Covid-19 and the Field of Fiber Art


Detail:  Iris
Photo ©2020 Stanley Bulbach, All Rights Reserved


The flying carpet, Iris, started out as an exploration of the interaction of opposing natural forces, urban rural vistas, and ancient classical Greek mythology. When the designing was finished, the required yarns all prepared, and the loomed warped, then the weaving finally commenced. After the bottom third was woven the unexpected arrived: the Global Pandemic commenced.

Different localities have been impacted in greatly differing ways.  In NYC Covid-19 quickly imposed complications upon reliably securing food and medication, particularly for susceptible seniors and people with common underlying medical conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes.

As most food stores began closing down, that increased dependency in New York upon private trucking as illustrated below.  The Fresh Direct refrigerated truck on the left is of course familiar to most.  How about the other refrigerated truck in the picture on the right?


That refrigerated truck on the right of the above photo was our local neighborhood's portable morgue for the overflow of death in the community.  The fiber art community outside New York City might not have these in the middle of their neighborhoods.  But these portable morgues in our neighborhoods made residents very sensitive to the devastating breadth and gravity of this plague.

This was similarly the case visible beyond the police barriers blocking off parts of Central Park.


Making matters worse, the human morbidity and mortality of Covid-19 was multiplied by the near impossibility for New Yorkers to have been examined and treated in person for other serious medical problems, which has been particularly devastating for cancer patients and their families.

This is certainly not all.  News coverage makes it sound as if the economy has been shut down temporarily and only has to be freed by official orders to open anew and bounce back swiftly.

Upon what purported reality could that be founded?  The economic structure here in New York has been severely damaged.  New York's economic activity greatly funds the U.S. Treasury to enable the rest of the nation to receive bail-outs and support.  But for more than two years, New York, which lays the country's golden eggs, has been out of commission.

Unfortunately, the news prior to the Covid-19 outbreak did not widely report how many businesses in NYC were already shutting down in 2019 prior to any viral plague appearing on the distant horizon.

Although the field of fiber art in the U.S. is on record not encouraging attention to business conditions that control so much in the arts, the fiber field should be very concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on the arts, entertainment and tourism industries in the U.S. now that all three have been made so greatly economically dependent upon each other.

Consider NYC which has well over 7 million residents.  Normally that number is increased by daily tidal floods of commuters working in the city.

And that had been further increased by an average of an additional million tourists a day.  In NYC and many other major cities throughout the U.S., the development of the arts industries in recent decades has depended increasingly upon cultivating and sustaining huge markets of audiences and consumers.

Everyone is familiar with NYC's overcrowded streets, sidewalks, schools, and arterial transit system,  But below are photos of what Covid-19 has done to this city's economic activity and the art world's market development.


Above is a view of Fifth Avenue looking north from 16th Street just before noon on what used to be a heavily trafficked business day.  Other major commercial arteries are similarly empty.


Here is a shot of Park Avenue South at East 14th Street facing north to the Pan Am Building, again just before noon on a business day.

Since the advent of the Market Based Economy in the early 1980s, the arts in NYC have been increasingly dependent upon tourism.  But tourism has been turned off.  For NYC, a major concern has been how the arts can survive until that massive tourism can be revived.

But how soon can massive tourism be regained?  There's the serious question of "social distancing" at large cultural institutions, which up to now have tried to pack in as many ticket buyers as physically possible.  To reopen, most of those facilities will require the expense of redesigning their interiors, while greatly decreasing their customer and audience capacities.

How will smaller and far less powerful art entities secure for the funding to survive?  In the fiber art community, our organizations are already competing energetically with each other for the same limited amount of donation money available. 

How can the contemporary fiber art movement begin to compete for survival support against the dominating large art institutions?  How can the contemporary fiber art movement expect to survive on donations, when it has geared its organizational policies and resources to cultivating fiber art almost exclusively as an hobby requiring significant free time and disposable income?

The field of contemporary fiber art has very little advocacy to help confront the field's challenges.  It certainly does not encourage rational problem solving discussions.  Although the fiber arts are arguably the largest constituency of the craft media arts, it is the subject area characterized by the least transparent professional research practices and the poorest reputation in the little published research dedicated to it.  For decades, the field has been developed solely for the enjoyment it provides its makers.  As a result, it has the poorest economic and professional opportunity in the craft media based arts.

The fiber arts have been been an art form for peoples and cultures throughout human history.  Yet the contemporary field suffers from multiple stunning deficiences of diversity regarding race, age, gender, and region.  Individuals in the fiber arts are largely expected to be self-capitalized by savings, pensions, and/or by support from spouses.  Curiously the fiber art organizations endlessly express puzzlement about the incredible exclusivity that results from this blatant economic and financial pre-screening.

Thus, over the past generation, the incredibly non-diverse field has suffered breathtaking losses.  For example, the Handweavers Guild of America has lost two thirds of its membership over the past three decades.1/  The American Tapestry Alliance has been alarmed about greying of its membership without appropriate replenishment by younger generations.2/


Last year I was invited to write about fiber art's challenges as of 2019.  Both articles were submitted to the requesting organizations in January before anyone really gave any thoughts to a coming global nightmare.

In retrospect, the fiber field's problems up through 2019 described in those two articles seem minimal contrasted with what Covid-19 has imposed.  Our field's perennial problems have now been worsened exponentially.

When will fiber art's organizations begin to address openly what our field of fiber art has ignored in the past and what the future now imposes?



1/ Official membership in the Handweavers Guild of America is via postal subscription to the guild's official publication, "Shuttle, Spindle & Dyepot."  Federal regulations require magazine subscriptions via the U.S. Postal Service to be publicly declared annually in the publications themselves.

In the quarterly issue of winter 1988-89 HGA declared that its subscribership/membership was 10,007.  Over the next three decades, HGA published steadily declining subscribership/membership statistics in compliance with the Federal regulations..

By the winter issue of 2019,  HGA published that its official subscribership/membership statistics were 3,561,  Although HGA will not openly discuss its challenges with its membership, those Federally required filings in its publication document how HGA's policies have steadily lost its organization 65% of its membership size over the past three decades.

2/ Back in 2015 was the last time the American Tapestry Alliance made age statistics available to the membership.  Those statistics indicated that the average age of membership in ATA was then fast approaching 70 years of age with about only 2% of its membership 39 or younger despite extensive efforts to attract younger generations.