Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Arts & Crafts in St. Lucia Dealt a Hard Blow

Today I was jolted into finally writing about this by the news that SLASPA’s lawyers locked the doors of the St. Lucia Arts & Crafts Cooperative shop at La Place Carenage. Why? Because this ‘great’ organization got itself into a big load of debt by allowing mis-management to take place and the resultant loss of much of members’ sales monies and share monies.

One Board decided not to pay rent over the landlord’s decision to raise rental rates – this, most members believe, was not sanctioned by the membership, but because of poor reporting, happened. It seems additionally, that persons ‘representing’ the SLACC also took an aggressive, perhaps even rude, attitude to the management of La Place Carenage in dealing with this; certainly not what the membership had requested!

Anyhow, matters were eventually placed in the hands of the lawyers and the SLACC has now been taken to court, given notice to quit, and now, been locked out of the shop where their only income is earned.

This letter is my personal take on these issues, I am a member of the SLACC and have taken part in trying to sort out this whole mess – investigating accounting practices and suggesting admin systems that would help keep better track of what’s going on. Several people have made outstanding efforts as members, to put in the extra effort to get things on the track they should have been on originally, members had even voted to put off receiving payments for sales, but apparently, our efforts have not been enough.

My thoughts were that this should have been taken to the ‘higher powers’ ages ago – it was obvious that unless someone helped us, we would not be able to pay our way out of this debt – which we all agreed we owe SLASPA. We’d need any combination of debt forgiveness, financial assistance to do low season activities to raise income – such as run training workshops for instance, and for general promotion – like to make locals aware of the existence of the shop and that the items sold are not just touristic souvenirs but are stylish and attractive for locals too.

But let’s be realistic. This is a member and voluntary Board run organization and more so, it’s made up of persons who make their living or part thereof, from handwork. What does this mean and why is it important?

Well, when you’re making products by hand, the biggest cost, by far, is the labour cost – how long it takes you to make an item. Your income earning possibilities are directly limited by how much time you can put into making items, and of course you have to also take time to get them sold. This combined with high import duties and virtually impossible to use ‘duty concession’ arrangements (using them often costs more than the duties for micro-entrepreneurs since you have to use a broker and that’s after the laborious process of applying has been gotten through) makes it very difficult for persons whose business is in making products, to take time to dedicate to running something like a cooperative.

So realistically, the whole thing was set a nigh impossible task from the outset. Unless there had been sufficient, real support for the organization and its shop from the beginning. Now, when the shop was first launched, it was in the early times of La Place Carenage, and we were given the wonderful location where Diamonds International now operates – this was given FREE. That was fantastic and by rights, earnings from that period should have put the Cooperative in the position that it would be able to follow on when location and rent both changed to less favourable terms.

But again, it comes back to being realistic, systems were not put in place – support was not there from any body responsible for the ‘development’ of crafts, microbusiness, cooperatives, or any other sector that fits the SLACC’s operations. The membership, being largely made up of persons without the requisite knowledge, experience, skills or available time to run such an operation, could not on its own, get things right.

This should not be the case in St. Lucia – and I must say that there are persons, officers, in various government departments who have tried to help us within their mandates and resources, but it just doesn’t even begin to resemble the kind of development programme that is needed and has been needed for years. You may think the ‘powers that be’ don’t know what needs to be put in place – I’d say, not so; there have been a number of studies that have all resulted in essentially similar recommendations.  A project was almost set up after a 6 month consultancy was done under the Heritage Tourism Project, but what, politics perhaps, got in the way – and then probably, and I am speculating  here, the funding wasn’t used so it was ‘taken back’? Whatever, the very much needed support mechanisms were not put in place and since then, there have been meetings, commitments to ‘review the needs’, small projects, but nothing remotely resembling a programme for the realistic development of the arts and crafts industries.

