Aileen Osborn Webb – 2012 RIT Innovation Hall of Fame


♪ MUSIC ♪ KEYSER: I THINK WHAT’S TRULY UNIQUE ABOUT THE SCHOOL FOR AMERICAN CRAFTSMAN IS THAT IN ONE PLACE YOU HAVE FOUR DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES, ALL WITH MAJOR PROGRAMS WHERE THE STUDENTS MAJOR FROM THEIR SOPHOMORE YEAR ON AND IT’S SIGNIFICANT TIME IN THE STUDIO. I THINK AILEEN WEBB HAD MANY CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE WORLD OF CRAFTS. PERHAPS THE GREATEST WAS HER VISION. EARLY ON, BACK IN THE FORTIES, SHE WAS PROMOTING HANDIWORK AND TRYING TO HELP INDIVIDUAL CRAFTSMAN MARKET THEIR WORK AND SO SHE HAD THIS VISION, I THINK, OF DOING THAT ON A LARGER SCALE. SMITH: MRS. WEBB WAS BORN INTO A VERY RESPECTED HUDSON RIVER VALLEY FAMILY, THE OSBORN FAMILY. SHE MARRIED INTO THE VANDERBILT FAMILY AND WAS BROUGHT UP IN WHAT MIGHT BE TERMED A VERY PRIVILEGED ENVIRONMENT. MEMBERS OF HER FAMILY WERE VERY MUCH CONNECTED TO CULTURAL ACTIVITIES SO FROM AN EARLY AGE MRS. WEBB WAS EXPOSED TO THE ARTS AND BECAME EXTREMELY INTERESTED IN THEM. AND IT WAS DURING THE DEPRESSION THAT SHE SAW THE NEED TO HELP PEOPLE WHO WERE OUT OF WORK AND NEEDING TO EARN MONEY. ROCHFORD: SHE DECIDED TO ACTUALLY START UP THIS PUTNAM COUNTY PRODUCTS, WHICH WAS A LOCAL KIND OF CO OP WHERE PEOPLE COULD BRING THE THINGS THEY EITHER GREW OR MADE THROUGH THEIR OWN HANDS. SHE ALMOST RIGHT AWAY STARTED THINKING ABOUT HOW CAN WE GET THIS WORK INTO THE CITY, FINDING A RETAIL OUTLET? SHE ALSO HAD TO DO A LITTLE CONVINCING OF THE PEOPLE OUT IN THE CITY AND THE KIND OF TRADITIONAL ART COLLECTORS THAT THIS WAS REALLY ART WORTHY OF THEIR ATTENTION AND WORTHY OF REALLY THEIR PROTECTION IN THE SENSE THAT SHE UNDERSTOOD THAT THROUGH COLLECTING THESE THINGS WERE PRESERVED. SHE ALSO HAD TO EDUCATE THE CRAFTSMAN TO UNDERSTAND WHAT PEOPLE ON PARK AVENUE WERE GOING TO BE ATTRACTED TO PURCHASING. SMITH: THEY FOUNDED THE AMERICA HOUSE, WHICH WAS A SHOP IN THE VERY SOPHISTICATED AREA OF MANHATTAN FOR SELLING HANDMADE WORK. THEY DEVELOPED A SMALL GALLERY SPACE FOR CHANGING EXHIBITIONS AND IN 1956 THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS WAS LAUNCHED. MRS. WEBB NEEDS TO BE CREDITED AS A FOUNDER OF THE MUSEUM, WHICH IS NOW LOCATED AT COLUMBUS CIRCLE UNDER A NEW NAME, THE MUSEUM OF ARTS AND DESIGN. ANOTHER VERY IMPORTANT RESULT OF HER EXPANDING VISION WAS THE FOUNDING OF A SCHOOL. REALIZING THE NEED FOR TRAINING YOUNG PEOPLE IN A PROFESSIONAL WAY. KEYSER: WITH THE INTENTION OF PROVIDING TRAINING FOR SERVICEMEN FROM WORLD WAR II AS THEY RETURNED TO THE STATES THAT THEY COULD OBTAIN TRAINING IN THE CRAFTS AND WITH THE POTENTIAL OF EARNING A LIVING, SHE FOUNDED THE SCHOOL FOR AMERICAN CRAFTS AT DARTMOUTH. IT WAS THERE FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS. IN 1946 IT MOVED TO ALFRED UNIVERSITY. ROCHFORD: RIGHT ABOUT THE TIME THAT THEY WERE REALIZING THAT THEIR DAYS AT ALFRED WERE KIND OF NUMBERED, SHE MET A MAN NAMED MARK ELLINGSON WHO CONTACTED HER AND SUGGESTED THAT THERE MIGHT BE A HOME FOR THE SCHOOL AT RIT. SHE AND ELLINGSON HAD A VERY CLOSE FRIENDSHIP, A VERY WARM FRIENDSHIP FOR MANY YEARS. SHE WAS VERY INVOLVED WITH THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE NEW CAMPUS WHEN RIT MOVED FROM DOWNTOWN ROCHESTER TO HENRIETTA, ELLINGSON TAPPED HER TO HELP WITH THE PROJECT. SHE HAD A REAL GIFT, HE NOTED, FOR UNDERSTANDING WHAT PEOPLE NEEDED AND UNDERSTANDING HOW THE PEOPLE WHO WERE USING THESE THINGS WOULD BE IMPACTED BY HOW THEY WERE SET UP. KEYSER: WHILE I WAS TEACHING, AILEEN WEBB WAS INSPIRATIONAL FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF TEACHING PEOPLE TO POTENTIALLY EARN A LIVING FROM THEIR CRAFT AND THAT WAS AN INSPIRATION TO ME THAT SHE HAD THAT VISION WAY BACK WHEN AND HAD TAKEN STEPS TO PROMOTE THAT. SMITH: MRS. WEBB WAS TRULY AN INNOVATOR AND CREATED MANY INNOVATIVE PROGRAMS. BUT I CONNECTED VERY MUCH WITH CREATIVITY THAT TO EXPLORE AND DEVELOP SOMETHING BEYOND WHAT ALREADY EXISTS IN A NEW WAY OR A NEW FORMAT IS VERY IMPORTANT. OF COURSE INNOVATION IS VERY MUCH RELATED TO SCIENCE, BUT IT’S ALSO RELATED TO THE ARTS AND ADMINISTRATION AND ORGANIZATIONS AND I THINK IN THIS CASE MRS. WEBB QUALIFIED IN ALL THESE DIFFERENT AREAS. ROCHFORD: I THINK IT’S VERY HARD TO JUST SAY, “WELL, INNOVATION IS WHEN YOU DO SOMETHING NEW.” I THINK SOMETIMES IT CAN BE VERY INNOVATIVE TO TAKE A STEP BACK AND LOOK AT MAYBE A SIMPLER WAY OR A MORE TRADITIONAL WAY. IT’S ALMOST JUST A BYPRODUCT OF BEING PASSIONATE ABOUT SOMETHING AND BEING COMMITTED TO SEEING IT HAPPEN AND THEN REALLY JUST FOLLOWING IT WHERE IT TAKES YOU. SO I THINK THAT IN A LARGE SENSE IS WHAT SHE DID. ♪ MUSIC ♪

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