The concept of a School for American Crafts, or SAC, was created in 1943 by Aileen Osborn Webb, a wealthy and philanthropic New Yorker, during a post-World War II revival of handcrafts. The school developed as a result of the mission of the American Craftsmen’s Education Council, whose goal was education and finding ways to market and sell handmade goods. The Council saw craftspeople as leaders of a new movement, thereby reinvigorating standards of design and workmanship, reviving American craft traditions and contributing their expertise to methods of mass production.
The first School for American Crafts was at Dartmouth University. Early academic catalogs emphasized craftwork as revitalizing “a traditional way of living,” one that would bring students “spiritual and financial independence.” This marriage of the idealistic and practical was a hallmark of the program in the early years.
The school subsequently moved to Alfred University and arrived at RIT in 1950. Past RIT President Mark Ellingson believed SAC fit well with RIT’s career focus, and he positioned the school as an effort to expand academic programs. Harold Brennan was appointed as the school’s director; as an administrator, he worked well with the faculty allowing them great freedom to take control of their own programs. He effectively built on Webb’s initial work to create a program where the creativity of the artist, the importance of technique, and acquiring the skills to make a living would receive equal billing. In a few short years, Brennan assembled an all-star faculty whose work placed SAC at the center of the burgeoning field. Many of their students went on to highly successful careers in industry, managing their own shops and teaching at other universities.
In the 1950s, ideas and trends from the art world began to filter into the somewhat insulated world of crafts. Craftspeople intentionally searched for new forms of expression and pushed the boundaries of crafts and traditional forms, drawing upon many influences, from art historical to foreign cultures. During the same period, the numbers of crafts programs and schools increased substantially, and SAC responded with a greater emphasis on creativity of the artist and less on production or developing a livelihood. The school had changed.
An extended essay on the history of SAC appears in Frans Wildenhain, 1950-1975: Creative and Commercial American Ceramics at Mid-century, edited by Bruce A. Austin, professor and director of RIT Press.