and family. Their thirst for craftwork has diminished recently as the boomers hit 6o. They no longer needed “stuff” for their homes as they were now downsizing. Their replacements, Generation X, were only 17,000,000. So, suddenly there were 55,000,000 fewer shoppers. As the 70,000,000 million Gen Y mature, graduate from college, get jobs, and have families there will be a resurgence in retailing. This augurs well for handmade craft work as this generation is predisposed to buying local foods and products.

When the ACC Northeast Craft Fair outgrew the Bennington location and left for the spacious Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, NY, many Vermont artisans felt there was a void to be filled. In 1973 four intrepid and visionary Vermonters formed an organization called “Craftproducers,” the very same organization that is bringing back the craft fair to Bennington in 2013. (The founders of Craftproducers were Riki Moss, potter; Bob Burnell, The Stone Soldier, potter; John McCloud, woodworker; and, Charley Dooley, candle maker. Ever since, Dooley has been producing art and craft festival for 40 years.)

Meeting the artists and crafts people behind the wares is part of the craft show experience

So, 40 years later, the craft show has returned to Bennington: The 35th Annual Southern Vermont Art and Craft Festival, August 2, 3, & 4 at Camelot Village, a mile west of Town on Route 9. The show was initially held in Manchester at the recreation area before it moved to Hildene meadows in 1984. It was a huge success, especially in the 1990’s when Stratton held the men’s tennis tournaments and later the LPGA golf tournament. Today Hildene no longer wants to be an event venue, rather an agricultural tourist destination. Their decision led Craftproducers to seek a new home for the craft show.

The organizers of the Southern Vermont Art and Craft Festival are pleased with the enthusiastic welcome from the Bennington community. Current Craftproducers Owner, Tim Cianciola, says, “I am blown away by the friendly welcome and strong support from everyone in Bennington. I think we may be starting a new tradition.”

The Vermont Arts Exchange, the Bennington Museum, the Bennington Chamber of Commerce, Hawkins House Craftsmarket, Bennington Potters, Better Bennington Corporation, Fiddlehead at Four Corners Gallery, and others are actively involved in planning for the Festival. Together with the Bennington Banner and these local groups, Craftproducers is coordinating a town wide Bennington Arts Weekend. Details will be published on the website www.craftrproducers.com about the individual activities of each arts participant. For example, the Bennington Museum will have a craft related installation in the Decorative Arts gallery. It will also stay open later on Friday as it is also “First Friday” in Bennington. For details about First Friday events, visit www.betterbennington.com.

The actual Southern Vermont Art and Craft Festival will take place Friday through Sunday, August 2-4, at Camelot Village, the home of the Southern Vermont Garlic Festival. The hours are Friday and Saturday 10-5 and on Sunday 10-4. 140 juried artists, artisans, and specialty food makers will present their handmade works. Many of the exhibitors will be housed under brilliantly white Camelot tents while others will line up under their own canopies.

Live music will be played all weekend in the food court. Localvore caterers will serve organic wood fired pizzas, lobster rolls, grass fed burgers, sausages, sweet and savory waffles and crepes, sesame noodles, dumplings, salads, crispy tofu, local ice cream, Green Mountain Coffee, and more. Vermont Craft Beers and summer wines will be served in the Wine and Beer Café Tent. There are lovely shade trees on the property to afford delightful summer al fresco lunching.

The Vermont Arts Exchange will have its Arts Bus at the site providing kids activities and Thomas the Train will be there to ferry the small children here and there. All in all, The Festival promises to be fun as well as “the” place to shop for contemporary craftwork. And, it is just a few steps down the road to the Bennington Museum; check www.benningtonmuseum.org for what’s happening that weekend. It’s well worth a visit after or before the craft show.

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