The Two Women Responsible for Art and Craft at RIT

Two remarkable women, Susan Bevier and Aileen Osborn Vanderbilt Webb, were responsible for making possible mid-century modern ceramics created by Frans Wildenhain.

The paired threads – Modernism and Arts and Crafts, Wildenhain as much as Walrath (11/22 Blog) and, more broadly, Mechanics Institute (MI) and the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) – were guided, supported and woven together in their artistic endeavors from the beginning of the 20th century to its end, thanks to Bevier and Webb. Each was enormously significant in guiding the hands at the Institute’s administrative wheel.

Susan Bevier, photo courtesy of RIT archive collections

Susan Bevier (1822-1903) had frequently summered with friends who lived on Rochester’s South Washington Street and she became familiar with art students and faculty at Mechanics Institute. A New York City art collector interested in art education, she gave $70,000 and her art collection to the Institute and, following her death in February 1903 bequeathed to MI her estate valued at up to $300,000. (Some context: average annual income at the time was about $1,000. The gifts were sizable and impressive.)

Bevier designated the funds for a memorial building to include an art gallery, auditorium, classrooms and workshops. Perhaps surprising to contemporary minds, the gift produced as much angst as it did appreciation among the Institute’s Board of Trustees due to the chasm between MI’s practical, vocational training and, well, virtually everything else, especially things associated with art. Finally, by 1911, directed by Rochester architect Claude Fayette Bragdon’s design, the Bevier Memorial Building had been erected at the corner of Spring and Washington Streets.

Although this was not the Institute’s first foray into the world of art or the Arts and Crafts Movement, it was an unambiguous step forward and impressed a substantial footprint.

Aileen Osborn Vanderbilt, photo courtesy of RIT archive collections

Aileen Osborn Vanderbilt Webb (1892-1979) is described by William Keyser, a SAC graduate and faculty member who met her on more than one occasion, as “a very gracious woman, a grand lady who was kind of ordinary [in appearance] and very approachable.” He adds: “She did not micromanage, she got people started on things and didn’t interfere, even if she didn’t like” the work that was produced.

Married to Vanderbilt Webb, the great-grandson of railroad and shipping baron “Commodore” Vanderbilt, she was nested comfortably in a family interested in art and art collecting and that afforded her the financial means to drive her philanthropy. Early in Webb’s philanthropic career, she formed Putnam County (New York) Products in the 1930s as a marketing outlet and source of income for the poor who had been dispossessed by the Great Depression.

But it was in the midst of the Second World War that her interest in craft manifested itself in several empirical and influential ways. In 1940 she was elected president of the one-year-old Handcraft Cooperative League of America, an affiliation of craft groups that she led. The same year, the League opened America House in New York City as a retail outlet for crafts and a year later, in 1941, Craft Horizons (now American Craft) began publication.

With Webb’s guidance and support, the American Craftsmen’s Educational Council (ACEC, now the American Craft Council) was organized in 1943 followed by the installation of School for American Craftsmen (SAC) at Dartmouth College in 1944, sponsored by ACEC.

SAC moved to the New York State University College at Alfred in 1946 and then was relocated a second time in 1950 to RIT, where it has resided for more than six decades, its name now shortened to School for American Crafts.

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