It was midafternoon on a recent Thursday, and Brigitte Martin, executive director of the Society of Arts + Crafts, was engaging with art.
“I’ll race you,” she said, picking up a marble. Martin and her visitor dropped their marbles into chutes at the top of Peter Thibeault’s “Rulers Rule the Rolls Role,” an interactive sculpture featured in “Child’s Play,” SA+C’s current exhibition. The wooden marbles careened down ramps and plopped through holes. The piece is made of wooden rulers, alphabet blocks, and other children’s toys.
Martin lost the race, but was unfazed. “Child’s Play” has all the qualities she looks for in programming. The show, organized by SA+C’s exhibition associate and emerging curator Sam Aldrich, features a hands-on, goofy, yet gorgeously crafted and clever array of art inspired by toys.
“This is the first exhibition I was able to put my little stamp on,” said Martin, who came to SA+C in March. “I wanted it to be family-friendly, engaging, and humorous without being cutesy.”
The holidays are a busy time for SA+C, which has championed the work of artists who traditionally work in glass, wood, fiber, jewelry, and ceramics since 1897. Martin and her staff have been gearing up for CraftBoston Holiday at the Hynes Convention Center this weekend. CraftBoston, a twice-yearly juried exposition and sale that started in 2002, hosts artists from around the country. There will be approximately 140 this weekend. It’s a huge undertaking.
“We manage, help with setup, marketing, and jurying,” Martin said. “We corral a lot of volunteers. We have an opening party, demonstrations, workshops. It’s not just providing a space and Ta-Da! It happens.”
CraftBoston, like SA+C’s exhibitions, artist residencies, and retail shop, has a singular mission.
“I want to communicate the awesomeness of what these people do to an audience who doesn’t know,” said Martin, weighing another “Child’s Play” piece in her hands — one of Brett Kern’s inflatable dinosaurs. It’s porcelain, not plastic, just as glossy and very nearly as lightweight as the inflatable toy it resembles.
“Craft is clearly not pasta paintings and pipe cleaners,” Martin said. “This is serious work.” And sometimes seriously funny. In 2012, Martin published a tome, “Humor in Craft.” She’d been collecting objects that tickled her funny bone. “I saw there wasn’t a book out there, and I thought, why don’t I do that?”
But when she started chatting with artists to include, many said they didn’t think of their work as humorous. “It was 2010. In academia, if your work is humorous, you cannot be considered serious,” Martin said.
She pooh-poohed any supposed distinctions between craft and fine art. Artists on both sides cross that theoretical divide all the time. For Martin, the elemental quality that distinguishes the artists she supports is their hands-on engagement with their materials.
“People understand their environment in different ways,” she said. “Some through seeing and thinking. But there’s another way of understanding your world — through the act of making. We solve our problems through making something.”
Martin, 54, is a goldsmith. She trained as a young woman in a rather humorless apprentice system in her native Germany.
“It was skill-based training, precious metals and gemstones,” she said. “It comes from a desire to understand technique and create things that withstand the test of time.”
Then in 1994, she moved to the US. “I was thrilled to see the freedom of expression,” she said. “There were materials outside of gold and silver and platinum and gemstones. There was paper, leather, plastic. I fell in love with it.”
She threw herself into the craft world and went into administration. When SA+C’s board came courting, after former executive director Fabio Fernández resigned last year, Martin was the executive director of the Furniture Society. She lived in Chicago.
“She has such a good combination of traits and experiences,” said SA+C’s board president, Lois Russell, over the phone from England. “She understands crafts from the perspective of people who make things. She has connections throughout the country, and we want to expand our scope beyond Boston. Her energy and ability to speak about things in ways both analytical and imaginative is rare.”
For Martin’s part, taking the job was a no-brainer. “Everybody in craft knows about the Society of Arts + Crafts,” she said.
SA+C, the oldest craft nonprofit in the country, was founded at the height of the Arts and Crafts movement.
“There used to be a Society of Arts and Crafts in every major city,” Russell said.
Today, craft seems at once old-fashioned and vitally necessary in our virtual world.
“We have this wonderful tradition. But the world is changing,” Russell said. “How do we change with it?”
“I look at it from the perspective of an entrepreneur,” Martin said. “This is a form of entertainment, and you want to engage people in different ways.”
To mix things up at future CraftBoston expos, “We could invite, say, MIT, or the Fashion Institute of Technology,” she said. “What do people who are interested in science, technology, and medicine bring to the conversation?”
Even with new technology, though, the essence of craft is hands-on. Before she moved to Boston, Martin donated her goldsmith tools to a metal school in Chicago. She knew she wouldn’t have the time to make jewelry. Still, she knits.
“Working creatively is different than working administratively,” she said, picking up another of Kerns’s dinosaurs. She lit up, noting the heft and texture. Her joy reflected her bio on SA+C’s website, where she forgoes a resume for a simple quote from ceramicist Brother Thomas Bezanson:
“It is unnatural to forget how to play.”
At Society of Arts + Crafts, 100 Pier 4 Blvd., through Jan. 18. 617-266-1810, www.societyofcrafts.org
At Hynes Convention Center, 900 Boylston St., Dec. 13-15. Tickets $15. 617-266-1810, www.craftboston.org