So is it worth it for St. Lucia to invest in this area? I’d say a resounding YES! A number of years back I remember being shocked at the then Tourism Minister saying that sales of ‘arts, crafts & souvenirs’ (not a quote) during Jazz amounted to around $2 million dollars – I quickly called up a few of the bigger producers I know, none of them had made anything remotely resembling their share of these figures. The reality, I guess that was what visitors spent during that time on ‘goods’ – clothing, toiletries, souvenirs etc. Most of that would be imported items, but the important thing is, that money was spent in St. Lucia and represents a realistic figure to be targeted by the arts, crafts, souvenirs, designer goods industry.

Did anyone know that the ‘Crafts Industry’ was a priority industry – like agriculture and tourism – for years? If so, where was the real evidence of this priority?

I’m calling on anyone who can make a difference, who can make things happen, to take this sector seriously. We have a lot of talented persons in St. Lucia but they are not operating effectively and sustainably. The sector – at very conservative estimates – employes about 500 persons. The potential for employment is much, much higher.

There are real issues that need to be dealt with and can be dealt with – using local talents of persons such as myself and others that are able to assist with design issues, production issues, preparation for market, development of market facilities. We may also need ‘outside’ assistance, but a lot can be done with local expertise. The reality is, we cannot do this on a voluntary basis and should not be asked to – we need real, properly funded programmes to make things happen.

So, I’m sending out a plea, to the government, agencies, persons in positions to make a difference, lets get serious about this important and potentially valuable sector, let’s talk and follow that up with real action.

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  1. Especially in a smaller island that replies on tourism for major income earning, yes, I'd expect that the government realises its craft industry is something to focus on.
    The craft industry is an auxiliary one to tourism as well as the creative industry so here you have two overlaps!!! Argh man.
    All so obvious.

    "Hi government, stop jacking us around."

    "Don't we give you like..life? I mean we don't give you funding, but you don't need that you have magical hands. You can make it work"

    British Arts Council... that's all I have to say! Come on Caribbean...

  2. I'm sorry to hear about this Finola. It sounds like mismanagement in particular and insensitivity all around. I hope you can get your products back safely and with no losses.

    In Grenada almost all of the arts/craft businesses exist in a co-operative form one way or the other, and this is the only way they can seriously exist. The Grenada Craft Center, established by the Grenada Industrial Development Corporation (state agency), provides low-rent, hi-visibility storefronts to crafters; crafters in turn cooperatively lobby the Ministries of Tourism and Trade for financial and marketing assistance. Although most of the artists/crafters in Grenada are still scraping by, there is a good deal of core support on a government and community level.

  3. I actually find it strange that St. Lucia isn't better organised in terms of stuff like this since, as Tracey said, so much of this is tourism-oriented. It's a real shame that the co-op was allowed to fall in this way. I hope something can be done to recover this. How are the artists supposed to trust a co-op venture after this?

    I totally agree that the arts (especially in the area of craft) should be publicly funded and supported, especially in an island like St. Lucia which prides itself on cultural awareness and promotion.

    I hope things work out. Keep us updated. :-)

  4. Thanks everyone for your support - I must say that the Co-op is not without fault in this, both in inept Boards and in the lacadasical way the members acted prior to us realizing what was happening.

    In fairness though, some of the 'ineptness' and member inaction was due to not knowing how to run this organization and that is where I feel proper institutional support was lacking.

    Then I do feel that in a country like St. Lucia, the debt of a co-op formed under government guidance for the development of a supposed to eb priority sector, to a Statutory Institution (I believe that's the correct term) like SLASPA should not just result in court action and eviction of a National Arts cooperative - there should have been some option for discussion of what happened and exploration of whether things could be made right. The livelihoods of 60 persons and families depend in part on this business, that and the fact that there's supposed to be support for this National Organization...well, it should not go down this way.

    Course as I said, I think we, the Co-op should've gone to higher levels of power/decision making a lot earlier.

    We'll see what, if anything, this maybe brings as a silver lining.