The American Craft Council

COLLEGE OF FELLOWS
A FOREST OF GIANTS

“Ever since the American Crafts Council came into existence in 1943, it has been supported by great numbers of crafts-persons who have sown seeds which have covered much of our country with imaginary forests, in whose shade individuals could rest, expand their world and find appeasement from twentieth century tensions. As in any forest, there are trees which tower above the others. We count you among these giants.”1

It was with these words that Aileen Osborn Webb informed Harvey Littleton, the ceramist who would be immortalized for his work in glass, of his selection in 1975 to be among the first recipients of a new program of recognition by the ACC, the Academy of Fellows of the American Crafts Council. That year, seventeen such giants were announced as Fellows; as of the most recent award presentation in 2014 the American Craft Council Awards have recognized nearly four hundred recipients, including 234 Fellows, 57 Honorary Fellows, 60 individuals and organizations that have received the Award of Distinction, and 17 individuals that have received the Aileen Osborn Webb Award for Philanthropy. Of the Fellows, 46 craftspeople have been further honored with the highest recognition of the Council, the Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship.

There are many other awards also recognizing excellence in craft, and certainly others that come with greater publicity or monetary remuneration. Yet in the ensuing forty years the designation of Fellow by the Council has become among the most important signifiers of accomplishment in the field, due in no small part to the esteem to which its members are held.

The first seventeen Fellows were selected by committee, ostensibly made of staff and Trustees of the ACC, as were the second group of Fellows announced the following year. But in 1977 the responsibility for the nomination and election of future Fellows was placed in the hands of the award recipients themselves. This approach may be the most unique and enduring feature of the award, and why it has come to mean so much to its recipients. Coming as it does from one’s contemporaries, predecessors, and often mentors and not solely from curators, critics, or collectors, recognition extends beyond those artists and professionals more often in the public eye to those whose work is held in great esteem by their peers — although certainly included among the recipients are many of the most celebrated names in the field of contemporary craft.

Besides Littleton, the Fellows elected in 1975 included Lili Blumenau, Florence Eastmead, Trude Guermonprez, Adda Husted-Andersen, Mary Lyon, Sam Maloof, Dorothy Meredith, Francis Merritt, Margaret Patch, Maureen Roberts, Ed Rossbach, Rudolph Schaeffer, Toshiko Takaezu, Lenore Tawney, Peter Voulkos, and Frans Wildenhain. It was an august group — their names are among the most important and significant studio craft artists in America.

But from the outset the award also established recognition for those professionals who have made lasting impact on the field who are not artists: Florence Eastmead was a director of the retail gallery America House, Mary Lyon was the first professional editor of Craft Horizons magazine, Francis Merritt was director of the Haystack Mountain School of Craft, Margaret Patch was involved with the creation and administration of the World Craft Council, and Maureen Roberts was co-founder of the Oregon Ceramics Studio, known now after many name changes as the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland. The acknowledgment of the symbiotic relationship between artists and professionals, all laboring towards the understanding and advancement of the field, was an innovative and prescient decision by the Trustees of the Council. It was a reflection of the cozy and sometimes insular community of craft, but has in the ensuing years made this liability into an asset, a celebration of the multiplicity of experiences in American studio craft.

The debate between art and craft has been more embedded than might be hoped, as Grayson Perry remarked in his 2003 acceptance of the Turner Prize while dressed as his alter ego Claire; “I think the art world had more trouble coming to terms with me being a potter than my choice of frocks.”2 And yet now the mercurial attention of contemporary art writ large has increasingly fixed its gaze on the material and processes associated with craft, so it remains vital that programs such as the Fellows of the ACC thrive, if only to maintain a voice and a thread for the individuals and perspectives that have helped to usher contemporary craft to the present.

The American Craft Council Awards currently consist of four constituent prizes: the Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship, the Fellows and Honorary Fellows, the Award of Distinction, and the Aileen Osborn Webb Award of Philanthropy. Now presented biennially, the Gold Medal and the designation of Fellow remain among the few awards in the arts determined by the nomination and review of one’s peers. Each award cycle, the living Fellows are encouraged to nominate from their own  number an artist to be presented with the Gold Medal and nominate distinguished individuals with careers at least twenty-five years or longer to be elected Fellows. An award committee — comprising Fellows, at least one of whom also serves on the ACC Board of Trustees — review the nominations of their peers before announcing the selected recipients. The Awards of Philanthropy and Distinction are determined by the Council Trustees.

