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The Problem With Folk Art

by Chappell Ellison

Oct 24, 2012

Museums that champion the work of self-taught artists are struggling. So why is this field of study such an easy target?


Museums have it tough these days; funding is thin and patronage isn't always consistent. But it seems like institutions built to champion folk art are especially vulnerable. Last month, word got out that the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art would be closing its doors in December. In New York City, the American Folk Art Museum came close to a similar fate back in September 2011.  Why is folk art such an easy target? Part of the problem is the term "folk art" itself. "The thing about the definition of folk art is that you can't say it in five words," says Stacy Hollander, senior curator at the American Folk Art Museum. "You can only say it in 1,000." An umbrella term coined around the turn of the century, folk art encompasses many ideas and methods; essentially, it is any art created by self-taught artists. "Human beings have a natural desire to put things in neat little boxes, but folk art is not neat," Hollander explains. "Folk art is human. Folk art isn't coming out of a single ideology, a single artistic movement or group of artists adhering to a specific philosophy." The broad nature of folk art creates challenges for its supporters. Over the past few decades, many museums have changed their names to reinvigorate their identities, adding words like art, design, and craft."We are still fighting the good fight to overcome the rather dated ideas about folk art and the knee jerk reactions to that term," says Hollander. "Prosthelytizing for folk art is still an important agenda for the museum. We're still trying to to educate the world-at-large about what this art is and what they can find in it."
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As children, we are taught to associate folk art with indigenous peoples and ancient ideas. But walk through the galleries of almost any folk art museum today, and there's evidence of an idea with contemporary resonance: the power of the hand-made. "In every age when there's some technological explosion, there's always a need for an antidote, or something that reminds people of their humanity and the touch of the hand," says Hollander, noting how the fear incited by the industrial revolution propelled William Morris's Arts and Crafts movement. "I think there are always seekers, those looking for the imprint of the hand in art." Hollander notes that a large audience of these seekers are young artists. "In our society, with things moving so quickly, the pressure is even greater for artists to be the next big thing, rather than allowing them to delve and explore something and see where it takes them over a year or even a lifetime of work." At the American Museum of Folk Art, patrons see a range of works that, for the most part, were created by people who weren't answering to a social pressure. "It's stimulating and gives you permission take an idea and explore it to the nth degree," Hollander explains. "Once people do come to the museum, it's an instant conversion — they just get it. Folk art is something that one falls in love with." Folk art is our shared cultural history, documenting centuries of curious, ingenuous makers. Yet even with all the emotion and humanity found in folk art, it lacks a clear identity. How can these museums convince patrons to step through the doors? Full credits for header image: Painted tinware/tin box. North Shop (act. c. 1790–1841), paint decoration attributed to Mercy North (1798–1872), Fly Creek, New York c. 1815–1825. Paint on asphaltum over tinplate. 5 1/2 x 8 9/16 x 4 9/16". Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of the Historical Society of Early American Decoration, courtesy Elizabeth B. Swain, 76.10. Photo by John Parnell, New York.

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Chappell Ellison

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.