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TAUNY Executive Director Jill Breit at the TAUNY Center's Folk Store in Canton. Photo: Nora Flaherty
TAUNY Executive Director Jill Breit at the TAUNY Center's Folk Store in Canton. Photo: Nora Flaherty

How the North Country can support artists, grow economy

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The North Country's Regional Economic Development Council has been one of the most successful in the state. It's received top awards twice now, for projects that range from renovating an historic building in Port Henry, to making improvements to the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, to treating wastewater in Malone.

Several of the projects the state funded aim to improve the North Country's economic outlook through the arts. One of these is "Invisible Factory", a project whose goal is to support regional artisans, and help them make a living from what they do.

"Invisible Factory" is a partnership between Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, in Canton, and the Adirondack North Country Association, in Saranac Lake.

Nora Flaherty stopped by TAUNY, to learn more about Invisible Factory.

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Nora Flaherty
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The TAUNY Folk Store in Canton. Photo: Nora Flaherty
The TAUNY Folk Store in Canton. Photo: Nora Flaherty
When I get to TAUNY's homey headquarters on Main Street, Executive Director Jill Breit meets me and tells me a folk dance class for kids is just wrapping up upstairs. We stop by a minute to watch.

Afterwards, we retire to Jill's quieter office to talk about the project. She tells me that the Adirondack North Country Association's been working on economic development in our region for decades, including supporting artisan projects. ANKA also puts on a wholesale show called "Adirondack Buyer Days", every year in Saratoga Springs.

Jill's a transplant to the North Country, and she started working at TAUNY in the early '90s. She's also a folklorist. She says where she fits in –And where TAUNY fits in—with this project, is in preserving a rural way of life.

JB: My own interest in this project Stems from many years of trying to help artisans market their own work through the North Country Folk Store here, and to perpetuate a certain lifestyle here in this region. There are many, many people in the region who have home studios, workshops in their back yard, and if they're able to make some income from the things they make, it supports a kind of rural existence that they either chose to remain in the region to live, or moved here to live. And so we're interested in helping to expand those opportunities.

NF: Why do you think there are so many artisans here in the North Country?

JB: Well, one of the factors is that there aren't a lot of ready-made jobs. It isn't easy to just go out and find a job, so one solution to that shortage is to create your own job, and if you have any kind of a skill that you can make something that might be market appealing, then you have the potential to create a job for yourself.

NF: So how is this Invisible Factory project going to help people earn a living from this?

JB: What we're hoping to do is really get out there, assess how many people there are out there in our region who wish to make a living from their handmade items, what are the obstacles that they face or perceive in their efforts to do a better job of that, and what can be done to correct that? So we're going to be doing a lot of assessment of where we stand right now, and trying to figure out what the solutions might be that would enable people to make more income from their handmade items.

NF: You're just starting out with this research, but you've been doing this kind of work for many years. In your experience, what are the obstacles that people face in making a living from the artisanal work they do?

JB: I think there are a number of factors. I think it's a big step to go from producing a couple dozen of an item in your home studio, to having to produce hundreds of items to sell to a larger marketplace. I think product development is often challenging for people because you have to have an understanding of what's happening in fashion and changing trends in the marketplace.

I think there's concern about making that leap from being a one-person operation to, if you're very successful…needing help…it's really a host of things and we're hoping to sort of break that out, item by item, and tackle those challenges one at a time.

NF: what about technology? Does that represent a major challenge? I mean the internet, basically.

JB: It's certainly a tremendous opportunity, and actually I've been impressed by how many people in the region are selling their work online, place like Etsy have made that a lot easier for people in this region, and quite a few folks are doing it. That said, one of the questions we get a lot from people when they go to a wholesale show like buyers' day is, 'do I need to have a web site?', they're worried about that, 'do I have to be online.'

There are other ways to use social media to move product, and I think that's an area that a lot of artisans in the region are interested in learning more about.

 NF: You're starting your research with a meeting [Monday, Feb. 25]. Who should come, and what should they expect?

JB: I think anyone who's curious [about making things and selling them], that would be a good person to come. I think anybody who's already making things to sell should come. I think people who are thinking about participating in the wholesale show should definitely come — even if they don't think they can get it together to participate this year, they can gear themselves up for next year if they like what they hear.

I think anyone who's curious about learning more regarding how many people in this region actually are making things to sell and what the range of products being produced is, would be welcome to attend and might really find what they hear interesting as well.

That meeting is tonight at 7, at the TAUNY Center, at 53 Main Street in Canton. More information at (315) 386-4289.

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