by Dan Koski
This past August, the Astra National Museum Complex in Sibiu organized their annual late summer Popular Craftworkers Fair (Târgul Creatorilor Populari). As with other numerous summer events that occurred between Sibiu’s early spring and late autumn lockdowns, handicraft artisans, folk-dancing troupes, food vendors and event organizers were able to adhere to COVID-pandemic restrictions and still provide a much-needed festive community atmosphere. Despite a partially rainy weekend, the event was a success, as was a pottery fair, organized a few weeks prior in late July.
While craft sales may not have been as robust as in years prior, artisans and vendors relished the opportunity to reconnect with their friends and colleagues from across Romania, speak with visitors and show the work that they had accomplished through the spring lockdown as well as over the early summer. Above all, there was a sense of unspoken gratefulness amongst organizers, vendors and visitors alike that such an event had taken place.
Speaking to a husband-wife artisan team from Brașov, the outlook for handicraft artisans was both grounded in reality as well as optimistic for innovation. Sales from events had been nearly nonexistent for the year, but investing more time into website development and expanding a presence on social media had paid off. Others reported similar experiences. For people accustomed to spending hours on end to carefully create individual pieces, and then often wait even longer for a sale, the pandemic has been taken in stride. Yet even the most optimistic of artisans can be forgiven for experiencing frustration this winter, as it is clear that 2021 will not be the recovery year that had been hoped for.
Make no mistake: artisans engaged in handicraft production have had a brutal pandemic. As a highly volatile market, largely dependent on both international and regional tourism, handicraft sales have shared the fate of the rest of Romania’s travel and leisure sectors. Even the domestic market for handicraft sales has been impacted. It can be reasonably assumed, for example, that those who specialize in the production of national folk costumes, traditionally worn for cultural fairs, music and dance concerts, and national/religious holidays, have seen a slowdown in demand for their products.
As with many cottage industries, it is difficult to gauge the exact numbers of those directly and indirectly employed in handicraft production. Full-time handicraft artisans are relatively few in number, and their income is often under-documented. Regardless of whether sales from handicrafts provides a primary or secondary income, its impact should not be dismissed. Handicraft production and sales benefit a wide range of socio-economic demographics, from urban university professors teaching workshops on complex art restoration techniques to rural shepherds using by-products of their flocks. Handicraft production often provides young mothers, young university graduates and the retired with opportunities for self-employment that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Subsidiary beneficiaries include website designers, photographers, tourism and hospitality sectors and wholesalers of materials.
The benefits are not merely financial. Handicrafts, be they contemporary, ethnographic, or religious, are important ”inanimate ambassadors” for tourism promotion and cultural identity. Ethnographic items such as painted Transylvanian Saxon wooden chests or Roma copper kitchenware help highlight Romania’s rich cultural diversity, while regional items encourage destination tourism and also assist in maintaining local heritage and folklore. Workshops and trainings offer opportunities for multi-disciplinary education, cognitive learning skills and even therapeutic rehabilitation and social inclusion for the disadvantaged. The near-global experience of lockdowns and extended social isolation have taught all of us the benefit of interest and skills in non-digital interests and hobbies that can be done as individuals or families. With regards to Romania’s substantial emigre community throughout Europe and elsewhere, handicrafts provide a connection to those living outside, as well as their children and grandchildren, with a tangible reminder and symbol of their national heritage.
As we proceed through 2021 with expectations of low tourist numbers and expectations of many cultural, religious, municipal-regional-nation events reduced in scope or altogether canceled, it becomes increasingly important for a concerted effort to assist artisans and the overall domestic handicraft market. There are several concrete measures that can be taken to assist independent artisans.
First, the creation of a multi-organizational national taskforce to support artisans in the handicraft sector is a timely step. Government and non-government support for data-gathering and assessment of the current state of artisans and vendors should be a priority. Identifying immediate challenges that have occurred with production, distribution and sales while also addressing long-standing challenges.
Second, an emphasis on development and support of online resources for handicraft sales and training is key. Offering training and support resources on website, social media and online shopping website production and management opens up the domestic market to wider audiences and assists those who have been at the greatest disadvantage to the lack of fairs, trade shows, events, souvenir shops and other traditional retail and bulk distribution venues. The COVID pandemic has proven that online shopping as well as tutorials and trainings, are now permanent fixtures of life for almost all age and socio-economic demographic brackets.
Lastly, support for brick-and-mortar retail outlets, fairs and events and tourism and hospitality sectors that provide in-person sales and network opportunities must not be forgotten. Romania is uniquely positioned to benefit from overland tourism from Europe as well as transcontinental tourism in the near future due to the challenges presented with transcontinental travel and a sluggish economy resulting in reduced consumer purchasing power for higher-priced tourism destinations. The excellent work that has been done in promoting Romania as a premier tourism destination is evident by such results as Transylvania being identified as a leading holiday destination for 2021. The handicraft market is an essential stakeholder in ensuring this momentum is not lost as the global tourism market reinvents itself. In particular, independent, family and small group experiential travelers, the most likely sub-sector to show the first signs of recovery, are traditionally well-disposed towards purchasing domestic handicrafts rather than mass-produced and imported items. We must also take into consideration that the pandemic has greatly increased interest in genuine person-to-person interaction. Handicraft production and sales offer such an experience as few other retail transactions, be them through custom orders conducted entirely online, or bartering at a village festival.
Support for both online and in-person sales can come in the form of training and development grants, tax incentives, fair-trade/artisan accreditation, government and for-profit/corporate sponsorship of projects, seminars and events, and more. If successful, handicraft production will not only allow existing artisans to continue their work but will also lead towards further full-time and subsidiary employment for those who have been adversely impacted by COVID and economic recession.
There is an old joke that floats around handicraft artisan events, from country to country: A skilled artisan who makes beautiful work involving complex, intricate parts assembled into bottles is asked by an onlooker what the hardest part of the job is. “Selling it,” the artisan replies. Selling that bottle may be a more challenging task than ever before, but it can be done.
Dan Koski has worked in incoming tourism, tourism promotion and fair-trade handicraft promotion in the Palestinian Territories since 2009. He worked as a coordinator for fair trade accreditation for one of the largest handicraft cooperatives in the West Bank of Palestine and was Editor of The Travel Magazine of the Palestinian Society for Tourism and Travel Association (PSTTA). He currently resides in Sibiu, Romania. He can be reached at email@example.com.