Six years ago, North Carolina’s pottery community was at war. Potters known for throwing clay were openly slinging mud at one another. Some broke away to start their own pottery festival to compete against the long established event in Seagrove. And the N.C. Pottery Center was so strapped for cash that it had to jettison its full-time director.
Today, the feud has largely dissipated. The two pottery festivals co-exist peacefully on the same weekend before Thanksgiving. And the pottery center has rebounded, hiring a new director and moving its annual fundraising auction and gala to Raleigh, where it is coming up on Saturday.
“The turmoil has subsided,” said Mark Hewitt, an internationally known potter based in Pittsboro who is president of the pottery center’s board.
Hewitt sees a brighter future for North Carolina potters and the pottery center, which is part tourist destination, part art gallery and part advocacy group for potters across the state.
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“We’re upping the game in all sorts of ways,” Hewitt said.
In 2013, the pottery center hired its first director in five years: Lindsey Lambert, a former museum director at Greensboro College. In November, the center secured a $130,000 grant from the Windgate Charitable Foundation, which helped restart its artist-in-residence program.
And then there was the decision to move its major fundraising event – the annual gala and auction – to Raleigh to tap into a core group of pottery enthusiasts in the Triangle. The event takes place from 5-8 p.m. Saturday at CAM-Raleigh. More than 90 potters have donated pieces for the auction. The event typically raises $40,000 to $50,000 toward the center’s annual budget of $300,000.
“We thought it was perfect to move it to Raleigh, where the collectors are and hopefully, the money is,” said Gail Perry, a Raleigh-based nonprofit fundraising consultant and pottery center supporter who is on the gala’s steering committee.
Center of pottery community
Seagrove – a Randolph County town of about 200 people and about 80 miles southwest of Raleigh – is the epicenter of North Carolina’s pottery community.
The area is rich in natural clay and has supported a pottery industry since the 1700s. Jugtown may be its best-known pottery – its wares having been sold at a shop in New York’s East Village and carried by such high-end stores as Tiffany & Co. Today, Seagrove is home to about 80 pottery shops.
In 2008, simmering tensions among the Seagrove potters escalated after the death of the director of the Museum of N.C. Traditional Pottery, a nonprofit that helps promote Seagrove-area potters.
For years, the museum has spearheaded a pottery festival on the weekend before Thanksgiving. It also started the pottery center, which promotes the work of potters from across the state and holds regular exhibits. Arguments about the roles of the two nonprofits went public in 2008. Supporters of the pottery center started their own group, Seagrove Area Potters Association, and decided to hold their own festival. The museum sued Seagrove town officials for granting a permit for the competing event. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed.
Tensions between the two camps have subsided. The competing festivals now bring thousands of people to Seagrove every year.
“It’s settled down. I don’t hear much about that anymore,” said Seagrove potter Chad Brown, who does demonstrations at the pottery center. In the end, all the press about the dispute was good for both festivals. Brown said, “That actually brought in a lot of people to Seagrove.”
The pottery center has rebounded despite the pottery community’s public feud and the economic recession.
The low point was in 2008 when it was forced to eliminate its full-time director to cut costs. A push to have the state Department of Cultural Resources take over the center failed when the agency was unable to secure the $187,000 in annual funding needed to do so.
Linda Carnes-McNaughton, a former president of the pottery center’s board, said the volunteer board worked with an office manager and two part-time employees to keep the center going.
The board also forged a partnership with East Carolina University’s ceramics program. ECU associate professor Seo Eo, who serves on the pottery center’s board, brings students to the center for exhibitions, to teach classes and do research.
Carnes-McNaughton said the center secured a $90,000 grant to advertise and hire a new director. From a field of 59 applicants, it chose Lambert, who grew up 22 miles north of Seagrove in Randleman, N.C. Lambert worked for 13 years at Greensboro College as director of the Brock Historical Museum and College Archives.
“He’s homegrown and he gets it,” Carnes-McNaughton said.
Last year, Lambert and board president Hewitt secured the $130,000 grant that enabled the center to reinstate its artist-in-residence program, fund a part-time educational program manager position for two years, create educational programming and pay for technology upgrades.
Along with the center, the state’s pottery industry appears to be rebounding, although it may never see the heydey of the 1980s and early 1990s. Seagrove potter Eck McCanless, whose parents started Dover Pottery in 1983, remembers when his father quit his job as a pharmacist because the pottery was doing so well and even had 12 employees.
Regardless, McCanless said, “I feel like there’s a general optimism among the potters.”
Mary Holmes, president of the Seagrove Area Potters Association added that a robust pottery center is good for business.
“They are the keepers of our history,” Holmes said. “They are the promoters of our craft. They are integral to having a successful craft community. It’s just wonderful that they can be sustained.”