A Global Conversation with David Seltzer
David Seltzer is the Heritage Leadership award recipient for this year's Globy Awards!
Seltzer plays a key role in many organizations throughout Philadelphia, apart from his “day job” as a Principal at Mercator Advisors LLC. He is the Chair of the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative, which works with organizations to provide athletics-based youth development programs in under-resourced neighborhoods. He is a trustee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and chairs its Architecture and Facilities Committee. He serves on the board of Starfinder Foundation and is part of the Philadelphia Union’s ownership group. And he co-founded the craft consortium CraftNOW Philadelphia, which promotes the city as the nation's Craft Capital.
Launched in 2015, CraftNOW has been connecting Philadelphia institutions and artists with the community to celebrate the diverse history of craft in the city. GPA interviewed CraftNOW co-founder, David Seltzer, to talk with him about CraftNOW and how the organization promotes Philadelphia’s ongoing craft heritage.
Andrew Beers: With a strong business and financial background, what drew you towards co-founding CraftNOW?
David Seltzer: CraftNOW grew out of a chance meeting with another Philadelphian, Clara Hollander, when we both were attending an annual art show in Miami called Art Basel Miami. It’s an international art and design show held each December, and it’s the largest cultural tourism generator in the state of Florida. When we saw how transformative and impactful it was to Miami and Miami Beach for the one-week period it’s held, we started thinking about Philadelphia and what could be an authentic Philadelphia version of that. We felt that while Philadelphia does have a thriving fine arts community, it really is its artisan sector – craft and making – where Philadelphia is a national standout. Upon our return, we were able to enlist the support of some of the city’s leading craft organizations—The Center for Art in Wood, the Clay Studio, the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and the University of the Arts—to help launch CraftNOW in 2015.
I think my background in finance and economic development helped me see the potential for how an organization like CraftNOW could really promote the city and become an asset to Philadelphia.
AB: What makes Philadelphia the Craft Capital?
DS: It really goes back to the 18th century, when Philadelphia was the nation’s leading city economically and culturally. There has always been a strong tradition of craft and building here, from colonial times through the Federal period. Then, during the Industrial Revolution through the first half of the 20th century, Philadelphia earned the sobriquet of “Workshop of the World” where there were more different manufacturing sectors represented here than any other city in the country--or possibly the planet. And then more recently, in the post-war period, Philadelphia was the center of a revival in interest in studio craft, high-quality contemporary craft, and design. Thought leaders like gallerists Helen Drutt and Ruth and Rick Snyderman, along with the City’s continuing tradition of artisanal work and small batch manufacturing, all support the claim that Philadelphia is the nation’s Craft Capital.
We have a number of superb non-profit organizations that have helped promote Philadelphia as the Craft Capital over the decades. Particularly over the last thirty or forty years, we’ve had material-based organizations like the Center for Art and Wood in Olde City, the Clay Studio, which has just moved up to Northern Liberties, and the Fabric Workshop on Arch Street. Also, our first-rate art schools - Moore College of Art, Tyler School of Art and Architecture, Jefferson, University of the Arts, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Penn and Drexel - all have strong programs that include craft or handmade elements. Those programs are producing the next generation of talent for craft in the United States.
AB: Are crafts important to promote and preserve? Why?
DS: I should start by saying that I’m an admirer of contemporary craft but not a serious collector, and certainly not an expert. But I can see the ancillary benefits of craft and making to the city and the region. Craft is an art that appeals to people from all walks of life, and its handmade features allow us to stay physically connected to the objects we create in an increasingly dissociated, digital age.
The initial objective for the group of us establishing CraftNOW was cultural tourism and the economic benefit of having events, particularly building off of the long-standing national reputation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Contemporary Craft Show. Held each November, it’s the nation’s oldest, and arguably its best, juried show for contemporary craft in the country. We decided to build events around that craft show to create a “Superbowl” week of craft-related activities, so that when visitors come, they can go to see other craft centers, visit exhibitions, attend our day-long craft symposium, and participate with their families in hands-on craft activities.