The recognition of Fellow is an affirmation of an accomplished and respected career in craft, and the move by the Council to recognize artists and individuals at the apex of their career can be best understood against the larger growth and development of the organization and its constituent programs since its founding.3 The then-American Craftsmen’s Educational Council was created in 1942 from an assortment of craft advocacy organizations, and the decades following its formation and establishment were fertile and tumultuous. The assortment of programs envisioned by the Council and its founder, Mrs. Webb, grappled early with the perceived needs of an emerging craft community, in particular education and economic opportunity.

The Council’s predecessors created the seminal gallery and retail space America House in New York City and the unnamed mimeographed publication that was to become Craft Horizons magazine. America House intended to create a market for rural craft producers among the more affluent residents of the city. It would subsequently change locations many times before closing after thirty years. Craft Horizons magazine, renamed American Craft magazine in 1979, was envisioned as an interpretative tool for education, outreach, and visibility for the field nationally.

The educational mission of the Council also led it to an initial sponsorship of the School for American Craftsmen, hosted by the Dartmouth College Student Workshop and which welcomed its first student in 1944, a Marine discharged after combat injuries. The School later moved to the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1949. Finally, in 1956 the Council founded the Museum of Contemporary Craft in New York, renamed the American Craft Museum after relocation in 1979 before establishing the museum as an independent organization in 1990.

The first elected Fellows of the American Crafts Council with ACC Chairman Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb on June 10, 1975. From left to right: Dorothy Meredith, Harvey Littleton, Florence Eastmead, Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb, Frans Wildenhain, Lenore Tawney, Ada Husted Anderson, Toshiko Takaezu, Mary Lyon, Margaret Patch. Not pictured are Lili Blumenau, Trude Guermonprez, Sam Maloof, Francis Merritt, Maureen Roberts, Ed Rossbach, Rudolph Schaeffer, and Peter Voulkos. The presentation was telecast simultaneously in New York and San Francisco. Photo: Bob Hanson. Courtesy of the American Craft Council

This cacophony of dates, programs, and name changes were the result of the efforts by the Council to address the challenges of providing education and economic opportunity to a growing community of craftspeople and their audience, oriented towards New York in its early years certainly but increasingly national in its scope. In 1950, the Council added to its efforts the recognition of excellence among craftspeople through awards. The first, Young Americans, was an award program to celebrate the work of emerging craftspeople between the ages of 18 and 30. It aimed to offer young artists “an opportunity to present their work to the public and in so doing find and opportunity to compare and analyze their work with that of their contemporaries.”4 Competition the first year appears to have been slim — 175 of the approximately 200 entries were included in the exhibition, and criticism of the work by the jury “emphasized the continuing need for originality and individuality of design.”5 Nonetheless the endeavor was judged a success and was repeated annually until 1956 and then intermittently until 1988, the final competition of the program.

It was an award program with a purpose, aimed to bridge a chasm faced by the emerging craftsperson of how to present the efforts of one’s labors and education while concurrently developing and maintaining a community among one’s peers. It is worth remembering that for craftspeople at this time the contemporary wholesale or retail craft show model was all but nonexistent, there was certainly no formal network among academic program alumni, and the major media-based organizations would only emerge nearly two decades later. Even as the jurors claimed in 1988 that “this Young Americans exhibition, like others in the past, remains the single most important public forum for emerging young talent working with craft media,”6 with a series of leadership transitions in subsequent years and later neither a Council retail space nor museum to host the program, Young Americans was abandoned.

That its first award was aimed at young and emerging craftspeople is perhaps unsurprising; much of the work undertaken by the ACC in its formative decades was aimed at connecting and facilitating the work and the individuals of what was itself a nascent and developing field. But as the field matured, the Council assumed the mantel of responsibility for recognizing and celebrating the more notable contributors to American craft.

In 1970 the Council presented what was to be the first and only Award of Merit to textile designer Dorothy Liebes, coinciding with the retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in New York. Liebes was an important designer for industry, and her exhibition was co-sponsored by Du Pont, producer of many of her designs in carpets and upholstery that were also included in the exhibition, and representatives of the company were on hand to give their appreciation to Liebes at the awards luncheon given in her honor.

The Award of Merit was all but replaced by the designation of Fellow, recognizing as they both did individuals having made significant contributions to the field over many years. The Award of Merit found renewed life, however, in 1981 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the American Craft Museum. That year, in addition to the recognition of eight new Fellows, the ACC presented the first Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship to weaver, teacher, and writer Anni Albers. In presenting the award, then ACC president Jack Lenor Larsen, himself an accomplished weaver and textile designer, stated that “The esteem with which you are recognized by art historians, museums and critics has furthered the cause of all those working in craft media.”7 The award was described as having been presented only once before, “to Dorothy Liebes in the 1960s.”8 The lapse in institutional memory established a legacy for the Gold Medal even as it subsumed the previous award.

