Cross-Currents : Art + Manufacturing Strengthening Place


Funding Received: 2012
Multiple, NC
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
August 1, 2013

Cross-Currents of Production: Artists and Manufacturers Strengthening Place

ArtPlace spoke with Janet Kagan and Jean Greer, Principals of the Public Art Collaborative Art-Force Program, an innovative effort in three rural communities - Greenville, Sanford, and Siler City NC - to diversify economic development in rural counties by curating and partnering artists with manufacturers to generate products and stimulate a community’s social and economic connection to place.

ArtPlace You have accomplished a tremendous amount of work in a little over twelve months! What sustainable dimensions to community authenticity have you implemented?

Janet Kagan and Jean Greer Our goal is to stimulate and diversify economic development in distressed communities by allying artists, artisans and designers with entrepreneurs, small businesses, educational institutions and local arts agencies. These strategic cross-currents of artistic design and production created new products and retrained some employees at the small businesses. Although we are refining a future implementation process for other communities, the manufacturers and civic leadership have expressed a deep appreciation for this accelerated R&D effort and the civic artworks led by creative thinkers. Each of our business partners have commented to us that they never could have imagined these new complementary products (see picture) and local arts councils have shared that tangible demonstrations of the artist-manufacturer alliance “forced us to move faster and expand our impact; it opened our eyes to what we need to do . . . We were suddenly outside the bubble looking at our community.”

In Greenville, local textile manufacturer Parrott Canvas Company collaborated with North Carolina artist Jan-Ru Wan to create a collection of versatile lifestyle products, including cross-body bags and a set of fashionable, yet functional baskets. In Siler City, downtown flooring manufacturer Floorazzo worked with artists Hoss Haley and Rick Beck to create sculptural lighting, wall-screens, and table tops. In Sanford, WST Industries partnered with designers Susan Cannon and Chandra Cox to create a zero-waste portable line of tables.

AP How does this fit into a national model or strategy?

JK and JG Current research indicates that adaptation, resilience, and reinvention at an accelerated pace are essential for the survival and stability of rural manufacturing in North Carolina and across America. Manufacturing remains the top contributor to the state’s gross domestic product and produces 84 percent of state exports. In rural North Carolina, it is especially important, accounting for $9.3 billion in annual rural wages, 14 percent of the overall rural employment and more than 20 percent of employment in 18 rural counties. Nationally, manufacturing accounted for 8.9 percent of total employment in 2012. In North Carolina, the share was 10.9 percent of total employment, and in the state’s rural areas, the share was still greater at 13.8 percent. Manufacturing declined in North Carolina as companies began outsourcing their labor, but it still contributes more than $80 billion to the state’s GDP, more than all other sectors. In 18 of the state’s rural counties, including Chatham and Lee where we are working, manufacturing accounts for more than 20 percent of total employment.

Artists are highly trained thinkers, visionaries, and imaginative problem-solvers who can assist America’s small cities and towns in their economic and social transformations, through both capital gain and creativity. This project is a narrative of how strategic partnerships, which are artful and meaningful professional collaborations, shake up traditional models of research and development for manufacturing. Ultimately, they serve as community change-agents, positively impacting their local economies and helping these communities forge new directions and sense of place.

AP How did you discern what type of workforce training would be most effective to strengthen staff skills and assist with new products being developed?

JK and JG Observing the daily operations on the manufacturers’ shop floors and troubleshooting the details of product development allowed us to observe first hand the strengths and the weaknesses of business practices over months of interaction. The basic products and operational models – textiles/canvas lifestyle products, aggregate flooring, and specialty metals/engineering – stood in sharp contrast to one another. Manufacturers had existed for 30 years, 10 and 7 years respectively, with owners controlling strategic and product design decisions, finances as well as web and customer marketing. As prototypes evolved or aspects of product design remained unresolved, we all learned of operational vulnerabilities or equipment deficits; most revealing was how the manufacturers responded to these risks and potential rewards.

Those who progressed steadily through design and development identified the needed skills that would potentially strengthen the overall enterprise within the current economic climate and lead to business expansion. For example, during the transfer of CAD drawings for tables from the Cox-Cannon studio to WST Industries, the manufacturer’s software program incorrectly translated the electronic files. WST was able to isolate the problem which had occurred with other clients, update its software, and train eight employees so that the improved technology increased the firm’s competitiveness overall.

Workforce training manuals were created for two manufacturers as valuable documentation of the ArtPlace initiative, useful well beyond the grant period. Textile manufacturer Parrott Canvas Company operates an efficient and versatile production process based on highly skilled staff and team quality control. Following extensive pattern designs using artist Jan-Ru Wan’s early prototypes for the “Floating Leaf Baskets” and “Smooth Voyage Bag,” an initial production run was implemented and refined. The PAC Art-Force Program produced a training manual in English and Spanish that describes the company history, the website for product marketing, employee policies and procedures, and assembly processes for the above products created from this artist-manufacturer alliance.

AP From accelerated R&D for the manufacturers to new workforce skills, was there one impact that was more invigorating than another?

JK and JG Parrott enthusiastically acknowledged the creative energy of the artist’s design expertise and the many product ideas that will continue to be detailed and manufactured long after we have concluded our work. As a strong positive outcome, the owner has hired a new full-time Head of Product Development, who will direct and oversee new product designs, sampling, and costs; pattern making; spec sheets; and, employee training in production procedures for new products. This permanent hire will support both the owner and the company whose overall design directions are constantly changing and expanding.