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First World Congress of Craftsmen in the ACC Archives
Among the dozens of boxes that serve as the American Craft Council’s archives for the World Crafts Council, I found a yellowed mailer designed by the Council. The only original text on the foldout is a message from then ACC president William J. Barrett, which reads: “FRIENDS OF THE AMERICAN CRAFTSMEN’S COUNCIL: We know this will be of interest to you.” The newsprint pamphlet unfolds into a mock newspaper, with a collage of newspaper clippings about the First World Congress of Craftsmen, which took place under the support of the Council in New York, in June of 1964. The back of the paper folds out into a two-page spread of craftsmen's quotes that were taken from various papers that were covering the meeting. One quote from Cyril Wood of England reads, “This is an affirmation that man does not live by atom bombs alone but also by his hands and their works.”
In all of these materials about the creation of the WCC, there is a palpable sense of urgency in asserting the place of craft. The Herald Tribute describes the meeting as, “a counter-revolution, to be exact… the revolt of hand workers against production lines.” The meeting was the brainchild of Aileen Osborn Webb and Margaret Patch, who had been discussing the possibility of creating a worldwide network of handworkers. The ACC also houses years of their correspondence, which provides an illuminated window into the work that went into making the first conference such an event. When the meeting took place five years after Webb and Patch first met, the result was overwhelming. Hundreds of visitors from 52 countries were in attendance at Columbia University, where Dr. d’Arcy Hayman, head of art education and cultural development for UNESCO, gave the keynote speech about how appreciation of the arts maintains every culture.
That speech is one of the many collected in The First World Congress of Craftsmen, published later that year. The level of discourse in the moderated panel discussions was as impressive as the participants. “Our Changing Environment,” moderated by Edward Larrabee, features Dwight Macdonald, Ralph Ellison, Louis Kahn, and Paolo Soleri, among others. At that point in time, as intent as the artists were to assert the importance of their craft, thinkers of all kinds were as emphatically postulating what role these artist would have in a world that seemed to be changing as rapidly as it ever had. In his keynote speech, Dr. Hayman told the audience, “where technology has opened a path to Utopia, we find a growing disintegration, a menacing new kind of plague spreading spiritual death among the people.” This attitude, that increasing modernization was grim reaper of the spirit, tasked craftsmen with the role of being society’s angels.
As you can see, it’s easy to get caught up in these documents. The excitement of the participants is still contagious even a half century later. Add that to the fact that there are more than 25 boxes of original documents from the meetings of the WCC from 1964 until just a few years ago, and you begin to get a picture of the incredible work that ACC intern Pam Harris put into arranging them. She has also developed a finding aid for researchers wanting to explore the collection, which will be online later this year. Among the documents I explored from the first conference, there were letters from craft curator Paul Smith to Aileen Osborn Webb, a guide to craft organizations by country, and wealth of photographs that reflect the spirit of the WCC meetings.
For more information, visit the World Crafts Council website or contact the ACC library. The World Crafts Council archival finding aid will be available on the ACC website in summer 2012. A weekly shout out to the printed word, From the Stacks highlights what's new and what's loved in the American Craft Council Library.