In 1906, six craftspeople gathered to form the Society of Arts and Crafts of NSW. In these hundred years, our Society has grown and evolved with many changes of venue and the waxing and waning of fortune. Trade was so brisk during the First World War that we maintained a full time 'depot' and its sales helped with the purchase of an ambulance.
The Society of Arts & Crafts of NSW , 1906 -1991
On the 9th August 1906, The Society of Arts and Crafts officially formed. On the 13th August, the first meeting was held. The work exhibited included china painting, repousse brass and leather, a design for a mantel drape, books and sketches. When the fourth meeting was held in November, the level of enthusiasm was so great, that the sixpenny fine was abolished, and by the fifth meeting, the subscription was increased to ten shillings and sixpence. A visitor's evening was arranged for the following March, and a centrally located studio was offered. So, the foundations of The Society were laid
Eighty guests attended the March visitor's meeting and were much interested in the display of art needlework, bookbinding, china painting, designs, leather and metal repousse, photography and woodcarving. A Loan Collection, consisting of embroidery from various countries, some beautiful miniatures and other exhibits, was also shown. Membership was rapidly increasing. Many members travelled to and exhibited at the Australian Exhibition of Women's Work in Melbourne and upon return, an address was made to the monthly meeting, describing the exhibition and the exhibits on display. This led to the adoption of regular lectures as a feature of the Society's activities.
The first Annual Meeting was held, just eighteen months after the Society's inauguration. Associate Members were accepted. Exhibitions had proved so successful, that it was decided a permanent room was needed, where work could be displayed and orders taken. Premises were found, and in April a four day exhibition was opened. Workshops were erected for members to demonstrate their crafts. The Society's first showcase was purchased, and the first window display was created for a Christmas exhibit.
The permenant headquarters had been named 'the depot', but an increase in rent led to its temporary closure. However, by November another exhibition had been arranged, a poster plate for advertising was cut by one member, and during the exhibition, stallholders made copies. Members were also given cards for distribution and invitations were sent out. The Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria sent a representative collection and for the first time an account of a Society exhibition appeared in the daily papers.
The window space, formerly loaned, was taken on a lease, and furnished with a display which included a poster made by one member. This led to an exhibition of posters and 'window cards'. The Society's third Annual Exhibition was held, where examples of work were purchased by the National Art Gallery and the Technological Museum. A library was opened.
Finances now warranted the employment of a paid secretary, in addition to an Honorary Secretary, yet another move occurred. All-day exhibitions, from 11.30 to 6pm were arranged each month, and in November, times were extended to two days to accommodate the English Christmas mail. Lecture evenings were well attended.
The Society was affiliated with sister societies in Melbourne, Tasmania and Brisbane and another window for our displays was provided by the Tourist Bureau. This concession was available annually until 1919. Quarterly displays now replaced monthly shows and a more harmoniously arranged Annual Exhibition took the place of workshops.
A nature study circle was formed, with the idea of gathering material as the basis for design, and well attended excursions were arranged. A photographic circle and a design circle were also initiated, but all had to give way to war work the following year. Another change of premises took place in October, with the new location being officially opened at a Christmas sale.
A design competition was arranged in conjunction with the annual exhibition.
In the Waratah or Telopea was adopted as the badge and emblem of the Society. The hours at the depot, to cope with growing demand, were extended until they were almost the same as most retail shops.
The first Annual Exhibition to be held in the Art Gallery of the Department of Education was opened in October. This gallery was built as a result of a deputation to the Government by many arts and crafts societies in 1909. The Society was granted exhibition space, free of cost since completion in 1915.
Part of the 1916 exhibition receipts was allotted to the Red Cross for soldiers' craftwork.
Business increased and larger premises were required. An assistant secretary was soon engaged to help in the new depot.
1918, 1919, 1920
Our history book has little information to cover these years, except that in 1920 premises were changed again, and better situated window spaces were available. The record resumes in 1921.
No records are available for 1921.
The new rooms acquired in 1920 were sublet to members as a classroom. Although expenses had increased and the bank balance was depleted by the cost of shop fittings for the new depot, increased sales soon led to the engagement of a junior assistant.
