Bringing tradition back to life with the My Handmade Armenia festival | Smithsonian Voices
We talked about the development of tourism in regional communities, the re-conceptualization of crafts, the revival of traditions and their presentation in a contemporary way during our conversation with Ashkhen Khudaverdyan, Senior Business Specialist of the My Armenia program.
Research and reconceptualization
Arts and crafts have played an important role in the life of the Armenian people for centuries. However, the hustle and bustle and flow of information of the 21st century calls for new solutions to avoid losing ties to arts and crafts. This is why the My Armenia program was born a few years ago. The program contributes to the restoration of traditional crafts such as wood and stone carving, textile art, embroidery, carpet making, ceramics, etc. It facilitates their correct presentation from a marketing point of view and helps participating artisans to make their work more accessible to buyers.
Funded by USAID and implemented by the Smithsonian Institution, the My Armenia program was launched in 2016 and partners with the NGO Teryan Cultural Center.
Due to the diversity and complexity of the program, research has become an essential cornerstone. In the first year, the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of Armenia joined the program to conduct research and collect materials, thus developing the main components of the program: newly created tourist experiences, festivals, museums and craftsmen.
“We had compiled a list of over 100 artisans in five regions with the help of ethnographers and other experts,” Ashkhen told us. “We started workshops on marketing and design, teaching them what handcrafted design and pricing is, how to handle the calculations, and so on. One of the goals of these workshops was to get the artisans and program staff to get to know each other. Of course, not all of the artisans on our list continued with us, but there are now up to 60 participants in five regions that we are actively collaborating with.
The Teryan Cultural Center also worked with the artisans, helping them to make their works more attractive to tourists and ensuring that the artisans did not waste their talents on creating ordinary souvenir items. One of the priorities was to create artifacts that were functional for everyday life, but which would also use Armenian patterns and ornaments to reinforce Armenian cultural traditions.
The artisans were not only designers, but also photographers, graphic designers and videographers who helped create accompanying material for the collections. The team branded the collections and created photo and video reports, print and online marketing materials, and packaging options. As a result, artisans can enter the tourism market recently, not with individual works, but rather with collections and a brand that offer more modern packaging for traditional items. Additionally, many artisans have rethought ancient Armenian craft traditions, visited museums, and studied ancient techniques and materials to present their works in new ways. In the process, the artisans connected not only with stores and customers, but also with Armenian embassies abroad and with different festivals.
The festival as a key to success
One of the key factors that helped convince many artisans that the My Armenia program could achieve the desired effects was the launch of the My Handmade Armenia festival. “Initially, many artisans were skeptical of the program,” recalls Ashkhen. “They told us that their works were not going to sell well, asking why they had to make such and such an item, stating that it was not in demand in their village, that people did not want such a thing in their city, etc. However, the artisans realized from the first festival that the market is not limited to their village, town or region.
The first festival was held in September 2017 at the Cafesjian Center for Arts (the park near the Cascade), a location not chosen at random. The festival needed a place with a large number of tourists, and it was the right choice. From the first day of the festival, the artisans enthusiastically participated and even asked the organizers if two festivals could take place each year. In addition to generating this enthusiasm among artisans, the festival communicated both commercial and cultural meanings that reflected the power, significance and cultural value of the craft. For example, small festival workshops allowed artisans to demonstrate their distinctive artistic techniques, which attracted many interested visitors.
Crafts and tourism
The My Handmade Armenia festival aims not only to help artisans, but also to create several new opportunities for tourists: to buy extraordinary handmade items that they can use in their daily life; bring home a part of Armenian cultural heritage that is both tangible and traditional; get to know and come into contact with artisans living and working in different regions of Armenia; and perhaps to fulfill customer orders; or visit the regions where the artisans live and work.
Artisans who teach visitors in their workshops help attract tourists to their regions, which underlines the importance of links with tour operators. When the latter add craftsman courses to their historical and religious sightseeing tours, they enrich tourism with authentic experiences that make it easier to learn new skills and purchase items that they themselves have helped to create. .