What Would Mrs Webb Do? A Founder’s Vision
Museum of Arts and Design, New York
23 September – 8 February 2014
by CINDI di MARZO
During the past decade, there has been a surge of enthusiasm for handcrafted items, partly due to the many internet retailers and cooperatives offering handmade wares. Whether fashioned by talented amateurs or created by professionals, such objects and adornments have gained cache and monetary value. Similar in many ways to 20th-century craft revivals, the current climate is diverse and multidisciplinary and has sparked new interest in craft history. Those wanting to get to the source should head to the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York, which has just opened a superb exhibition celebrating its founder, Aileen Osborn Webb (1892-1979), the woman who pioneered foundational and enduring institutions and programmes dedicated to the art of craft.
Among them are the Handcraft Cooperative League of America (1939), forerunner of the American Craft Council (ACC); America House (1940); School for American Craftsmen (1944), now located at the Rochester Institute of Technology; Craft Horizons magazine (1941),1 relaunched in 1979 as American Craft; Young Americans competitions (1950-88); Museum of Contemporary Crafts (1956), today known as MAD; and the First World Congress of Craftsmen (1964). She also worked closely on key exhibits with council and museum staff, including architect David Campbell, who was president of the council and museum director until his death in 1963, and Campbell’s successor at the museum until 1987, Paul Smith.
Even by today’s standards, Webb’s organisational and marketing finesse impresses. When one considers the small scale on which her involvement with crafts began, her subsequent career becomes more astounding. Born in Garrison, New York, in Putnam County, Webb grew up surrounded by museum-calibre art and received a sophisticated education at private schools in the US and Paris. Aged 20, she married the great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had built a financial empire from his successes in the railroad and shipping industries.
Her worldview was shaped by a belief, on both sides of the family, in democratic ideals, including the duty of the wealthy to provide funds, service and cultural enrichment to those less fortunate. Towards the end of the 20s, with the economy declining, Webb enlisted friends in Putnam County to join her in helping people suffering the worst effects of the downturn to become self-sufficient by selling things they could make by hand.
The beauty of many of the items set Webb into action, confirming her conviction that consumers in urban environments would purchase functional handcrafted furniture, ceramics and textiles for their homes. In 1936, she formed Putnam County Products to market and distribute them to people in New York City. From these rather humble seeds, Webb created a network of craftspeople, organisations, display venues and retail opportunities that sustained makers financially while giving them professional recognition.
Organised by MAD adjunct curator Jeannine Falino, What Would Mrs Webb Do? gathers more than 100 objects of art, craft and design derived mainly from MAD’s collection—some made by Webb, who worked in wood and ceramic—effectively highlighting significant moments in the history of craft production during this period, as well as Webb’s invaluable contributions.
Falino’s focus falls on individuals whose impact, like Webb’s, continues to be felt: Craft Horizons editor from 1959-79, Rose Slivka, a champion of the avant garde and persona of the artist/craftsman; director emeritus Smith, whose broad-minded curiosity and sensitivity to cultural shifts during his tenure resulted in many novel and appealing shows; MAD trustee Nanette L Laitman, who provided support for the recording of 235 oral histories for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; and American Craft Council gold medallists represented in MAD’s collection.
Cindi di Marzo spoke to Glenn Adamson, MAD director, about Webb and his commitment to preserving and amplifying her legacy.
Cindi di Marzo: Having recently joined MAD, in September 2013, how does it feel to be revisiting the museum’s formidable founder and her pivotal role in the craft revolution of the past century? Daunting? Inspiring?
Glenn Adamson: A little of both. Webb founded our museum as the flagship institution for craft in the US at a time when a progressive, modernist view of art and design was riding high. To carry on her legacy, not only do we need to focus on the continuing validity of skilled making in the 21st century, we need to find ways to be optimistic about the individual’s power to make a difference. It’s all about firing people’s imaginations, encouraging them to shape the world around them to be a better place.
CDM: Webb came from a privileged background. In her milieu, philanthropy was a natural and expected pursuit for wealthy women. Art was a primary value in her family; her grandfather and father were trustees and benefactors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She married into another wealthy, art-oriented family, the Vanderbilts. Why do you think she was drawn to craft?
GA: Because of that background, she naturally assumed the role of an advocate and civic figure. The connection to craft came in the 30s, through Putnam County Products – such a great name! – an organisation devoted to economic development along the Hudson River. Webb had a family home in Garrison, New York. She said that she expected her work in Putnam County to involve selling “string beans and eggs”, but she discovered basket-makers, potters, weavers and other artisans working in the area. She set her mind to promoting their work as a way of combating the effects of the Great Depression. It’s interesting to me that her view always combined expressive and economic value; it’s a theme that is still relevant today.
