Is potting for the past? Where is the next generation of potters? Where have all the potters gone?

Is potting for the past?  Where is the next generation of potters?  Where have all the potters gone?
Dr Mary Ann Steggles asked these questions after her curiosity was piqued by a number of issues presented to her in 2011 concerning the number of young people wanting a career in studio ceramics.  Dr. Steggles is the Associate Director of The School of Fine Arts at The University of Manitoba, as well as a Professor of Art History.  She has a rich history in the ceramic field.  As a descendant of a potter in Oklahoma, and later as a maker of ceramic objects through her self-established Maple Grove Pottery in Manitoba, it only makes sense that her interest in investigating the current state of ceramics in Canada would be fueled by her love and working knowledge of clay.
Dr. Steggles sent out 300 questionnaires to potters around the world and received 279 responses back to questions such as “How long have you been making ceramics?”, “Can you make a living from your studio work alone, or do you supplement your income with workshops, teaching etc?”, and “If your income has declined, why do you think so?”.  She also asked if they noticed a change in young people entering the field of ceramics.
The results are in: In Canada, 9/11 had a major impact on studio sales of potters close to the border.  The subsequent increase in border security and the cost of passports for whole families brought about a decline in the number of sales these studios are able to make because people don’t want to cross the border as much.
In New Zealand and Australia, cheap Chinese imports flooded the markets, and “Alan Lacovetsky noted that more than half the studios in New Zealand went bankrupt because of the introduction of these wares.”*  In Australia the number of young people entering the design field has also been increasing.  This has lead to a decline in the number of art colleges or universities offering courses in studio ceramics, which also reduces the amount of part time jobs available for current practicing studio potters who need to supplement their income.
Schools and universities may not be the right environment to learn to be a successful studio potter, and the time spent at these institutions can be insufficient to cultivate the discipline necessary to succeed.  Many individuals are there to get their credits and requirements, graduate, and leave, however, it takes years to become a successful studio potter.  Peter Knuckey, a potter previously living in New Zealand and currently residing in Melbourne, wrote to Dr. Steggles: “Young people don’t have that discipline to drive themselves into practicing and learning the craft that is needed before they can truly express themselves.”  Apprenticeship programs would be more advantageous in producing a next generation of studio potters.
In conjunction with an uneducated society, technology can also make it difficult for professional potters to make a living.  If a ‘hobbyist’ or amateur potter sells their wares for ‘x’ amount through Etsy, why should people be inclined to pay more than ‘x’ for the same item when it is made by someone who has dedicated years of their life to becoming an expert at their craft?  Public education around quality ceramics may make the craft more attractive to would-be studio potters, as it would help to improve their income in future years.
So what can we do?  We can buy handmade works.  We can support the training of young people in ceramics.  We can advocate for the layers of richness that craft adds to our lives.  The hallmark of a prosperous society can be seen when its arts are able to flourish
I would like to thank the generosity of Dr. Mary Ann Steggles for presenting on this topic, for all her hours of researching to help uncover the answer to “Where have all the potters gone?”, as well as her grace in providing source material for the above entry.
*All quotes and specifics are credited to Dr Steggles’ article “Where Have All The Potters’ Gone?”, to be published in Germany.  I’m looking forward to reading the article in its completeness in the March 2014 issue of Ceramic Arts and Perception Technical.