Friends pitch in to help Oaxacan artisans

As the pandemic drags on, artisans continue to suffer, making do with less, finding other ways to make some money. But there have also been efforts to find other ways to sell products. Some of the more sophisticated have been spearheaded by organizations such as the Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art (FOFA) in New York.

The organization was founded in 2007 by knowledgable collectors of fine Oaxacan handcraft collectors, who are concerned the viability of these traditions now and in the future.

The organization works closely with most of the state’s best artisans, who have a voice in deciding the projects that FOFA pursues. They also work closely with the state’s museum of folk art, MEAPO, headed by world-renowned barro negro potter, Carlomagno Pedro.

Much of their work has been organizing fairs and handcraft competitions. They have a sophisticated website, but do not engage in the sale of handcrafts. But they will assist artisans in translation and making connections, especially in the United States.

This mission has shaped FOFA’s response to the pandemic and the crisis it has triggered for Oaxacan artisans.

Their first response was to create a grant program and online exhibit of pieces with a Covid theme. They worked to get in touch with as many of the 165 winners and runners-up from past competitions for young artisans, and 138 of them received grants to create pieces and get them professionally photographed.

The pieces were exhibited online, primarily in Instagram, an initiative headed by one of FOFA’s photographers with a PR background. Although FOFA did not do any more than show the pieces and provide contact information, most of the pieces sold, and about 30% received orders for additional pieces.

FOFA president Arden Rothenstein stated that while the organization did have the Instagram account previously, is was relatively inactive. The exhibition was a sucess because it was marketed, which also had the effect of attracting 1,400 followers to the FOFA account. Rothenstein says she is impressed with Instagram, and FOFA will be using more of it.

As the restrictions wear on, FOFA has also worked to find more long-term solutions. They contracted with two online marketing experts in Mexico to provide online classes and mentoring for selected artisans. The aim here is to give the artisans the tools needed to create their own online presence and marketing. The program focuses not only on the technology, but also product photography, branding, customer service and shipping.

The pilot program ran in July, with 24 young artisans participating. About half were able to sell at least one piece to the United States as part of their “final project.”

The next groups are scheduled for October and after the new year, but FOFA is also putting up on its website pages based off the course so that any artisan may access the information.

Rothenstein believes that at least some of the artisans will be able to make the transition to online selling long-term, after the pandemic has passed. With luck, these artisans will pass on their knowledge and experience to make more potential sellers comfortable with this venue.

FOFA will be producting a digital catalogue of the Covid-19 grant project, because it believes it is important to document the experience for the future.

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