An exhibit, valued at £250 was sent to The Exhibition of Home & Industries Association, London. Good sales were made and by special request three handwoven scarves were sent on to the Women Artists' Exhibition held at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.
An honour roll, in book form was executed for Armidale Cathedral, illuminated on vellum and bound in blue morocco leather, with silver repousse, set with black opals.
The records for these years are not available.
One more move was made in this year, at long last a room with a street window in the heart of Sydney. The Society was to remain at these premises, until 1936.
The Society's 21st anniversary was celebrated, and it was decided that with ever increasing activity, it was necessary to form the Society into a limited liability company, functioning as a not for profit organisation.
By mid 1928, activity associated with the company's formation was well under way.
After nearly two years' hard work, a Certificate of Registraion was granted by the Assistant Registrar of Joint Stock Companies on the 20th December 1929.
The Society's 25th anniversary was celebrated in August 1931 and a Commemorative Historical Sketch was compiled and wholly produced by members.
The Annual Exhibition was once again held in the Art Gallery of the Education Department (this facility had been granted to the Society since 1916) and the Trustees of the National Art Gallery and the Curator of the Technological Museum bought examples. Representative collections were exchanged between the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria. Programmes of lectures were prepared, and weekly broadcasts on 2UW (which had begun in 1930) were continued.
Monthly lectures and weekly broadcasts continued.
A loan exhibit of 'Native Craftwork of Oceania and Australia' from the Australian Museum was shown at the Annual Exhibition.
The rent for the Society's central Sydney rooms was doubled, and the decision was taken to move, yet again. The English Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society sent a collection to the Annual Exhibition.
At the 1937 Annual General Meeting, it was passed that the sale of members' work be discontinued and only a Club Room be maintained and exhibitions held. The Sydney Handloom Weaving School allowed the Society to use their address, hold meetings and house the Library and furniture until a room was rented from the Kindergarten Union, where meetings and small exhibitions were held.
The Society was invited to arrange an exhibit in the 150th Anniversary Pavilion at the Easter Show, and the English Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society extended an invitation to participate in their 50th Anniversary exhibition in London. Twenty eight members were represented and a number of articles sold.
Yet another move was made to new rooms. A War Service Circle was started which met and worked together until the end of the war. Local Work Circles were also organised, and altogether over 2000 articles were made and distributed by 1945. Later, a Camouflage Netting Circle was formed and members worked at the Papier Mache Centre for the Red Cross Society.
The Queensland Arts and Crafts Society sent an exhibit to the Annual Exhibition. The Society's address changed yet again.
The Red Cross Society appealed for volunteers to teach remedial craftwork in Military Hospitals. Society members joined in, also instructing Army nurses and teachers. These services were provided to the Red Cross until the end of the war.
Craftwork in the time of War' was featured in the annual exhibition held in David Jones' Auditorium. War restrictrions prevented the use of the Gallery in the Education Building. There was a display of Soldiers' Craftwork and donations were sent to the Prisoners of War Fund.
The annual exhibition was once again held in David Jones' Auditorium, and a donation of £100 was sent to the Chinese Children's Relief Fund. Representatives of France Holland China and Russia arranged interesting loan exhibits of their country's craftwork.
The sales depot was again opened, and here annual exhibitions were held until 1947, as no suitable gallery was available. At the invitation of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, radio talks were begun.
A project to found a Craft Training College was approved at the 1945 Annual General Meeting. The objective was to 'establish a diploma course, and to raise the standard of all craftwork through advanced instruction, with emphasis on a wide cultural background'. Classes started in October, in Double Bay, and continued until the end of 1951, and included design and colour, embroidery, textile printing, spinning and weaving. A correspondence course on design and colour and fabric printing was circulated as far as New Guinea and Singapore.
Attendance at the craft college was so good that the weaving classes were moved to a second location in North Sydney.
The Education Department's Art Gallery was again available for an annual exhibition. Students work from the Craft Training College was displayed and this resulted in many new enrolments.
The courses offered by the Craft Training College were extended to include interior decorating and drawing. In 1949 costume and stage design and lettering were included. A bequest of £100 allowed the purchase of a kiln.
