When you’re in the business of promoting creative people and the things they make, in-person interaction between artists and potential customers is key. That’s why Akron’s Crafty Mart typically relies on fairs and special events to get the word out about makers and to bring in business for these independent business owners.
That was until 2020 threw the organization (and the rest of the world) into a tailspin with the COVID-19 pandemic. In-person events were cancelled in a matter of weeks, and Crafty Mart staff was left with no choice but to come up with a Plan B — and fast.
“This year looked very different for us,” says Marissa McClellan, Crafty Mart’s executive director. “Our job is to serve [makers], and if there is no one to serve, then we are done, too. We had to do the best we could, and that meant pivoting and making sure we were carrying out our mission.”
Established in 2008, Crafty Mart has been creating and hosting handmade markets throughout Akron and also supports local artists, makers and artisans by providing educational opportunities for these small business owners.
The non-profit organization, which has offices and soon-to-be exhibit space at Bounce Innovation Hub, gets its funding through a variety of grants and is run by a 9-member board of directors, McClellan and Social Media & Marketing Director Cheryl Hopkins. It boasts about 250 local small businesses that it supports in various ways, with an emphasis on educational programming.
“Even before COVID, we had cut way back on our in-person markets,” McClellan says. “We are more focused on education and resources for sharing. Creative people are good at making things but what they don’t have is the business experience or knowledge to make sure they are not getting hammered with taxes, for example.”
When the pandemic hit, Google Classroom and other platforms made transitioning educational programs into virtual formats fairly straightforward. Replacing the more than 10 in-person crafting events scheduled for this year proved challenging but not impossible.
McClellan spoke excitedly about the alternatives planned for makers until the pandemic and its limitations are a thing of the past. Among them is the Maker Box program, which Crafty Mart launched in May as a way for artists to get their products in front of the public. Five makers provided five pieces of their work for inclusion in a themed box each month. These boxes were advertised on Crafty Mart’s website and also on the website of Cleveland Bazaar, another non-profit maker’s organization with which Crafty Mart collaborates.
The Devil Strip is a not-for-profit, community-owned news cooperative. We rely on your financial support to make it possible for us to provide coverage of Akron’s artists, musicians, nonprofits and small businesses. As a member, you can help shape the direction of The Devil Strip and of the city.
“We used our platform and acted like the wholesaler,” McClellan says. “We have the connection to the community and we would offer up the boxes and say, ‘buy this.’ This helped the makers who were not getting in front of shoppers like they normally would. We wanted to make sure they were staying relevant and that people are purchasing from them.”
The program was a success, but McClellan said they have temporarily suspended it in order to plan for how best to carry out Maker Boxes in 2021.
Maker Sessions, which have long been a Crafty Mart offering, continued this year but were done virtually. This year’s sessions were launched in September and consisted of two tracks, a Beginner and a Master track, which offered artists and makers a 6-week course covering topics relevant to starting or maintaining a small business: financial plans, establishing your audience, selling your products, taking professional product shots, marketing your business and legal matters.
Master Makers who have gone through these sessions then can become part of Creative Catapult. Known as Crafty Mart’s “shark tank,” Creative Catapult participants offer up business ideas to be judged and voted on. This year, makers created their pitches via video for the event, which was streamed on-demand on Vimeo. As an added incentive, ticket-holders for this year’s Catapult received a Maker Box ahead of the event that contained hand-made items from competitors so they could familiarize themselves with the products before voting took place. Crafty Mart offered local food and drink discounts to ticket-holders, as well.
“Creative Catapult is like Shark Tank with a handmade, hometown flair,” McClellan says. “This event is the culmination of many hours of hard work and creative energy and offers an incredible opportunity for these artists and makers to take their business to the next level. We are so thankful to have found a way to preserve this unique experience during an uncertain year.”
Crafty Mart’s biggest annual event of the year, the in-person holiday show, has also been transformed to a virtual shopping experience, Shop Holiday Handmade, which will be held on Nov. 28 and 29.
In an effort to build interest ahead of the event, Crafty Mart organizers are hosting “12 Days of Crafty Mart,” which begins on Nov. 18 and will include different offerings each day, including a virtual DIY workshop and a swag bag designed by local artist Leandra Drumm that will be on sale.
For the Shop Holiday Handmade, Crafty Mart will collaborate with Cleveland Bazaar and Pittsburgh-based I Made it! Market, according to McClellan. The virtual show will support more than 150 makers from Akron, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Customers will be able to view a virtual PDF catalog that will showcase each participating maker on their own interactive page, much like an old school Sears or Toys ‘R Us Holiday catalog, says McClellan.
Susan Pappas is a writer, editor and longtime Akron-area resident. She loves meeting interesting people and bringing them to life with her words and photographs. In her spare time, she dreams of new ways to be creative, and one of her next projects will focus on turning the hilarity and hijinks of her two wiener dogs, Kiki and Carly, into a children’s book series.
Photos: A work of art by Leandra Drumm for Crafty Mart. Used with permission from Crafty Mart.