Neither Liebes nor Albers had been designated Fellows of the ACC before or after receiving the Gold Medal. Only Lucy M. Lewis, the celebrated Acoma Pueblo potter who received the Gold Medal in 1985, and Gertrude Natzler, who was omitted when her husband and collaborator Otto was designated a Fellow in 1976 but received the Gold Medal posthumously in 2001, were also never made Fellows. Harvey Littleton, among those recognized in 1975, was the first Fellow to receive the Gold Medal in 1983, establishing the precedent inconsistently applied but followed today in the presentation of the Council’s most prestigious award only to previously elected Fellows.

As esteemed as the recognition of Fellow has become for the field of contemporary craft, the value of the award was not always apparent to its intended recipients. Albers had, in fact, turned down the honor in 1975, as did the Bauhaus-trained potter Marguerite Wildenhain that same year.

It is not without merit to claim Marguerite Wildenhain had a contentious relationship with the ACC prior to the establishment of the Academy of Fellows. A decade previously she famously shared a few choice words with the ACC and its magazine following the publication of the article “The New Ceramic Presence” by then-editor Rose Slivka. In her response Wildenhain, among other colorful commentary, concludes “Nobody in his sense can continue to subscribe to Craft Horizons, supposedly the magazine of the ACC, without blushing with shame or getting blue with fury.”9

Although correspondence pertaining to her first nomination in 1975 is not available, in 1977 Marguerite was again nominated to receive the award. As this was the first year the nominations were made by the Fellows themselves, perhaps no-onehad shared Wildenhain’s previous rejection. In a letter to Sam Maloof, the California furniture maker who was facilitating the recognition process, Wildenhain refused the award, claiming “it would be a total lack of integrity on my part to accept an honor from an institution that I do not appreciate for its ‘ideals’ nor its ‘successes.’”10 When pressed to accept, she repeated her disdain for the work of the Council, its magazine, and museum.

The second letter dated May 16, 1977, to Sam Maloof from Marguerite Wildenhain, again rejecting her nomination to the ACC College of Fellows. Courtesy of the American Craft Council

Yet fewer artists declined the recognition than were pleased to accept it, and the College of Fellows, as it is presently called, grew with each presentation of the award. Along with the Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship, the Council began to explore new ways to honor timely and individual accomplishments in the field.

The Award of Distinction began as a number of individual unnamed awards, special citations, or even Gold Medals presented before a more established framework was put into practice. The first was a citation for distinguished publishing presented in 1983 to Kodansha International for their publications highlighting craft in both Japanese and English, and recognition for publications would continue through the 1990 award for the reissue of Mary Caroline Richard’s Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. 1985 was the first recognition of an organization by the ACC, when the Gold Medal was presented to the Cranbrook Academy of Art. But by 1988, the patchwork of special awards had been categorized as the Award of Distinction, which continues to be presented to extraordinary individuals, organizations, and projects — frequently on the occasion of significant anniversaries.

Another honor first presented in 1983 was the Aileen Osborn Webb Service Award, given to then-ACC Trustee R. Leigh Glover. The award would be given intermittently through the end of the 20th century, frequently as an internal honor of volunteer service to the ACC. It was not until the 2005 presentation of the award to Sam Maloof that it was formalized as recognition of philanthropy and established as one of the American Craft Council Awards.

The fluidity with which award recognition was presented over the forty-year history of the American Craft Council Awards and the hodgepodge of citations and prizes that have coalesced into its present structure make for a less than straightforward history. Nevertheless, the resilience of the College of Fellows to weather the many challenges to the field of craft affecting organizations, patrons, and the artists themselves indicates that the award has assumed, perhaps, its own center of gravity. The seriousness with which the Fellows approach the nomination and selection process, the humility and gratitude demonstrated by each new class of recipients — the American Craft Council may be the presenter and administrator of the award, but its importance and value lives in the work and the community of the collective College of Fellows themselves.