Woollahra Council upon the death of the owner of the premises where the Craft Training College was located, resumed the property. Courses now offered included pottery, basketry, advanced design and leatherwork. The Society became affiliated with the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and at the end of the year, the North Sydney studio was closed, because of lack of space for class expansion.
By the time of the 1951 AGM, and after six years of successful organisation, it was decided that because of financial and other difficulties, the Craft Training College was to be closed. The furniture and equipment acquired over the years was disposed of.
1952, 1953, 1954, 1955
Sad times were upon the Society, many original members had died, many had grown old and could no longer take their usual active part. Mass production, and a move away from traditional arts and crafts were bringing troubled times.
The Society celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, and a retrospective exhibition of craftwork covering the fifty years was held. The Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences and the Art Gallery arranged exhibitions of members work which had been purchased by them. Members were notified that a limited amount of machine work was permissible.
In 1958 it was decided to renovate the 'depot' and £50 were set aside, but following this the rent was increased. Members gave talks about their work on television, at this stage, a fairly new medium.
In 1955 the society had 153 members, by 1959, the membership had reduced to 112.
By 1960 the financial state was causing some concern. For some time the society had been renting a showcase, but with a proposed increase in rent, it was given up. Discussion took place late in the year about closing down the depot. Increasing costs and difficulties with voluntary workers were taking their toll.
A decision was taken to keep the premises known as the depot open, with the help of a roster of voluntary helpers. At the annual exhibition, the guest exhibitors were the Embroiders Guild and the Handweavers & Spinners Guild.
Membership, which in 1962 had been 124, grew to 129 in 1963. A little money was spent on the Gift Shop or 'depot' in the city, and a number of special displays or small exhibitions were held with the hope of acquainting the public with the society's 'permanent' address.
1964, 1965, 1966
Membership steadied at 128, and the society continued it's drive to 'acquaint the public' with new signage, letterbox drops, paid advertisements, and exhibitions opened by television personalities.
In 1967 improvements were carried out at the Gift Shop. The rooms were renovated and painted, a new sign was installed and an electric fan purchased. New jewellery cases were installed.
By 1968, the membership had reached 144. Three exhibitions were held in three separate city locations. Of the 126 members, manning the gallery fell to only 17 willing workers, and members were urged to give more support.
1969 was a very busy year. In June, July, August and September, a touring exhibition was arranged under the auspices of the Arts Council of Australia, and covered many country centres throughout the state. This exhibition was well received and created a great deal of interest. It was also a financial success.
An extraordinary AGM had to be called during the year to inform the membership of the society's financial position, which was not very healthy, and to invite discussion and suggestions for the future. The membership stood at 125.
By this year membership had declined to 119, and towards the end of the year, the disturbing news was received that the Gift Shop was to be closed as the building was to be demolished. A special meeting was held, and members instructed to remove their work from the premised by early 1972.
In January 1972, the Society's books, equipment fittings etc. were distributed amongst various members for storage. In February, a small gallery was reestablished in the city, but was moved again in May. In August 1972, a disastrous robbery occurred and $1120 worth of members' work (predominantly jewellery) was stolen. Thus the gallery was closed in November 1972 and the society no longer had a permanent home.
Although homeless, the society continued to function as an organisation holding exhibitions.
1974 was a big year. Premises were rented in The Rocks, an area which was just being recognised as a tourist attraction. These premises, though upstairs, were large enough to establish a gallery, with an area for craft tuition, space for a library and craft equipment, and an area to provide a meeting place for the membership. For the first time since 1906 all the activities of the society were concentrated in one centre and the aims and objectives of the founders became a reality. Two grants, one Commonwealth, the other State, were applied for and received. These were for the purchase of equipment to facilitate classes. Thus, classes began in enamelling, silver jewellery, weaving and spinning, copperwork, macrame, leatherwork etc., many of the instructors were drawn from the membership.
Growth continued through 1976, and the society's membership climbed back to 126. The new gallery was refurbished, and classes and workshops continued. Grants from the Australia Council and the NSW government assisted with tutors fees, a much needed fordifax machine and adding machines.
Membership was steadily increasing, and a larger venue was required for the annual exhibition. This was a huge success, five thousand pamphlets were printed and distributed and many invitations were sent. Lacemaking was added to the list of craft classes available at the gallery.
