Circle Craft Co-operative
Since its inception in 1973, Circle Craft Co-operative has become not only a great place to buy local crafts, but also a strong force in promoting and providing services for its 200 members. The co-op store is located in a net loft on Granville Island, in Vancouver, and sells the juried works of co-op members. In the Circle Craft store, a generous Gallery space features monthly solo or group shows, challenging selected exhibitors (both members and non-members) to show and sell new and exciting work.
This financially successful marketing co-op is also renowned for the huge Christmas Craft Market it organizes each November at Canada Place in Vancouver. Some 34,000 people check out the works of artisans from across Canada each year.Co-op members are guaranteed acceptance into the art market, and are given discounts on materials and access to grants. They also benefit from a group health plan. The gallery gives each artist the opportunity to exhibit their work and sell it on consignment in the store at a 40 percent commission. Circle Craft is financially self-sustained through membership dues, sales commissions and membership fees. However, the co-op was not always so successful. Circle Craft Co-op went through many ups and downs, and changes in its policies and purpose before emerging as the successful organization it is today.
In 1973, Yetta Lees was asked to organize a Fibre Festival in Victoria's Open Space Gallery. The "hippy" atmosphere of the festival, typical of many craft fairs of the 1970s, discouraged wealthier, middle-class customers from attending. Crafters were basically selling their crafts amongst themselves. Yetta instituted strict rules and organization, and turned the festival into an attractive and profitable event. Yetta insisted on three rules: no dope, no dogs, and no breastfeeding in public. However, attracting more mainstream clients was not the only problem. Craftspeople also lacked basic business knowledge.
After organizing a successful craft show at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre -- it attracted over 500 people on opening night alone -- Yetta saw that opportunities existed for craftspeople in British Columbia. Through crafts, she believed, artisans -- especially women crafters -- could achieve self-sufficiency. Joined by four craftspeople from Victoria, Yetta began a craft co-op. Circle Craft Co-operative was incorporated in 1974, its stated purpose being to help crafters develop, price, and market their work. Yetta was familiar with co-operation -- both from her Danish heritage and her participation in communal living in the 1960s. Yetta believed the co-operative structure would work best for the artisans, especially since, as a non-profit organization, the fledgling group was eligible for development grants.
After incorporating they received a Local Initiative Program grant from the government, which they used to renovate the building they had bought on Kingston Street in Victoria. This new space allowed the co-op to expand its capacity as a resource center, while leaving ample room for displays, workshops, shows and fairs, as well as offices. During this time -- the mid-70s -- Yetta was busy touring British Columbia, working with craftspeople and small business owners to encourage women to become self-sufficient through their crafts. Her efforts were reinforced by the federal Local Employment Assistance Program (LEAP) grant she received in 1973. This generous grant from the Ministry of Employment and Immigration was given out in allotments over three and a half years with the purpose of creating jobs for women. The money was shared amongst 25 craftswomen from the Lower Mainland, the Kootenays, the Okanagan, Terrace, and Prince George. This money, along with Yetta's diligent efforts to help craftspeople create their own successful businesses helped raise the profile of crafts as a business in British Columbia.
Yetta's success in encouraging craftspeople resulted in a dramatic increase in Circle Craft's membership. Only two years after the co-operative began, it had 700 members. However, hard times lay ahead. Members of Circle Craft worked diligently to create the Habitat Craft Festival of 1976. This 6-week long event was -- and remains -- one of the biggest craft events held in Canada. Held inside a train station, it involved over 1000 craftspeople from across Canada. The works were displayed in different sections -- there was a non-juried section on the plaza at the foot of Granville Street, a large section inside the station for juried artists, and a Canada Council funded 'Exhibition of Outstanding Canadian Crafts' in one end of the station. Despite the magnitude of the project, the weather did not co-operate and attendance and sales were disappointing.
Despite this setback, Circle Craft retained an office and retail space at the station rent-free from 1977 to 1979, while still operating the Victoria co-op and resource centre at Kingston St. in Victoria. With grant money running low, and little income from sales, members argued over the future direction of their co-operative. In 1978, Yetta Lees stepped down as executive director of Circle Craft. Yetta had been integral to Circle Craft's development, but she believed the co-op would not grow further if she continued as director. She believed co-op managers should remain in for a maximum of five years, otherwise there is a tendency for power and control to migrate towards the manager, dissuading other members of the co-op from taking initiatives and limiting the co-op's growth.