With the first leg of the stool for CraftNOW being cultural tourism, we’ve more recently diversified into two related and socially responsive areas. The second leg of the stool is to promote business education for younger artists starting out. We’ve partnered with a private, socially minded company called NextFab that has a couple facilities in the city where they have technology that individual artisans can access, which they typically couldn’t afford to buy on their own. NextFab provides instruction and leases out equipment to them, and we’ve teamed up with them to offer business education workshops for both emerging and seasoned makers and craft artists to hone their business skills.
Then, the third leg of the stool is something we started in 2021 in response to the curtailed instruction in craft in Philadelphia schools. We’ve teamed up with the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation to offer summer camps for kids in neighborhood rec centers – 120 rec centers around the city – where children who probably don’t get exposure to what used to be called “industrial arts” can go and have our member organizations provide instruction on craft and making. So, those three activities – cultural tourism, business education and summer camp programs – allow us to promote and preserve craft in the city.
AB: The month of November is set aside for CraftMONTH in Philadelphia. Could you talk about CraftMONTH this year and how it was established?
DS: As I noted earlier, CraftMONTH was inspired by Art Basel Miami, where a citywide array of special events span an entire week and animate Dade County. We decided to structure our events to celebrate craft concurrently with the internationally renowned Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Contemporary Craft Show. Each year we develop a theme for our activities. This year it’s a “Public/Private” theme, including both individual objects and how architectural spaces can be opened to the public to make them more inviting. We work with our two-dozen nonprofit and private gallery programming partners to encourage them to develop their own exhibition programs centered around our theme. For the last several years, Mayor Jim Kenney has proclaimed November as CraftMONTH in Philadelphia, acknowledging the rich heritage here of craft making in the City’s history.
AB: Could you talk a little bit about CraftNOW’s publication, “Craft Capital: Philadelphia’s Cultures of Making?”
DS: “Craft Capital” was published for our fifth anniversary of CraftNOW in 2019. We wanted to commemorate not only the strides our organization had made, but more broadly to celebrate the growing craft and maker community in Philadelphia. So, we fundraised to support the publication of a beautiful edition by Schiffer Books, which is a major arts and design publisher based in Atglen, PA. We were able to get Glenn Adamson, who formally directed the Museum of Art and Design in New York and has held other prominent design positions, to serve as the editor of the book and help enlist a dozen content experts to write about the many facets of craft in Philadelphia. The articles were accompanied by photo essays displaying the wide variety of activities that go on in Philadelphia supporting our claim as the Craft Capital.
Not to say there aren’t other important centers of craft in the U.S. - Santa Fe is synonymous with Southwest craft and Asheville, North Carolina has a wonderful craft scene. But in terms of the history over the centuries and the breadth of talent and continued leadership in the field, Philadelphia is unparalleled.
By the way, with the “Craft Capital” book, do not be alarmed that the spine is loose. That’s intentional to show the craftsmanship that went into producing the book itself!
AB: Is there anything else you would like to share about CraftNOW or the work you’re currently doing for Philadelphia?
DS: We’re a young organization, but a growing one. We’re particularly proud of our diversification into helping under-resourced youth in Philadelphia with our summer camps. We’d love for it to become a year-round thing. I’m involved in a similar organization that I helped build called Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative, that has 70 nonprofit organization members that use sports for social change. I could see our CraftNOW summer camp programs evolving into a year-round “Craft for Social Change” initiative, where there’s after school or weekend programming for students to learn about ceramics, woodworking or textiles, and also academic tutoring, leadership training and community involvement. I could see CraftNOW using “making” as the medium, similar to how Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative uses athletics.
With a smaller organization, like CraftNOW, you really can see the impact of your individual efforts in helping advance the mission—and that’s immensely satisfying.
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