The Customs House Artisan Incubator is one of the many residency opportunities managed by Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design (the Centre) on the island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada. It has been supporting craftspeople on the island for more than 50 years and running residencies for 15. Customs House is unique, however, as the infrastructure provides residents the ability to establish their creative business on the island. The goal, says the Centre’s Executive Director, Lori Burke, is simple: “We want to repopulate Unama’ki Cape Breton with artisans.”
Kyle McPhee had been working a side gig making hand-stitched leather goods in 2018 when he heard about the Incubator. “The project spoke to me as an opportunity to develop a fully fledged business with a support set, at a reasonable price. The whole project spoke to me,” he said.
In addition to the Customs House, the Centre coordinates various residency programs across Unama’ki Cape Breton, including short-term opportunities in Sydney, on the Cape Breton Island. These programs include textiles, visual art, jewelry, and clay.
Customs House is a renovated facility in the historic part of Port Hawkesbury, designed for emerging craftspeople to gain experience in the running of a business. It’s designed to dramatically increase a creative entrepreneur’s chances of success.
The program requires participants to move to Port Hawkesbury for an initial one-year studio lease and to dedicate themselves to starting their craft business alongside other emerging artisans. Residents have 24-hour access to the building, seven days a week, for up to three years. Rent is heavily subsidized at $150 per month for the first year, $175 for the second, and $200 for the third.
There are other supports like mentorships, workshops on everything from marketing to product pricing, as well as funding for websites, branding, and attending network-expanding events like craft shows.
Phee’s Original Goods is a successful fine leather goods business that launched at the Customs House in 2018.
The Customs House Artisan Incubator houses a small retail space in addition to dedicated studio spaces for textiles, clay, and jewelry, as well as an undefined space that’s ideal for small-scale art or craft production.
When McPhee contacted the Centre, there were three designated spaces for specific crafts at the time: ceramics, textiles, and jewelry. However, after establishing a rapport, Burke called McPhee and asked if he could work in a small space. A fourth studio was created, and McPhee moved in.
“It’s hard to understate the value of having a dedicated space,” said McPhee. “As a young entrepreneur, I had always worked out of my house, my basement or garage. Without the space in the Customs House, I think my leather practice would have stayed as a hobby for a lot longer.”
Residents go through product assessment in their first year, a review of work by industry experts, and there’s a requirement for them to sell their products in either of the Centre’s two retail spaces. “That was a confidence boost, to show we are making products people appreciate,” said McPhee. “With that little bit of confidence you say, Oh, I got into the Centre for Craft. What else can I get into?”
If participants are interested, they can access supports for tapping into wholesale and export markets. Another perk of the program was supported attendance at the One-of-a-Kind craft show, a large retail show held twice a year in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. McPhee connected with buyers and suppliers at the One-of-a Kind show, some of whom he still works with.
McPhee and his partner, Robyn Young, have since outgrown their Customs House studio and relocated to Sydney, Cape Breton, where they work full-time at their leather goods business. His advice to other emerging craftspeople is to contact the Centre. “In all my years of doing this, it rarely comes up that there’s an opportunity that meets all your needs.”
Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design, capebretoncraft.com
The Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design is located in Sydney, Unama’ki Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada. The Centre represents more than 90 local artisans through retail sales at both the Sydney Gallery Shop and at the Customs House. Resident artisans at the Customs House have the opportunity to sell their products through the retail spaces after successfully completing product assessment.