With Yetta's departure, the co-op went through some growing pains. There were debts, little grant money, a new manager, and indecision over where to locate. Eventually, a decision was made to close the office and resource centre in Victoria and move the co-op to Vancouver. In 1979, Circle Craft moved into a small retail and office space in Gastown, hoping the more prominent location would increase sales. The Gastown store remained open until 1984 when, financially unable to remain in business, members moved the stock to a member's workshop. That summer they were asked to put on a craft show in a net loft on Granville Island. The members loved the Granville Island location, but their requests to rent the space for a gallery were repeatedly denied.
Circle Craft's luck changed for the better when a new federal government was elected in 1984. Because Granville Island is managed by the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation, a federal institution, the managers of Granville Island changed as well. The new management supported co-ops and non-profit organizations -- especially those focused on arts and culture. Late in 1984, Circle Craft received an excellent store location with reduced rent. CMHC supports the co-op because it believes the co-op is providing more financial and social benefits to British Columbians than a for-profit craft store would.
In a for-profit craft or gift shop, owners take approximately 58 percent commission on all crafts, and profits are given to private investors. These stores are often unwilling to accept art from artists in remote locations. Circle Craft's 40 percent commission gives more money directly back to the artists. Only half of co-op members reside in the lower mainland area, so money is distributed all over British Columbia. CMHC also recognizes that the co-op's centralized, successful store increases the profile and sales of many artists from all over the province. Supporting Circle Craft Co-operative is more efficient than trying to support separate community craft organizations scattered across British Columbia, each with their own marketing, transportation and management costs.
Some members of Circle Craft credit the store's excellent location for getting the co-op back on its collective feet. Indeed, with a secure store location Circle Craft was able to take a risk when EXPO came to Vancouver in 1986. The co-op made $70,000 profit during the world fair, and used the money to pay off debts and invest in the Christmas Craft Market, which became a popular and lucrative annual event. It had been held every year since 1973 in the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, and now required a larger location. The co-op decided to hold the market at Canada Place. Although there were fears that a snowstorm would keep customers away, the market was successful. It now draws half a million customers to Canada Place each November.
Circle Craft has transformed from a loosely-knit organization with a distinctly west-coast approach to art marketing in the 1970s, through incorporation as a co-op under Yetta's guidance, into a fairly institutionalized marketing co-op. The size of the co-op has changed radically, and so has its focus. Originally dedicated to providing resources and education to craftspeople, it is now mainly a marketing co-operative. Paul Yard says that, in the early years, the co-op was trying to be everything to everyone -- it needed a sharper focus. The co-op also needed to be competitive in the craft marketplace.
After the growing pains of the early 1980s, Circle Craft began strengthening its organization. Directors took intense workshops with Mike Talbot, a governance developer, to improve the co-op's structure and solidarity, and to make the board as effective and efficient as possible. Mr. Talbot believed the board was trying to do too much, and advised that board members should set clear limits for themselves. He defined the role of the board: 1) to decide on the organization's vision and define performance expectations, 2) to assign these expectations clearly to the executive director, and 3) to check to see if these expectations are being met. This restructuring has helped the board, and it continues to have a workshop every year to ensure that the directors maintain their effectiveness.
Last year Circle Craft grossed $1,100,000 in revenue from their store and $500,000 at the Christmas Market.The co-op had a $63,000 surplus. Approximately $5000 is available to members in good standing to use for education and travel costs. The rest of the profits are used for the newsletter, creation of a new website, and building up reserve capital for emergencies and renovations. A further portion of the profits pays for education of the board, because Circle Craft believes "poor governance costs more than learning to govern well."
Circle Craft has undergone many changes since 1973, which have shifted its focus away from providing educational and financial services to its members and onto effective marketing. Circle Craft has overcome many obstacles, and provides an example for other artists' co-ops.
- Carver, John and Miriam. Carver's Policy Governance Model in Nonprofit Organizations. (9 July 2001).
- Circle Craft Policies. Vancouver: Circle Craft.
- Lees, Yetta. "Circle Craft." 9 July 2001. Personal email to Sarah McEachern.
- Lees. Interview by author. 3 July 2001.
- Original As You Are. N.D. (June 2001).
- Ruck Keene, Thelma. "Tribute to a Vision: The story of Circle Craft." In Circle Craft's Christmas Market Newsletter. Vancouver: Circle Craft, 1990.
- Ruck-Keene. Interview by author. 9 July 2001.
- Tunnicliffe, Ken. Interview by Laura Sjolie. 29 June 2001.
- Yard, Paul. Interview by author. 26 June 2001.
- Yard, "Paul Yard." 5 July 2001. Personal email to Sarah McEachern.