Historic Champion of the Craft Movement
“Whether founding a crafts movement, a school or a museum, you have been dauntless in pursuit of the truth that practical people do things, and really practical people do good things.”
— Citation from Dartmouth College Honorary Doctorate to Aileen Webb (June 13, 1965)
In honor of Women’s History Month, we would like to acknowledge the contributions of Aileen Osborn Webb (1892-1979) to the local, national, and international craft movement. Aileen Webb was the grandmother of the Webb family members who established the nonprofit Shelburne Farms in 1972.
Throughout her life, Aileen Webb was an amateur potter, watercolor painter, and an enamelist. She claimed “I have always loved some form of creative work and always turned to it for solace.” In addition to her own creative work, Aileen was a steadfast advocate for craftspeople, so that they could provide quality products and earn a fair price. Through her collaborations and establishment of organizations, many of which still exist today, she successfully raised the standards for craft while simultaneously professionalizing its existence.
Aileen became immersed in the craft movement in 1932, and her involvement spanned the next 40 plus years. Beauty was an intrinsic quality of the utilitarian objects that captured her imagination—a hooked rug, a stitched sampler, intricate quilts. Their pure beauty elevated them to art.
Aileen, along with two other women, began to discuss a marketing outlet for this kind of craft in her local community in New York State, in part as a home-based relief project during the throws of the depression. On March 13, 1935, she wrote to her eldest son Derick Webb:
I have been ruminating for a long while on something… to increase business activities in Putnam County in such a way that people of small means and capital could help themselves to a slightly larger cash income…..I should like to call it Putnam County Products Inc., start in a very small way with one stand and only a few members and build up a real organization, catering to the tourist trade and the summer trade and hoping to keep them as winter customers with N.Y. deliveries of eggs etc. Ultimately branching out into canning, weaving, wood products and even stone products.
Putnam County Products may have started in a small way, but it thrived. Within 8 years, in 1943, it became known as the American Craft Council, a national, nonprofit educational organization. Aileen served as its president from 1932 through 1955. The viewpoint and voice of the craftspeople was strengthened through the ACC’s publication, “Craft Horizons”. In 1941, this modest newsletter was produced in mimeographed sheet format and distributed to 3,800 people. By 1972, it was reaching 35,000 readers in a slick glossy format. Today the American Craft Council is vibrant, with a bimonthly magazine AMERICAN CRAFT, annual juried shows, an annual leadership conference, a specialized library, workshops and seminars. It also annually honors craft excellence with the Aileen Osborn Webb Awards.
Aileen and her committee began to wonder what other regional craft organizations were doing to market and promote craft so she invited them to convene in Shelburne, Vermont in August of 1937. Twelve groups from as far north as Maine and as far south as Florida gathered for three days of discussions. They decided to engage a professional to oversee the development of craft markets in New York City resulting in the November 1940 opening of “American House”, a small retail store at 7 East 54th Street. Frances Caroe, the daughter of Frank Lloyd Wright, was named its leader. America House was said to be the bedrock of the craft movement and remained open until 1971.
Seeking more opportunities for craft exhibitions of fiber, wood, glass, metal,and clay crafts, Aileen Webb—along with her fellow colleagues in the field—led the charge. The Museum of Contemporary Craft opened in 1956 at 29 West 53rd Street and thrives today as the Museum of Arts & Design. Aileen felt the creation of a museum devoted to craft was one of the most influential steps in the development of the education of craft in the United States.
The idea of professionally educating adults in craft came to fruition in the mid-1940s after a serviceman visited Aileen with the notion that veterans returning from the war would need jobs. The concept spurred her to found the School of American Craftsmen, which began unsuccessfully at Dartmouth College, then moved to Alfred University in northern New York. Ultimately, the School for American Crafts (SAC) moved to the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1950, where it remains today. The Aileen Webb auditorium at RIT’s College of Fine and Applied Arts honors her still, and in 2012, RIT inducted her into their Innovation Hall of Fame.
Locally, in Shelburne, Vermont, Aileen Webb and her husband, Vanderbilt, were recognized “for their guidance and contributions, which allowed the Shelburne Craft School to expand the programs to encourage professional crafts people.” A 1947 brochure stated “The Shelburne Craft School is a good example of community cooperation, and a method of counteracting basic problems facing the small Vermont community.” The Shelburne Craft School was incorporated in 1945 and has operated as a nonprofit since, giving students of all ages the opportunity to experience craft.
In 1964 Aileen Webb, along with textile artist Margaret Patch, established the World Congress of Craftsmen—shortly thereafter known as the World Crafts Council—to promote international conferences and exchanges among craftsmen. In 1968, Aileen wrote, “the Council can do much towards building greater understanding between peoples, maintaining standards of excellence, developing cooperatives and markets, and preventing the exploitation of small craftsmen who cannot protect themselves.” In a 1972 New York Times article, Aileen assessed her life’s work: “We’ve removed crafts from the level of the church fair in this country—now we must do it for the world.”
Aileen’s life-long passion for crafts was tied to the solace she found in them herself. Having lived through and experienced the impacts of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and—at the time—the Vietnam War, Aileen believed creative effort promoted spiritual leadership which in turn brought happiness and peace.
In the early 1970s, Aileen was keenly interested in the early efforts of her grandchildren to make their fledgling nonprofit, Shelburne Farms Resources, viable and successful. Affectionately known by her grandchildren as “Grandma”, her correspondence to her grandsons, Marshall and Alec, yields ideas, proposal revisions, and always helpful criticism. She suggested running a craft school in the Farm Barn. She envisioned a Farm Barn Craft Complex designed as a cooperative to integrate students, teachers, and apprentices of craft, such as weavers and potters, with a retail selling area, and a production unit—all under one big roof.
Aileen Webb’s efforts have come full circle. She would be pleased to know that this summer, Hungarian-born artist Brigitta Varadi will create new works using sustainable local materials from Shelburne Farms. Brigitta will gather local clay from the Farm to create 3,000 wood-fired tiles, a reference to the 3,000 porcelain tiles that were cleaned and restored at the Inn last year. Her residency at Museum of Art and Design (MAD) and Shelburne Farms will culminate in a solo exhibit at the Burlington City Arts Center, in February 2020.