Paul Greenhalgh calls for better funding of craft-based art

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The Independent Culture

The newly appointed director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, Paul Greenhalgh, says that craft-based art is at risk of a slow death in Britain unless art schools are better funded.

Speaking at the launch of Basketry: Making Human Nature, he cited ceramics as the most startling evidence of this: the number of ceramics degree courses had fallen to three, nationwide, compared to more than 20 two decades ago: kilns, and teaching, are too expensive compared to, say, the "whatevers" of conceptual art.

The basketry exhibition illustrates this tension between the cultural value of craft-based art, and how difficult it is to promote. Basketry expresses functional or imaginative and aesthetic needs, sometimes together, as in the contemporary work from Ueno Masao, Mary Butcher and Laura Ellen Bacon. The finesse of archaic basketry from Japan is even more exquisite, a brilliant counterpoint to Polynesian 'armour' and the brusque geometric grace of East Anglian eel-traps.

Basketry, says curator Sandy Heslop, helped create the deep structure of our thought processes; according to "the neuroscience of metaphor", it may even inform our spiritual beliefs. Perhaps the slow, repetitive processes of basketry also contributes to moral steadiness.

The exhibition offered one inadvertent moment of pure surreality: wandering off to look at the paintings of Francis Bacon, one found that his 1956 Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh features a hat like an ochre basket. One wanted more of these glancing connections, and Heslop's exhibition might have attempted to portray more challenging links between the historic craft of basketry and contemporary expressions of basketry in quite different physical and metaphysical fields.

Basketry: Making Human Nature, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, Norwich (01603 593199) to 22 May