The Art Gallery of NSW in conjunction with the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, mounted a small exhibition entitled 'Cicadas and Gum Nuts'. This comprised work by members of the society and the Society of Arts and Crafts of Victoria, from the 1910-1930 era. Many of the pieces on display had been acquired by the Art Gallery and the Museum over the past decades. A concurrent exhibition of contemporary craft selected by the Craft Board of the Australia Council was held.
Classes continued, together with special workshops. The society's books and records, dating from 1906 were lodged with the Mitchell Library.
The gallery relocated to the first floor of their Rocks home, greatly improving accessibility. These premises were refurbished. Staffing was still a struggle; with 180 members, only 40 of these carried the burden of keeping the gallery open. Classes and workshops continued to grow, stained glass was added, leatherwork, bobbin lace and lost wax casting. The Leatherworkers Guild of NSW was formed from society members. At the end of 1981 membership increased dramatically and sales were improving. Credit cards were accepted for the first time.
Extra space was rented in the gallery premises, for craft classes, allowing the existing space to be used entirely as a gallery-showroom.
These were very successful years for the society, with special exhibitions, special commissions for members, additional classes and workshops.
Late in 1984 notice to quit the premises was given; the building was to be redeveloped as a hotel. This meant the loss of the gallery, the loss of teaching and meeting areas, and little hope of acquiring either elsewhere. The executive of the society were tireless in their efforts to find suitable premises and very persistent in their requests for substitute locations. They lobbied every Member of Parliament who was in any way connected with the arts, or The Rocks area, believing that as it had been in existence since 1906, it was an integral part of the Sydney craft scene. This was especially true at a time of expanding tourism and a consequential demand for quality Australian craftwork. Their efforts were rewarded, and premises were again available in The Rocks, space for a gallery, but with no possibility for classes. Eventually, in June 1985, the new gallery opened. The society was now paying commercial rent, but from the first, sales exceeded expectations and the step fully justified the committee's earlier decision and the cost of setting up the new site. Classes were resumed on a smaller scale in temporary accommodation in the suburbs. New rules were drawn up regarding craft standards, and staffing the gallery became compulsory. A decision was taken to cancel the annual exhibition.
To monitor standards, a system of craft co-ordinators was established, and the library was updated. In 1987 a system of special displays of individual members' work was proposed and initiated. After a slow start it became very popular with members as it resulted in greater exposure of their craft and added interest to the gallery.
1988 was a very busy year; the Australian Bicentennial Year. Members continued with television and radio interviews, and took part in special planned exhibitions such as the First State Exhibition at Darling Harbour.
The main activity of 1989 was to attempt to increase public awareness of the society and the gallery through public promotion. Members demonstrated their craft at many public functions, some were featured in a book published on The Rocks. The society became a full member of The Rocks Chamber of Commerce (one member had won the contest for the design of its logo). Many members gave radio interviews. Life members now received a sterling silver waratah brooch.
In 1990 the gallery was refurbished. The society participated in Heritage week with a bang, or rather a baa. Three sheep were borrowed, penned and shorn, then members carded the wool, spun and knitted it in public demonstrations. The publicity received brought many visitors and the sheep behaved wonderfully. Responding to the demands of tourism, it was decided to accept travellers cheques. Members continued their individual successes with prizes in competitions, and commissions. The Powerhouse (Applied Arts & Sciences) Museum presented a major exhibition lasting many months, and several members actively participated by engaging in demonstrations.
This was our 85th year and we were the second oldest arts and crafts society in Australia, pipped at the post by Tasmania by two years for the honour of being the oldest, still established craft association. To mark the occasion, the Art Gallery of NSW and the Powerhouse Museum lent a representative collection of past members' work for display in the gallery. As a special tribute the Powerhouse Museum hosted a reception, a gesture of recognition much appreciated by all the membership. As the Grand Finale to the 85th year, the decision was made to sponsor an Australian Decorative Arts Exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. 60% of the exhibited craft was to be members' work acquired by the Art Gallery in the early 1900s.
At the time of our society's history book's publication, 1991, notice had again been given that the lease on the gallery was to be terminated with plans to change the whole structure of the arcade. This did not happen and we continue to thrive, producing beautiful craft work and maintaining our original objectives; to foster Australian handcraft in both materials and design.
