Vale Jane Burns AM – a legend of the craft sector

ArtsHub farewells a founding member of four peak craft and arts organisations, and a tireless advocate for the craft sector – Jane Burns AM.
head shot of an elderly woman with blonde hair staring into distance. Jane Burns AM

Things get done because of people – passionate people. Jane Burns AM (1932-2024) was one such person.

Upon her death last week Burns was described as ‘a giant of Australian craft – a trailblazer and life-long advocate,’ by the Australian Design Centre (ADC). She was 92.

Burns was the Founding Director and long-time CEO of the Crafts Council of Australia, as well as a founding member of the Arts Law Centre, National Association of the Visual Arts (NAVA), the National Arts Industry Training Council (now known as Create Australia), the Australian Academy of Design, Sturt Gallery and Studios, and the Australian Costume and Textile Society.

CEO and Artistic Director, ADC, Lisa Cahill told ArtsHub: ‘Jane Burns AM made an extensive contribution to Australian contemporary studio craft, a tireless dedication spanning over five decades. In recent years, I valued immensely her insightful observations about the craft sector and the importance of not giving up in the face of diminishing Federal Government support.’

In an earlier article in Object Magazine (2009, published by ADC), another legend in the craft world, Grace Cochrane AM asked Burns why she had remained committed for so long. She said, apart from the people, ‘a lot of it is not giving up on a job that is only partly done.’

Cochrane wrote of Burns: ‘Jane Burns has the experience of a lifetime, the persistence of an enthusiastic terrier and the memory of a multi-gigabyte hard drive. Her focus is an unfaltering commitment to craftspeople and their work.’

She remembered every person, every issue associated with each event, every connection that was made and practically every conversation.

Grace Cochrane AM

For several years, Burns wrote for the same magazine under the pseudonym “Buzz Blanco”. She also oversaw the publication of the journal, Craft Australia, for an extended period.

A great advocate for craft

On the announcement of Burns’ death, celebrated textile artist and President of World Crafts Council Australia, Liz Williamson, wrote: ‘Jane was definitely a craft legend/treasure, having led Craft Australia for decades with exhibitions, events, visitors and the magazine. Her passion and knowledge of the sector were exceptional … and she was so engaged in what was happening in the sector. She will be missed.’

It was feeling echoed by Dr Kevin Murray, Vice President of World Crafts Council International, who wrote: ‘Jane was a passionate advocate for Australian craft and its place in the world. She led Craft Australia with a unique combination of vivacity and wisdom. Her life will continue to inspire us all.’

The ADC’s Cahill added: ‘I was so privileged to know her and have the benefit of her always generous support and advice in my role. The stories she told me were legendary – especially the one about Nugget Coombs handing over a cheque for $10,000 to get things started. It’s such a terrible shame that Australia Council/Creative Australia has diminished craft funding in recent years, a fact which I know frustrated Jane too.’

Who was Jane Burns AM?

Born in the Crookwell, in regional NSW, while her professional background was in welfare management, her passion was craft.

She cemented that passion with action, at a time when the craft sector was at a high and dedicated funding and professional development pathways were an aim for many involved in the late 1960s, early 1970s.

The Crafts Council of Australia emerged in 1964 as a response to an invitation from the World Crafts Council (WCC) to attend its inaugural event in New York. Burns was the founding director of the Crafts Council of Australia (later Craft Australia) from 1971 to 1992.

In 2009 she reflected back on that heady time, telling Cochrane: ‘I saw it as my opportunity to interpret their goals – they wanted a higher profile, education, information and access for audiences through publications and exhibitions.’

As that focused was honed, so were the sector’s ambitions. Burns made a submission to the Australian Government’s, now milestone, Craft Enquiry of 1973.  

In many ways, those efforts paved the way for the formation of the Crafts Board at the Australia Council (now Creative Australia), which was formed in 1993 to represent craft equally alongside visual arts, dance and literature.

Craft had become political in those days. Politicians were even getting involved – Don Dunstan was behind the Adelaide’s JamFactory Craft Centre opening in 1973 and Rupert Hamer happily launched Victoria’s Meat Market Crafts Centre in 1977.

Things did start to dissipate, however. In the 1980s the Crafts Board was incorporated into the Visual Arts/Crafts Board, and eventually merged (disappeared, to be more accurate) in the 1990s, being cut altogether in 2011.

Read: Australia’s oldest craft gallery and studios facing closure

But it never disappeared from Burns’ vision, and dedication. She had been involved with the Crafts Board from its inception until 1987.

Cochrane recalled that Burns was ‘involved in the first bids for government funding for the crafts, Australia’s involvement in the World Crafts Council and its Asian Zone office, and the first national conferences and Crafts Expos’.

‘She got to know everyone,’ she noted.

That sense of a global world of craft was always present for Burns, maybe in part from her own connection with the UK.

From 1992 to 1996, she worked in a consultancy capacity with the Visual Arts/Craft Board, to help develop a higher profile for Australian crafts, and often managed the itineraries of international collectors’ groups when visiting (1994-2005), in particular the the American Craft Museum in New York, the Renwick Gallery in Washington, the Oakland Museum in California and the Mint Museum in North Carolina, among others.

She was also involved in taking Australian craft abroad, ensuring representation in international events such as in Faenza (ceramics), Lausanne and Lodz (textiles) and Pforzheim (jewellery), as well as SOFA (Sculpture Objects Functional Art) – the iconic design and craft fair in Chicago, US.

‘Jane’s work has had an enormous impact in developing Australian craft on the world stage. She oversaw a three-week tour to Australia for 26 collectors from the Renwick Gallery, Washington, giving exposure to local studios, galleries and private collections, and in retirement assisted the Powerhouse Museum, as a volunteer, to prepare a major exhibition of Australian craft works, which toured Japan in 1999,’ wrote Cochrane. 

Read: Craft and design curators on artists to watch

Burns was seemingly tireless, offering her succinct and erudite advice, and incredible knowledge of the sector’s machinations and connectivity. Added to this was a corporate knowledge for each organisation she worked with, helping them to navigate through change across often volatile and unpredictable times for the sector.

Burns was also an active member of the UNSW Animal Ethics Committee, the Ranamok Prize for Contemporary Glass (which concluded in 2014) and the National Council of the Independent Scholars Association of Australia.

In 1988, Burns was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her services to craft.

In 1992, she was further recognised for her dedication and was awarded the Australia Council’s Visual Arts/Craft Board Emeritus Medal, and became an Honorary Member of the World Crafts Council that same year.

Jane Burns died on 17 April. She was 92.

Funeral: Tuesday 30 April 10am at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, 193 Avoca Street Randwick, NSW.

Australian Design Centre will host a special event for the craft sector to honour Burns’ life later in May at the Centre in Sydney. All are welcome. Please email to register your interest.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina