March 7, 1870 - March 23, 1939.
Museum curator, artist, and teacher.
Born in Cincinnati, Bessie Bennett attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In September 1895 she enrolled in the design curriculum of Louis J. Millet, graduating first in her class in 1898. Shortly afterward she went to work for both the museum and school of the Art Institute. By 1906 Bennett was assistant to the Museum Director William French, while at the same time teaching decorative design courses, which she did until 1912.
An accomplished jewelry designer in her own right, Bennett won the Art Institute Arts and Crafts medal during the Annual Exhibition of Applied Arts in 1907. The Board of Trustees formally awarded Bessie Bennett the title of Curator of Decorative Arts in December 1914, effectively making her the first woman curator in a major museum in the United States.
Bennett gained fame as an innovative exhibition designer, employing the newest display and lighting techniques for decorative art objects. She also was a frequent lecturer all over the country, speaking on subjects as wide ranging as "Industrial Art in the U.S.," "Historical Silver," and "The Ancient Art of Weaving." During WWI she curated an exhibition on French design and was decorated by the French government for her efforts in 1919. Similarly, in 1927 she arranged an outstanding exhibition of Swedish decorative arts, and in 1928 King Gustav V of Sweden presented her with the Golden Wasa Medal, one of the highest distinctions given to a Non-Swedish national.
During her 39-year career at the Art Institute of Chicago Bennett sought to add to the museum's decorative arts collections and to increase the exhibition space for them. The new Allerton Wing, exclusively built for the Decorative Arts Department, was nearing completion at the time of her death in 1939.
Raised in wealthy surroundings, she moved comfortably in Chicago's highest financial and social circles. Kate Buckingham, Martin Ryerson, and Robert Allerton sought her advice and expertise in developing and expanding their own personal collections. Gradually most of these private collections were donated to the Art Institute.
Bessie Bennett was the last stereotypical connoisseur-curator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and at the same time, an inspiring example to other women who were gradually moving into positions of responsibility in America's cultural institutions.
- Reprint of photograph of Bessie Bennett. Chicago Daily Tribune, May 30, 1911..
- Antiquarian Society Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago. Frederick O. Bemm, Chicago, 1914.
- Catalog of the 6th Annual Exhibition of Original Designs for Decoration and Examples of Art Crafts Having Distinct Artistic Merit. Art Institute of Chicago, 1907.
- Officier de l'Instruction Publique medal awarded by the French Government in 1919 in recognition of Bennett's efforts to promote French design and decorative arts.
- Newspaper clippings. Chicago Tribune September 17, 1919 and September 21, 1919 recognizing Miss Bennett's French award.
- Various newspaper clippings and photographs from unknown sources at the time of Miss Bennett's death.
- Memorial Service Card. Trustees of The Art Institute of Chicago, April 19, 1939.