Can Crafters And Makers Be An Economic Engine?

Joyce Gannon
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) What does sustainable success among artists and makers look like and how can that be achieved? Joyce Gannon takes a look at how some communities, banks, and organizations are getting behind the maker movement to help creative people succeed.


Joe O’Connor, 51, has been passionate about working with wood since he put together a crude model airplane during a kindergarten class.

He never considered woodworking to be a viable career option until about four years ago when his wife convinced him to attend an information session hosted by the Creative Business Accelerator, an arm of nonprofit lender Bridgeway Capital that promotes entrepreneurship and sustainable success among artists and makers.

“I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat” during the creative 

It was the first time he realized the wood shop in his basement could be much more than a side gig.

At the time, Mr. O’Connor held an operations management position at PNC Financial Services Group.

“My heart was not in it,” he said of the bank job.

Inspired by Bridgeway’s CBA program, Mr. O’Connor, who holds an MBA and another master’s degree, left behind decades of corporate experience at PNC and Xerox Corp. and years in academia to launch Eisenwood, a custom woodworking business.

Eisenwood is among hundreds of maker ventures the creative accelerator will track for growth, jobs and other metrics as part of a statewide initiative designed to raise awareness of the positive impact creative enterprises have on Pennsylvania’s economy.

The Keystone Alliance for Creative Economies and Entrepreneurship launched as a pilot project of the creative accelerator and CraftNOW, a nonprofit that promotes artists and makers in Philadelphia.

Funded with a $10,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, it hopes to soon add other regional organizations to its data tracking system.

One is the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, a nonprofit in Sugar Grove, Warren County, that promotes economic development in a 12-county region of north central Pennsylvania.

“We’re very interested in the opportunity to share best practices … for creativity-driven economic development,” said Tataboline Enos, PA Wilds’ chief executive.

“What we’re trying to do is support the identification and creation of data and measurements that articulate the benefit of the creative sector in Pennsylvania,” said Norah Johnson, director of external affairs and public awareness at the PA Council on the Arts.

“We’re trying to wrap our arms around the impact … in dollars and cents and the number of jobs,” she said. “We believe the creative economy is a key component for ensuring the Pennsylvania economy is able to recover even stronger post-pandemic.”

A 2019 report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis found the arts and culture industries generated $27 billion for the state’s economy and employed about 181,000 statewide.

After the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the creative sector, “We don’t know what 2020 [statistics] will look like,” Ms. Johnson said. “Obviously, it will be significantly different.”

According to an August report from the Brookings Institute, the creative economy nationwide — including artists, musicians, film, fashion, advertising and design — lost 2.7 million jobs and $150 billion in sales from April through July 2020, the period immediately following pandemic-related shutdowns and stay-at-home orders.

Pennsylvania sustained the sixth-highest losses of all states, according to Brookings, with $4.4 billion in lost sales and about 97,000 lost jobs.

“The creative economy is one of the sectors most at risk from the COVID-19 crisis,” the Brookings report said. “Any lasting damage to the creative sector will drastically undercut our culture, well-being and quality of life.”

Those involved with the alliance say by generating hard data about the sector, it stands a better chance of receiving funding and support.

The alliance will track and share economic measurements using a data management tool the creative accelerator launched in 2019.

The Richard King Mellon Foundation provided a $70,000 grant to create the system which captures outputs of makers, artists and craftspeople through data such as workforce numbers, capital invested and amount of space utilized for production and retail.

“An important component of our work in arts and culture is to shed light on the numbers and narratives that demonstrate how the creative sector grows and improves the wider regional economy,” said Sam Reiman, foundation director.

Before the data management system went online in 2019, “All our data was living on spreadsheets,” said Adam Kenney, creative accelerator director.

Currently, there are 500 creative businesses from Pittsburgh and the western part of the state in the accelerator’s database, he said.

CraftNOW has about 200 makers in the Philadelphia region listed in its directory and is trying to expand its base, said Leila Cartier, executive director.

“I want to change the perception of artists asking for handouts and that they don’t contribute to the economy, when, in fact, they do,” Ms. Cartier said.

An artist whose works on paper were recently selected for the Smithsonian’s Craft Optimism virtual marketplace, Ms. Cartier said the Keystone Alliance’s metrics will help “prove that [artists] are worth the investment and they are what makes our city vibrant, desirable and a place people want to be.”

Besides supporting the data system, the PA Council on Arts is helping makers and crafters with direct funding.

In September, it launched the Creative Business Loan Fund which totals $2.2 million and is being administered through Bridgeway and Community First Fund of Lancaster, Pa.

Both Bridgeway and Community First are nonprofit community development financial institutions (CDFIs) — lenders that invest in small and minority-owned firms, nonprofits and projects in rural and disadvantaged markets.

Along with funds, Bridgeway and Community First are providing technical assistance to those who receive loans.

Recipients of the loans — averaging $75,000 and as high as $250,000 — can be craft manufacturers; arts schools; architecture, design, media and fabrication firms; and visual and performing arts agencies.

Loans can be used for equipment, working capital, space renovations and, in some cases, building acquisitions.

Eisenwood was the first business in Western Pennsylvania to receive money through the fund.

Mr. O’Connor used a $30,000 loan to purchase a computer-controlled wood cutting machine he says increases production output by 400%.

He moved the business from his basement to leased industrial space in Penn Hills on Feb. 1, 2020 — just six weeks before the state issued lockdown orders because of COVID-19.

Eisenwood, which makes custom cabinetry, built-ins, furniture and other items, saw sales plummet because of the pandemic but sustained itself last year by supplying wood components to other makers.

“I survived 2020 but didn’t come out thriving,” Mr. O’Connor said.

The business got some relief from the U.S. Small Business Administration: two Paycheck Protection Program loans of $1,000 apiece and a $1,000 grant through the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.

It also received a $5,000 grant through the state’s Small Business Assistance program designed to help firms recover pandemic-related losses.

Mr. O’Connor is optimistic Eisenwood will maintain healthy revenues going forward based on current orders and inquiries.

For now, he’s operating as a solo entrepreneur. His son, a college student, and a nephew will work at the business this summer.

Raising awareness and support for makers and the creative industries through the Keystone Alliance and funding programs are critical to boosting the craft sector, Mr. O’Connor said.

“There’s a heightened interest in buying from small businesses, buying local and buying made-in-America,” he said. “There’s kind of a reawakening of the handmade product. Yes, everyone has an iPhone, but everyone’s iPhone case has to be unique.”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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