“Please. Someone, everyone, do something to save the American Folk Art Museum from dissolution and dispersal,” begged art critic Roberta Smith in the opening line of her plea in The New York Times last week. Having narrowly escaped financial ruin by selling off one of its two locations, the future of New York City’s American Folk Art Museum (AFAM), whose staff of 50 has dwindled to 10, has been bleak. Fortunately, within a few days of Smith’s article, donors came through and saved the museum at the last minute. AFAM is still in critical condition — the road to recovery will involve internal restructuring and, presumably, a massive media campaign to attract visitors. The case of AFAM is just more evidence proving how over time, the words “folk” and “craft” have developed a negative connotation, often marginalized and excluded from high art.
In the past decade, another New York City-based institution faced an identity crisis similar to AFAM. The American Craft Museum, feeling their name only served to limit its vision and drive away potential visitors, decided to make a change. When the museum relocated and opened as the Museum of Arts and Design, not everyone was happy. “People in the craft camp felt they’d been abandoned,” said Wendell Castle, a furniture maker whose work has been the subject of a solo show at the museum. “But design is just a hotter thing than craft, so maybe they had to do that.” When the name change was announced, director Holly Hotchner claimed the museum was responding to the way the art world was rapidly changing, as accessibility to crafts and handmade work had grown exponentially: “People’s opinion was, ‘Why should we come to a museum and pay to see stuff we can’t buy when we could just go to a craft fair?’”
It’s true, folk art is not so easily defined — for some people, such a label conjures images of tribal masks, while others immediately think of detailed hanging quilts and carved cedar chests. Such varied assumptions about their offerings does nothing to help the American Museum of Folk Art. But the reason preserving folk art remains an imperative is because it encompasses the work of the self-taught artist. AFAM often showcases outsider art, work that wouldn’t even make it through the doors of most powerful institutions and galleries. While museums aren’t always the most accurate reflection of a culture’s heritage, AFAM’s collection of painted furniture, quilts, whitework coverings, sandpaper paintings and bed rugs represents hundreds of artists who might otherwise be written out of history books.
For now, the preservation of folk art will continue in New York City and hopefully, beyond. The interest is certainly there — a recent exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory featured hundreds of red and white quilts, spectacularly hung in a hypnotizing display (see image above). Curated by the American Folk Art Museum, the exhibition drew hordes of visitors from all over the country. Hopefully, AFAM won’t be dropping “folk” from its name anytime soon, committing to protecting the heritage of the self-taught, hardworking artist.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.