Telopea gallery in Metcalfe arcade continued to evolve with regular members exhibitions and display changes. The Rocks itself was changing with outside eating areas and a regular weekend market in George Street. Our trading times were busy on the weekends.
During this time the Society had been offered a second venue in Metcalfe arcade and as we were preparing for our Centenary and membership was good it was a good opportunity to expand. Also the Olympics was about to take place in Sydney in 2000
This second larger premise became Australian Image Craft at the Rocks and again members engaged in demonstrations and embraced the running of two consecutive galleries with much success during the Olympics.
This new larger venue was the opportunity to hold exhibitions with an opening and our Patron, the wife of the Governor of NSW, Mrs Shirley Sinclair was the guest speaker.
Tourism to the Rocks slowed down in 2001 after 9/11 and at this time the Society was beginning to prepare for its Centenary in 2006. It was decided to hold a trilogy of exhibitions leading up to this, the first being ‘From a Little Acorn’ in 2004. Our Patron was now The Governor of NSW, Professor Marie Bashir AC who opened the first in these trilogies.
A Centenary committee had been formed and ‘A Great Gum Grows’ was the second exhibition held. Members continued to run the two galleries and the Society supported the charity Wrap With Love with an exhibition and on our website. We were also active with The Rocks Chamber of Commerce.
This was a big year as along with our celebrations for 100 years we received notice that we were being relocated as Metcalfe arcade was undergoing renovations later in the year. The Centenary committee had secured a curator and members were working towards the curated exhibition ‘Social Riches a Century of Craft’ to be staged at Manly Art Gallery and Museum in September. This would be concurrent with the third trilogy ‘Branching Out’ to be held in Australian Image in The Rocks.
Social Riches a Century of Craft was opened at Manly by our Patron with 50 of the members work shown alongside historical work loaned by the Powerhouse Museum and Art Gallery of NSW. There was a commemorative catalogue produced.
Later this year the Society accepted the offer of the heritage building, the old Coroners Court in George Street and were relocated there in November. To simplify our trading names it was decided the new gallery would be Craftnsw.
A committee had been formed to look at our constitution which was originally compiled when the Society incorporated in 1929. A new constitution was accepted by the members in 2007
The new larger building the Coroners Court was ideal for individual members exhibitions and themes and a yearly programme was planned each year. There was a kitchen down stairs to hold board meetings and room to store our historical collection.
Invitations were sent to various guilds and organisations to hold their exhibitions in Craftnsw. In 2011 we participated in the first celebrations of Chinese New Year in Sydney and have continued to do each year.
During this time the Society members participated in various events in the Rocks including fashion shows, demonstrations, festivals and market days. Craftnsw was to display work from selected HSC students in the Art Express. Men at Work was another regular exhibition by our male craft artists. It was decided to invite emerging artists to exhibit and the Emerging Artists Award eventuated.
It became imminent our lease was not being renewed and that we would have to vacate in 2018. After much searching in The Rocks and Sydney CBD we accepted a lease in 12 Argyle Place Millers Point, a smaller venue than The Old Coroner’s Court at 104 George Street. The shopfront on ground level was refurbished as a gallery and a grand opening was held with Dame Marie Bashir and our new Ambassador Claudia Chan Shaw. A new cash register system was installed and the website was updated to include sales. The two rooms upstairs were setup for Board meetings and later for guest exhibitions and workshops.
We received two grants at this time from the City of Sydney, the first to hold various workshops with guest tutors and support emerging artists attending these workshops. The later second grant enabled us to explore a future business plan for a sustainable future.
Craftnsw was just starting to become known in its new position in Millers Point when Covid arrived in Australia forcing The Society to close the physical gallery which meant we no longer had a gallery in The Rocks after a presence there of almost 50 years.
The Society continues to have various pop up exhibitions, particularly in Balmain as part of the Sydney Craft Week and had several successful online exhibitions during Covid lockdowns.
Our long-standing organisation, the Society of Arts and Crafts of New South Wales, will be celebrating 120 years of continuous existence in 2026 with the aim of showcasing excellence in Australian arts and crafts.