CDM: It is tempting to describe Webb in terms of her enduring tangible achievements. Yet it seems to me that, even more remarkable than her organisational skills, her belief that making, and living with, beautiful handcrafted objects was a humanising and elevating force – that craft traditions are integral to American history – fuelled the growth and development of craft traditions when technology and mass-production threatened their survival.
GA: I absolutely agree. Much of her genius can be seen in the ways she connected people to one another. The great Sam Maloof [furniture-maker and designer, 1916-2009] said he had never met another living furniture-maker until Webb organised a conference at Asilomar, California, in 1957. There, he met George Nakashima [Japanese American woodworker and architect, 1905-90] and other luminaries. Webb saw clearly that human connection was the real value to be found in the handmade. The objects were important to her, but even more important was the personal investment that lay behind them.
CDM: The inaugural exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts – as MAD was originally known – Craftsmanship in a Changing World (1956) could be applied to many of the exhibits MAD has recently organised. With so much change in the field, it seems like a good time to be asking, “What would Mrs Webb do?” Which elements of her managerial approach do you feel contributed to her great success in directing the energy of rapid change?
GA: I love that title so much. As you say, it could still be the slogan for our museum. I think the key thing with Webb is that she was committed and passionate, but also open-minded. When new waves of energy came through the craft movement she had done so much to foster, such as Peter Voulkos or Lenore Tawney’s sculptural interests, or the counterculture of the late 60s, developments she would never have initiated herself, she didn’t stand in the way. In fact, she embraced the change. The pace of transformation today is faster than ever, and Webb’s example encourages us to similarly seek out the new, while also remembering the contributions of the past and the way that craft skill makes traditions tangible.
CDM: I enjoyed reading your essay, Gatherings: Creating the Studio Craft Movement, in the catalogue for MAD’s 2011 Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design,2 a show covering the post-second world war era through the tumultuous 60s. Webb’s name punctuates much of the dialogue in that exhibit. Was Crafting Modernism the impetus for this exhibition?
GA: Yes, it was the most important precedent. Crafting Modernism and What Would Mrs Webb? do were curated by Jeannine Falino, who has done a terrific job of mining our collection for emblematic objects that speak to Mrs Webb’s vision. When I wrote the “Gatherings” essay at Jeannine’s invitation, what struck me most was the energy that it took to get the crafts movement started back in the 1940s. On the one hand, it made me even more respectful for what had been achieved, and on the other, it prompted me to think about similar advocacy in the present and future. We will always need people like Webb to drive the conversation forward.
CDM: Webb was a friend of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and active in the Democratic Party. Did New Deal politics and programmes affect her vision for individual craft communities and, ultimately, the national community she hoped to create through conferences and competitions?
GA: Definitely. I have already used the word “progressive” and that would be the best way to describe her politics. She wanted to improve the world through organisational infrastructure. A particularly interesting moment is her founding of the World Crafts Council exactly 50 years ago. Her goal was to take the model of craft-based industry to other parts of the world – India and Latin America particularly – and encourage development. The conversations she started through that initiative are still resonant today. How do you bring a traditional craft to a global market without destroying it? What is the value of “design” in relation to artisanal culture? Should we think of craft in terms of national identity or embrace a single, global exchange of ideas and forms?
CDM: You have pointed out that the early cheerleaders for craft were not makers but women with the financial means and interest; Webb, of course, but also JP Morgan’s daughter Anne and Frank Lloyd Wright’s daughter, Frances Wright Caroe, who managed America House in the 40s, and decorator Dorothy Draper, who was on its board of directors. In hindsight, was this an advantage?
GA: The insights of feminism are so important to this institution. Webb and most of her major allies were women; and it’s also worth remembering that in the 50s, women wanting professional achievement in the arts were more likely to find it in the craft and design media – textiles, jewellery, ceramics. I would bet you that, of any museum in New York, we have the highest percentage of work by women in our collection. We are doing an exhibition on this theme next year called Pathmakers, which focuses on such early pioneers. One is Dorothy Liebes, who was arguably the most famous [mid-20th-century] weaver in America, and a big influence on Webb for her embrace of modernist aesthetics and new technology.
CDM: Webb understood, intuitively, that handcrafted objects would appeal to consumers in large cities because she admired them herself. America House is one of her most brilliant ideas, as it was a model for galleries in the future to show and sell furniture, jewellery, ceramics and textiles. Loot: Mad About Jewellery,3 your annual exhibition and sale, is a great example of Webb’s method of developing a community of makers and collectors while introducing young craftspeople and helping to secure patronage for them.
GA: You’re right to point to LOOT, and also the MAD Store, as proactive platforms for makers. In this respect, we are carrying on another of Webb’s idea that a museum can and should function as a direct promotional tool for great work. Many other museums are uncomfortable with this idea. They adopt the pretence – and it is a pretence – that what is shown in the galleries has nothing to do with the market. For me, the whole museum is a means to recognise innovative and skilled production. So there is a continuum between our display and retail activities.
