Artisan Possibilities

Local Prescriptions, Global Economy

Artisan Possibilities is a place-based blog built upon and exploring the “Artisan Prescriptions” found at the end of Fast, Easy, and In CashArtisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. Artisan Possibilities began in 2012 after Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld visited Hartwick College. The blog is part of a long-running conversation between co-author Jason Antrosio, Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, and many others about artisan lessons for themes like ecology, education, the liberal arts, place-based economies, and community.

An excerpt from Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy:

Artisan Prescriptions

Throughout this book, we have challenged the artisan-invoking economic prescriptions that crop up on op-ed pages in the United States. Such descriptions of artisans did not ring true to us. Having now laid out the artisan industries, the innovations, the setbacks, the common value, and the public life of an artisan economy, we will honor these other writers with an effort to offer our own prescriptions. Among the lessons that may be taken from artisan economies in the northern Andes are the following:

  1. As a promising, place-based local manufactory springs up, cast a wide net and do not overlook agriculture, farms, food and risk-ready operators in the countryside. In the United States the matching of new farmers markets with urban revitalization efforts resonates with the long-standing provincial weekly markets of South America. Especially in regions where agriculture once offered significant employment, linking artisan economies with farms and food diversifies the economy and connects to histories of place, even if it does not deliver immediate or outsize profits.
  2. Even if one sector seems to be delivering wider benefits and seems to be civic-minded, be wary about resentment if that sector appears to be privatizing public resources. At the same time, do not assume that a successful sector always delivers profit for those most engaged in it.
  3. Always keep in mind the possibility of artisan bid-down. Indeed, if proprietors keep piling into a signature trade, the apparent vitality of a place-based vocation will come to hide the meager earnings it delivers to any one member. Absent any effort to defend the sustainability of a market, competitors undercut prices and drive earnings down to what amounts to subsistence wages. Although this is standard advice for competing with far-flung producers in a global economy, local economies are vulnerable to the same bid-down. As Ecuadorian producers constantly worried about low-cost imports from Asia or other Latin American countries, they missed the low-cost competition just down the street.
  4. In phases of destructive competition, the retreat from public life does not solve the structural problems of a trade. Hiding one’s operation may not even return an individual firm to profitability. Businesses may defend a few exclusive designs at the expense of developing their creative capacity, or come to depend on a few clients at the cost of widening their customer base. Their operations become more vulnerable in the process.
  5. Community projects must find a popular angle; cultural heritage and patrimony efforts must be inclusive. Beware narrow and technical takeovers in the name of preservation and expertise.
  6. When it comes to fairness in the marketplace, think in terms of generations. Rather than exploitative relations, sometimes extraordinary profits reflect new realities of connectivity, networks, or the concentration of rewards through a few deep-pocket buyers. However, in artisan trades that draw on community traditions, it is reasonable to challenge the privileged, ask them to justify their earnings, and remedy the monopolization of joint resources. Often common ground among the successful and the struggling is found in the necessity of maintaining real opportunity for new entrants.

This last point is more of a starting point than a final observation. Closely examining these Andean marketplaces provides timely lessons in the workings of careers in contemporary capitalism, including the necessity of skilled work, innovation, and finding an edge. But when those careers get traction, the crucial tasks lie just beyond the boundary of an enterprise. Rather quickly, a group of competitors will launch a new commons of ideas, culture, and value. The terms in which they recognize their shared ground and the ways they come to care for it are among the most interesting and important lessons to be learned from contemporary artisans. (193-195)