Reviving Tradition With the My Handmade Armenia Festival

The My Handmade Armenia festival aims to not only help artisans but to create new opportunities for tourists too—from purchasing extraordinary items to taking home a tangible and traditional piece of Armenian cultural heritage.

Visitors pick out crochet toys to purchase at the My Handmade Armenia Festival.
Visitors pick out crochet toys to purchase at the My Handmade Armenia Festival.

We spoke about the development of tourism in regional communities, reconceptualization of crafts, revival of traditions and their presentation in a contemporary fashion in our conversation with Ashkhen Khudaverdyan, senior enterprise 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, bustle, and information flow of the 21st century call for new solutions to avoid losing ties with arts and crafts. That is why the My Armenia Program was born a few years ago. The program contributes to the restoration of such traditional crafts as wood and stone carving, textile art, embroidery, rug making, ceramics, and more. It facilitates their correct presentation from a marketing perspective, and helps participating artisans make their work more accessible to buyers.

Funded by the USAID and implemented by the Smithsonian Institution, the My Armenia Program launched in 2016 and partners with the Teryan Cultural Center NGO.

Because of the program’s diversity and complexity, research became an essential cornerstone. During the first year, the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of Armenia joined the program to conduct research and collect materials—thereby developing the program’s main components: newly created tourism experiences, festivals, museums, and artisans.

A young man wearing a blue shirt bends over a table to carve a piece of stone.
Ruben Ghazaryan carves letters into a piece of stone. My Armenia Program

“We had compiled a list of more than 100 artisans in five regions with the help of ethnographers and other experts,” Ashkhen told us. “We started workshops about marketing and design, teaching them what is artisanal design and pricing, how to handle calculations, and so on. One of the aims of these workshops was to enable the artisans and the program staff to get to know each other. Of course, not all the artisans on our list continued with us, but there are now up to 60 participants in five regions with whom we actively collaborate.”

The Teryan Cultural Center also worked with the artisans, helping them make their works more attractive to tourists and ensuring that artisans do not waste their talents on creating ordinary souvenir items. One priority was to create functional artifacts for everyday life, but that would also utilize Armenian motifs and ornaments to reinforce Armenian cultural traditions.

Working with the artisans were not only designers, but also photographers, graphic designers, and videographers who helped create accompanying materials for the collections. The team branded collections and created photo and video stories, print and online marketing materials, and packaging options. As a result, the artisans may newly enter the tourism market, not with individual works, but rather with collections and a brand that provide more modern packaging for traditional items. Moreover, many of the artisans reconceptualized old Armenian artisanal traditions, visited museums, and studied old techniques and materials to present their works in new ways. In the process, the artisans connected not only with stores and clients, but also with Armenian embassies abroad and with different festivals.

A large, rectangular sculpture park is filled with blue tents for vendors. In front of the tents is a patio area where children play.
The Cafesjian Sculpture Garden during the My Handmade Armenia Festival. My Armenia Program

The Festival as a Key to Success

One of the key factors that helped to convince many artisans that the My Armenia Program could achieve its desired effects was the initiation of the My Handmade Armenia festival. “Initially, many artisans were skeptical about the program,” Ashkhen recalled. “They told us their works were not going to sell well, asking why they should make this or that item, stating that it is not in demand in their village, people had not wanted such a thing in their town, and so on. Yet, the artisans realized from the very first festival that the market is not limited to their village, town, or region.”

The first festival took place in September 2017 at the Cafesjian Center for Arts (the park near the Cascade)—a location not randomly selected. The festival needed a place with large numbers of tourists, and this was the right choice. From the festival’s very first day, the artisans participated enthusiastically and even asked the organizers if two festivals might take place each year. In addition to sparking that enthusiasm among the artisans, the festival communicated meanings that were both commercial and cultural and that reflected the power, significance, and cultural value of handicrafts. For instance, small festival workshops allowed the artisans to demonstrate their distinctive artistic techniques, which attracted many interested visitors.

On a small, outdoor set covered in traditional rugs and textiles sits a woman. She wears traditional Armenian dress and hat.
A photo booth set with traditional Armenian textiles. My Armenia Program

Handicrafts and Tourism

The My Handmade Armenia festival aims not only to help the artisans, but also to create several new opportunities for tourists: to purchase extraordinary handmade items that they may use in their everyday lives; to take home a part of Armenian cultural heritage that is both tangible and traditional; to acquaint themselves and to connect with artisans living and working in different regions of Armenia; and perhaps to fulfill customer orders; or even to visit the regions where the artisans live and work.

The artisans who teach visitors in their workshops help attract tourists to their regions, which underscores the importance of ties with tour operators. When the latter add artisan classes to their historical and religious sightseeing tours, they enrich tourism with authentic experiences that facilitate learning new skills and purchasing items that they themselves helped to create.

A woman holds her hand in front of her face. On her fingers are several brightly colored, glass rings.
Picking jewelry is not an easy task at the festival. My Armenia Program

In the summer of 2020, the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s My Armenia Program partnered with Armenian publication Yerevan Magazine to publish a special issue highlighting community-based cultural heritage tourism in the country. Over the next few months, the Center will publish English translations of the articles to Smithsonian Voices.

During this difficult time in the region, we hope these stories shine a light on the resilience of the Armenian people by showcasing their vibrant, diverse cultural heritage.