CDM: Webb believed that craftspeople could partner with industry, along the lines of the Bauhaus and Scandinavian design, to retain artistry and natural materials in mass production. Many craftspeople chose this avenue, while others rejected the idea as antithetical to their practices. Some, such as jeweller Betty Cooke, continued to make one-of-a-kind pieces and worked for commercial enterprises, as well; in Cooke’s case, she designed interiors for bowling alleys and restaurants. How did Webb navigate such rifts in the community she worked so hard to bring together?
GA: I didn’t know Cooke designed bowling alleys. That’s brilliant. I don’t think Webb saw the relationship between mass production and craftsmanship as a rift, though you’re right that others at the time certainly did. She was a “big-tent” person and embraced different scales of production, from unique artworks to small-batch manufacturing. As long as the quality and interest were there, she was happy. It’s another way that she seems visionary in retrospect. Many leading figures in the arts today shuttle back and forth between different modes of making, which cross-pollinate.
CDM: Webb’s career is a model of a vocation meeting vocation. Some of the makers she encouraged and supported through her efforts affectionately referred to her as “Mrs Arts and Crafts.” She offered hospitality to them at her homes in New York, Garrison just outside the city, and Shelburne, Vermont, where commissioned works figured prominently in her decor. She also purchased and renovated the building that housed America House and the museum. She even sold a Gauguin painting to help fund the First World Craft Council. What Would Mrs Webb Do? applauds the efforts of Laitman and the Windgate Charitable Foundation, whose activities carry on such spirit of generosity. Can you give us a behind-the-scenes look at how they have contributed to the explosion of “making” we are experiencing and that you celebrate in MAD’s NYC Makers biennial?4
GA: Laitman is one of the leading trustees of MAD. She has done as much as anyone to ensure the museum’s current success and its future. We were interested to highlight in the exhibition a separate project she undertook with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, to capture the voices of craftspeople who had contributed to the movement. Back when I was a graduate student, I was an interviewer for the project and can speak firsthand to the value of spending time to document these stories, which would otherwise have been lost to history.
Windgate is a very different, but equally important, case of philanthropy. Through direct grants for exhibitions, publications and acquisitions, and through its affiliate, the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design (CCCD) in North Carolina, it has underwritten much of the important work in craft scholarship over the past decade. Recently, it funded a new position at MAD, the Windgate research curator, which is operated as a partnership with CCCD and the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. The position will bolster our academic work and increase our connection to higher education.
CDM: Your sphere of activity at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum must have been wide-ranging. What new opportunities does directing MAD offer to you?
GA: My move to MAD definitely involves a focusing of efforts. In my last few years at the V&A, I was head of research. It was sort of like being “intellectual quality control officer”. I was involved with an enormous variety of projects, from medieval embroidery to contemporary protest art. Sometimes I could contribute directly; more often, it was a matter of trying to build a structure for funding and scholarship into the project. It’s a great model that every big museum should consider. Even at MAD, a much smaller place, our Windgate research curator will be doing similar work. The tighter lens, though, does afford the opportunity to concentrate on the issues I care about most.
CDM: Can you give us an idea of your short- and long-term goals to ensure that Webb’s vision remains a strong influence on MAD’s future?
GA: I’ll just say, briefly, that I want to honour her original intention for the museum: to act as a platform for creative, innovative and skilled people who are making the world a better place. There are many ways to achieve this quality of relevance; at the moment, we are about to appoint a new chief curator who will take the lead in defining that vision with me. But no matter which directions we go in, the first priority will always be recognition for the demanding work that goes into great objects of art and design.
CDM: Thank you very much, Glenn, for your insights into Webb’s profound contributions to the fields of art, craft and design. We wish you the best as you move MAD forward in the vibrant climate of 21st-century making.
* Before joining MAD, Adamson served as head of research and graduate studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He holds a PhD in art history from Yale University, is co-editor of the Journal of Modern Craft and author of Thinking through Craft (Bloomsbury Academic, 2007) and The Craft Reader (Berg, 2010), among other titles and many exhibition catalogue essays. He is a leading advocate for viewing craft as an essential aspect of culture and subject for serious study within the fields of art and design.
1. Complete issues of Craft Horizons are available online through the American Craft Council Web site.
2. Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design, edited by Jeannine Falino, published by Abrams, 2011.
3. The 2014 edition of Loot runs from 6-10 October at MAD. For more information, see madmuseum.org/loot/loot-2014.
4. For Studio International coverage of MAD’s premier biennial, see NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial.
Who was Aileen Osborn Webb? by Joyce Lovelace, American Craft Magazine, August/September 2011.
The (America) House that Mrs Webb Built by Bella Neyman, The Magazine Antiques, July/August 2012.
Untold Stories: The American Craft Council and Eileen Osborn Webb by Emily Zaiden, Craft in America: bit.ly/1wNulAQ.