As Folk Art Museum Teeters, a Grave Loss Looms


Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
The American Folk Art Museum recently sold its West 53rd Street building to the Museum of Modern Art. More Photos »

Published: September 19, 2011


Please. Someone, everyone, do something to save the American Folk Art Museum from dissolution and dispersal. Or at least slow down the process, so that all options can be thoroughly considered. New York’s contemporary artists, and New York as a whole, need the creative energy of this stubborn, single-minded little institution, its outstanding exhibition program and its wondrous collection, an unparalleled mixture of classic American folk art and 20th-century outsider geniuses.
Photo Slide Shows


American Folk Art Museum, gift of Kiyoko Lerner/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
“Untitled (Two Girls and a Dog Sitting in Garden)” by Henry Darger is in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum. More Photos »

Readers’ Comments

Share your thoughts.

At the moment it almost seems that the museum’s trustees can’t wait to end their flawed stewardship of this great but historically fragile institution. Last spring, having defaulted on a $31.2 million construction bond, they sold the museum’s 10-year-old building to its neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art, and retreated to its small, rather grim Lincoln Square branch.
The museum tried to put a bright face on things — after all, it had been without a home before, for four years in the 1980s, and had then spent 12 years operating out of Lincoln Square as it went through the tumultuous process of financing and constructing its new building. Now it would be downsized but not defeated, and would regroup and rise once more. The important thing was that its great collection would remain intact.
Or so the story went, until last month, when word came that the trustees are exploring ways to dispose of the collection and dissolve the 50-year-old institution entirely. They are said to be considering ceding the collection to the Smithsonian Institution, the Brooklyn Museum or some combination of the two. According to people close to events, who were not authorized to speak about the situation, the board heard proposals at a meeting last Thursday from the Smithsonian, the Brooklyn and also from staff members determined to keep the museum going. It will vote on the proposals in a meeting this week. After that the New York state attorney general’s office and the state Education Department would have to approve any transfer. Needless to say, this is an extremely sorry mess, one that may not have needed to happen. Many of the board’s failures of judgment have already been noted, including the choice of a building design that gave the museum a crowded interior, even when empty of art, and a mute, uninviting exterior. In a recent article in The New York Times, Tod Williams, who designed the building with his wife, Billie Tsien, admitted that the building’s facade might have been overly discreet, especially for an institution situated in the shadow of the Museum of Modern Art.
It probably didn’t help that the museum’s last director, Maria Ann Conelli, who took over in the spring of 2005, was a novice who had never headed a museum before and didn’t have much experience with folk art either. But obviously there were several inter-related problems: failures of vision, leadership, fund-raising, trustee giving and marketing. Some articles, sadly, have suggested a failure of glamour: folk and outsider art may not be sexy enough to the big spenders that museum boards need to attract.
But we should be clear about one thing: There was no failure of curatorial vision. During its 10 years in its new home the museum functioned more or less as the center of folk-outsider art research and development in this country, if not the world. It mounted exhibitions of outsider greats equal to any insiders the 20th century produced, among them Martín Ramírez, Adolf Wölfli and Henry Darger, the Chicago recluse who is represented by a gift of some 5,000 artworks and related materials. Drawing primarily from its collection it has organized inspiring exhibitions of quilts, painted furniture, whitework coverings and sandpaper paintings, and the thick-piled, often pictorial textiles known as bed rugs. It took the survey of Thomas Chambers, one of the great undersung masters of 19th-century American marine and landscape painting, originated by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Folk Art Museum’s erasure from New York’s cultural skyline would be a tremendous loss, for the city in general and for its role as a center of both art viewing and art making. A full-blooded expression of centuries’ worth of instinctive, self-taught artistry is crucial in a city as fashion-forward and sometimes art-frivolous as New York. It helps keep artists, especially, grounded and in touch with the essential and visceral nature of their enterprise.
It’s not like this idea is new. Modern art has long taken inspiration from the self-taught: folk art, outsider art, art brut. Its importance was appreciated by no less a visionary than Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, who considered work by self-taught artists to be a “tributary of one of the main streams of modern taste.”
These words appear on a wall label at the Modern next to three paintings by Morris Hirshfield (1872-1946), a Polish immigrant who took up the brush after retiring from jobs in textile and shoe factories. When Barr made his statement, the work of artists like Ramírez, Wölfli and Darger — and others showcased at the Folk Art Museum, including Bill Traylor, Morton Bartlett, Eugene von Breunchenhein and James Castle — was either unknown or yet to be created. I wonder what Barr would say if he were around today to see how much his “tributary” has widened.
It could be argued that we need a museum of folk art the way we need a museum of modern art, to shine a very strong, undiluted light on a very important achievement. That undiluted light will be hard to muster in the near future without a building, but the collection exists, and the goal of keeping it together and eventually finding it a new home of its own should be widely embraced.
The first tactic should be simply to buy time. The museum could temporarily suspend the organization of exhibitions and concentrate on straightforward, ideally dense displays of different parts of the collection in the Lincoln Square space. If need be, it could place large swaths of its collection on long-term loan to other New York museums. Or perhaps it could find a larger space to rent for $1 a year, as it does for its Lincoln Square quarters. If you’re wondering what you might do, write letters, organize petitions or just go to the museum’s Lincoln Square galleries (they’re free right now) and put some money in the slotted box near the entrance.
City officials need to look at the intact museum and collection as a civic and business asset, as well as a cultural one. The success of the recent extravaganza of red and white quilts at the Park Avenue Armory — which was organized by the staff of the Folk Art Museum and which attracted thousands of people from around the country — offers compelling evidence.
The transfer and dispersal of the collection should be fought to the bitter end, with every ounce of passion and ingenuity
that the museum and its supporters can muster. New York, so fabulously full of so many kinds of refined high art, needs a museum dedicated to the great D.I.Y. low of the folk and outsider kind.