Applying for The Contemporary Craft Festival: An interview with Festival director Sarah James


Are you a maker of contemporary craft based here in the UK? Applications are open for the multi award winning The Contemporary Craft Festival June 2018 and the deadline is fast approaching! This event in Devon is one of the UK’s largest and much loved craft events, and the friendly, festival feel makes it a popular choice for makers. The sun shines most years too! Approximately 200 makers are chosen to exhibit their work and many of our makers here on madebyhandonline are selected each year. Selection is a tricky process though, as so many makers want to take part. This means that an application that really shows off your work and makes you stand out from the crowd is essential. We caught up with Festival director Sarah James to find out a bit about the show and to see what she thinks makes a strong application…

2018 is a biggie…15 years of the Contemporary Craft Festival! Can you tell us a bit about how it all started?

It doesn’t seem such a long time ago but when you see my son towering over me, and he was 7 months old when we did the first Festival in 2004, I know we have come a long way. I’ve got a few wrinkles and grey hairs, but it’s been a wonderful experience and the years have flown by.

The Contemporary Craft Festival came about when three Bovey Tracey craft businesses joined forces and formed a non-profit making company with the aim to use craft as a catalyst for rural regeneration. The Festival was to showcase the very best in British craft, create a new, sustainable and strong market place for contemporary craft, but also to bring greater prosperity to the town of Bovey Tracey. Some European funding was secured and they looked for a Project Manager to put everything together and luckily, they chose me. I was made a director a few months later and I’ve been at the helm ever since. The Festival is now run by a small and lovely team and we also run 3 other events (Made by Hand Cardiff & Cheltenham and the Nourish Festival).

You always have such a great variety of makers at the show. How do makers get involved and how do you choose between them?

The makers are the backbone of the Festival and the reason why 10,000 visitors make their way to Bovey Tracey every June. We put a call out for makers from September the year before the Festival. We have an electronic application form, which is easy to navigate. We ask for 6 images in two files sizes. The smaller file size is for the selection day and we only use the bigger file size if the maker is selected. The larger files are used for PR and possibly used in our leaflets, posters, adverts and banners. We don’t have a budget to commission photography so if you have great pictures, you have a better chance of being used in our marketing campaign.

We receive hundreds of applications from makers from all around the UK and so we put together a new selection panel comprised of 3 industry specialists every year. We might ask a curator, a maker, a design journalist, a craft retailer, an educator from higher education and leaders of craft organisations to be part of the selection panel. We gather soon after the deadline and sit in a darkened room and choose the Festival.

Can you tell us a bit about StartUp?

StartUP has been a successful, new area at The Festival. For a number of years, we had a section called One Year On, but we noticed that one year wasn’t quite enough time to produce a decent body of work. So, we re-branded the area as StartUP and makers in their first 2 years of business can apply. These makers get the same great opportunity of being at the Festival, with the added bonus of a dedicated area for StartUp businesses, the only difference is that you pay less to take part. We want to encourage as many new businesses to take part and give them the confidence to continue with their practice.

So, we know you don’t select the makers yourself and, like us, you’ve seen many applications and images of makers’ work over the years, so what would be your  top tips for makers to help their applications stand out?

The application process focuses almost entirely on the images of the work. We do ask for details about the makers’ practice but, as we have hundreds of applications, we do not look at websites and so images are the key to the success of the application.

If you’re a maker considering applying, it’s important that you choose a recent collection of work for your application. The collection you photograph must form a coherent group, whether it be by style, texture or colour. For example, even if you have a number of different collections, if you are a jeweller, we only want to see one collection. This helps the selection panel, who may be seeing your work for the first time, have confidence in your visual language and that you can translate that into a knock-out stand at the Festival.

For selection, it is best to photograph the work with minimal or no background props, non-styled shots work best for selection.

Make sure the pictures are in sharp focus and please photograph the whole object, no detail shots are required. The images we look for are really quite plain, no need for arty angles or creative shots. We are looking for good clear images of what you do. Also, unless you are 100% certain that you can take excellent pictures yourself, I highly recommend that you invest in a good photographer, it will be worth it.

When is the deadline for applications and when will makers know whether they’ve been selected?

The deadline for the main section of The Contemporary Craft Festival is 6pm Friday December 1st, 2017. For StartUP, you have a little longer, 6pm January 26th 2018. You will be informed within 7 days of the deadline date. You can find the online application forms here.

Outside the main marquees you always curate a really interesting mix of activities, including makers demonstrating, workshops and delicious food and drink. Can you tell us a bit about your plans for 2018?

I love putting together all the other areas of the Festival. We work with a huge amount of interesting and amazing businesses who make it happen. The gorgeous Audrey, our Craft Cinema bus, will be returning, as well as the Pottery Showdown and our latest feature ‘Out of the Woods’.

We’re delighted that The Boat Building Academy from Lyme Regis will be bringing a beautiful display of handmade boats and will demonstrating boatbuilding, a first at the Festival. Otter Surfboards will be demonstrating for the first time, shaping their wooden surfboards, so there is a theme emerging! We are also developing an area for our teenage visitors and we are working with tech agencies and makers to put together activities that we hope will encourage young adults to take part. Accompanied Under 18s are free to enter the show next year with a hope that we can encourage more teenagers to engage with the Festival.

The full programme of activities, workshops and demonstrations will be uploaded onto the website in January and we are really excited to celebrate 15 years of making in Bovey Tracey next year. I’ll see you there.

Many thanks to Sarah for answering our questions. If you’d like to apply to exhibit at the Festival please head this way to their website. We’re really looking forward to celebrating 15 years of the Craft Festival next June.


**Photos are from our own collection and also by Jim Wileman Photography.

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