— Perry Allen Price
Director of Education
American Craft Council

NOTES

1 Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb in correspondence with Harvey Littleton, March 31, 1975
2 Grayson Perry, Turner Prize acceptance speech, December 2003
3 It is perhaps quite unfair to claim that recognition after at least twenty-five years in the field is at one’s apex, with so many Fellows continuing to accomplish and contribute great work well after their election. Not a few Fellows, however, have either passed away or retired near the time of their award, as was the case of Trude Guermonprez, who sadly passed away less than a year after her recognition.
4 “The Craftsman’s World: Exhibitions” Craft Horizons Autumn 1950 Vol. 10 No. 3 p. 38
5 Ibid.
6 Pat Flynn, Andrea Gill, Tom Loeser, Richard Marquis, and Nance O’Banion quoted from Young Americans 1988 American Craft Council: New York. 1988 p. 3
7 “American Craft Council’s Highest Award to Anni Albers.” press release January 1982
8 Ibid.
9 Craft Horizons November / December 1961 Vol. XXI No. 6 p. 6
10 Marguerite Wildenhain in correspondence with Sam Maloof, April 26, 1977

Honorary Fellows
& Aileen Osborn Webb
Award of Philanthropy Recipients

Helen W. Drutt English
Honorary Fellow 1998

Few individuals such as Helen W. Drutt English have as large a presence in the community of American Craft, and perhaps none more so in Philadelphia. Her eponymous gallery, Helen Drutt, was among the first in the country dedicated to contemporary craft and became a multi-faceted salon, gathering-place, and laboratory for the community since its founding in 1973. Drutt will be remembered as the writer of arguably the first syllabus on the history of modern crafts for the Philadelphia College of Art. She is equally formidable as a collector, particularly of studio jewelry and ceramics — a collection of more than 800 drawings, jewelry, sketch books, sculpture were acquired and given to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2003. As a believer for craft, Drutt was in the vanguard of those advocating for the field’s acceptance among the broader community of contemporary art, and often serving on numerous boards and advisory councils. Drutt continues to work towards the expanded promotion and understanding of American studio craft. Most recently she conceived and organized an exhibition with Matthew Drutt entitled Gifts From America: 1948–2013 which has entered the permanent collection of The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, and is currently on view until January 2, 2016, in the museum. Drutt is also the recipient of the 2008 ACC Award of Distinction.

Marion Boulton Stroud (Swingle)
Honorary Fellow 1988

Marion Boulton Stroud was the founder and artistic director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. A printmaker and educator, Stroud began what was then the Fabric Workshop in 1977 to be a collaborative and experimental facility fostering contemporary artists’ work with fiber and fabric printing alongside a space for training and education in the arts. The organization expanded its moniker in 1996 to reflect the emphasis on the exhibition and interpretation of contemporary art as well as acknowledge its commitment to a growing permanent collection. Just as the roster of artists from the outset reflected a multiplicity of working approaches and media, the Fabric Workshop  and Museum has expanded its initiatives to assist resident artists to realize work in new media and expanded range of materials.

Robert Pfannebecker
Honorary Fellow 2009

Lancaster- and Philadelphia-based attorney Robert Pfannebecker began his now-five–decade-long commitment to the collection of contemporary craft with a visit to the graduate degree exhibition at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1964. Since then he has maintained relationships with the educators and graduates of many of the seminal programs in craft media across the country, continuing to collect work by artists that begins not infrequently with their degree exhibitions. The important role Pfannebecker’s patronage of craft artists over the past half-century helped to foster and establish the careers of craft artists around the country.

Albert LeCoff
Honorary Fellow 2003

Albert LeCoff is the co-founder and executive director of The Center for Art in Wood, founded in Philadelphia in 1986 as the Wood Turning Center. An early wood turner himself, LeCoff continues to work tirelessly to promote the work of turned wood in particular and work in wood more generally in the field of contemporary craft. The Center itself grew from a series of programming in the preceding years, and now stands as one of the invaluable resources for artists, scholars, and the public for the preservation and interpretation of art made in wood. LeCoff has been recognized as among the most influential individuals in the field of turned wood, and credited for his tenacity and passion for bringing the medium to the attention of scholars and collectors through numerous exhibitions, presentations, publications and symposia.

Nancy M. McNeil
Alieen Osborn Webb Award
for Philanthropy 2012

Nancy M. McNeil has been a steadfast supporter for craft in Philadelphia for more than four decades. McNeil was the organizing force behind the establishment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show in 1977 that has gone on to become one of the most prestigious craft shows in the country. Proceeds from the show have raised millions in support of the museum. A member of the PMA American Art Committee, McNeil has made significant donations of work in craft to the museum’s permanent collections over the years. In 2006, her late husband Robert McNeil Jr. endowed a permanent curatorial position at the PMA in her name; the position was the first at a major encyclopedic museum dedicated to modern and contemporary craft and served as a signal to other institutions to follow.

— Perry Allen Price
Director of Education
American Craft Council

<a class="moc_button_border moc_button_float_left" href="https://www.craftnowphila.org/masters-of-craft/">< Masters of Craft</a>
<a class="moc_button_border moc_button_float_right" href="https://www.craftnowphila.org/exhibitions/art-in-wood-philadelphias-american-craft-council-fellows/">Art in Wood Exhibition ></a>