Art glass industry is becoming increasingly endangered in Scotland – Steven Graham

As news reaches me of another glass business in trouble, I was reminded of the Heritage Craft’s Red List.

Part of Steven Graham's work, the Blossom and the Bee
Part of Steven Graham's work, the Blossom and the Bee

It identified “mouth-blown, sheet-glass making” as critically endangered, defined as those crafts “which currently have sufficient craftspeople to transmit the craft skills to the next generation, but for which there are serious concerns about their ongoing viability. This may include crafts with a shrinking market share, an ageing demographic or crafts with a declining number of practitioners.”

Shrinking market share, sufficient craftspeople, ageing demographic, declining numbers, each of these statements seemed worryingly familiar, but less so “the next generation”. Having worked with glass for 20 years as a hobby, a full-time student and now a sole-trader artist, I struggle to identify who the next generation are. The reason for this? A lack of education opportunities.

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Official statistics, UK or Scottish, are unable to quantify the number of people employed in the art glass industries which is not solely due to the crofting nature of the freelancer, but largely due to the lack of investment in researching the industry. But why should we be interested in statistics? Why, because government policy, and spending, rely on them.

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For example, the Scottish Government’s primary policy for traditional crafts education sits with Skills Development Scotland, whose ‘Creative Industries Skills Investment Plan’ states “the development and maintenance of traditional craft skills is important not only in maintaining this position but in ensuring the longevity of traditional communities and heritage”. Given its importance, why is it that no further or higher education establishment in Scotland is providing an art glass-focused course, with the City of Glasgow College and Edinburgh College of Art cancelling their HNC and MA courses in the last year? The answer is simple, just like me, colleges cannot identify the next generation.

It is my experience that this inability to recruit is due to their lack of engagement and promotion with our schools; school leavers will gravitate to the disciplines they are familiar with. However, colleges are not solely responsible for this gap as the traditional craft industries, not just glass, need to promote themselves more directly.

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In 2020, Craft Scotland and Make Manifesto instigated Make Learn, a research project and initiative to encourage the re-introduction of traditional crafts in schools, and such an initiative requires the support and provision of opportunities from within our industry.

To mark the United Nations’ International Year of Glass, Craft Scotland’s recent The Power of Glass conference saw artists, makers, and researchers share knowledge, inspire and educate on topics within art glass. These ranged from diversity, identity, representation, sustainability, and environmental concerns, and closed with a discussion on how to ensure the future of glass education for all.

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I believe it is only through direct engagement with our youth that we can begin to inspire the next generation and increase the demand on our colleges for educational opportunities and career paths. So to fellow makers, those in higher education and government support agencies, let us not wait for more glass skills to fall into the Heritage Craft’s Red List. Scotland is a nation of makers so let’s support the creativity, craft and opportunities that working with glass provides.

Steven Graham is an award-winning glass artist based in Glasgow and a member of the Scottish Glass Society

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