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Noted: The Future of Folk Art

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“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.

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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.

3 Featured Comments

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  • shanmae919

    shanmae919 says: Featured

    This is a fundamental problem happening throughout the Museum world, smaller institutions are having a hard time battling for their a place of relevancy in today's society. However, AFAM should take a look at the thriving Craft and Folk Art Museum in Santa Monica, CA, or the American Visionary Museum in Baltimore, MD. Though craft or folk may not be as "hot" as design is perceived to be, it's all about changing that perception by engaging the visitor to make them dedicated to the place and seeing it as indispensible.

    2 years ago

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery says: Featured

    I think it raises the question of what folk is and how it can be defined, there's something of traditional craft in there. Things I tend to think of that are cultural and could disappear in the blink of an eye.

    2 years ago

  • gulliver62

    gulliver62 says: Featured

    It doesn't surprise me that folk art, particularly in NY, hasn't been as valued as the huge institutionalized museum work and/or gallery works. I recall having a long, heated discussion w/friends several years ago about "what is art, and what's valued." I LOVE folk, outsider, raw, self-taught, whatever you want to call art that isn't the results of a fine arts degree or isn't blessed by some well-known gallery owners. There is incredible value in fine arts/training, I'm not bashing that...but folk/outsider art has never been respected or valued by institutions. Let's call a spade a spade here--it's often about perceived financial value! I have collected folk art for years and never miss the FolkFest in Atlanta every August. There are works there that defy description. Many of those artists have been laughed at by galleries and museums for their entire careers. There should be room and reverence for ALL art. My personal definition of art is anything that evokes emotion. I may not love it all (cows with wings?), but I value it all.

    2 years ago

  • everythingok

    everythingok says:

    That display is beautiful, and I'm sad to hear of the plight of the AFAM. I hope they're able to move forward into a brighter future!

    2 years ago

  • TwinkleStarCrafts

    TwinkleStarCrafts says:

    As pretty as the display in the opening image of this article was, it is a shame that the organizers had to make it appear 'high tech' looking to attract visitors. People expect flash and are very accepting of inferior products simply because they twinkle and make noise. Because of that, people do not appreciate the history of such art and therefore label it as something that is outdated and not modern.

    2 years ago

  • Iammie

    Iammie says:

    Great display!

    2 years ago

  • VintageEye

    VintageEye says:

    I made a visit to AFAM a while ago. It is a truly wonderful & inspiring place. I hope it continues to be just that for many years to come

    2 years ago

  • RachelQLanders

    RachelQLanders says:

    What a powerful exhibit shown in the picture. Imagine all the time it took to create all of those quilts! The amount of detail, time involved, exactitude, and the artist's resolute drive and dedication are often overlooked in fiber arts when relegated to "craft." I'm glad this museum has had the chance to restructure and stay open! Thanks for alerting our attention to the museum's need. It is certainly an important fixture in society.

    2 years ago

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage says:

    The Red and White quilt show shown above was wonderul, if a bit overwhelming, and the crowds kept on coming. What's in a name?

    2 years ago

  • sparrowgrey

    sparrowgrey says:

    Wonderful exhibit and great post. I've never been to AFAM but I've heard from others who have and hope to be able to visit sometime.

    2 years ago

  • RachelQLanders

    RachelQLanders says:

    Perhaps different and new types of displays (even though the product/art/process is essentially the same) are necessary to continue to truly engage the public, and give opportunity to help them become more knowledgeable and inspired - relating the work to this present time, and not only the past.

    2 years ago

  • Earleyimages

    Earleyimages says:

    Beautiful display.

    2 years ago

  • jammerjewelry

    jammerjewelry says:

    Love the quilt.

    2 years ago

  • artworksbycarol

    artworksbycarol says:

    Let's remember the crafts that help build our nation .People need to know how things can be created by hand , you don't have to be slave to a retailer. You can make it yourself, be independent!

    2 years ago

  • vintage180

    vintage180 says:

    I love the definition of folk art as encompassing the work of the self-taught artist. I never thought about it before, but it's so true and I think that's exactly why I love it so much!

    2 years ago

  • purplepoppydesigns

    purplepoppydesigns says:

    One aspect of AFAM is it's continued influence. I did not see this stunning display of red and white quilts, though I wish I had been able to experience this. But since reading many blogs and websites talking about this display, I've seen a huge increase in the number of red & white quilts, solid quilts, and monochromatic quilts. I love how so many "new" trends, like the solid quilt trend, have roots in some of these beloved folk arts. Thank you for sharing this. I hope AFAM for a long time.

    2 years ago

  • MellifluousCouture

    MellifluousCouture says:

    I had no idea that AFAM was experiencing such a crisis. When I lived closer to the museum it was my favorite place to visit for inspiration. I'd say of the top 5 exhibits I have ever seen, 3 of them would have been at AFAM.

    2 years ago

  • GUOCRAFTS

    GUOCRAFTS says:

    Beautiful ,love it

    2 years ago

  • BeatificBijoux

    BeatificBijoux says:

    Maybe they should just re-market their collection as "outsider art". Way hipper.

    2 years ago

  • Shampoogirl

    Shampoogirl says:

    Wishing AFAM all the best. With a Display like that, I doubt as wonderful as all Artisians and Crafters are. The Gorgeous Display of AFAM speaks for itself. Lets Roll !!!!!

    2 years ago

  • BRIGHTANDBEAUTIFUL88

    BRIGHTANDBEAUTIFUL88 says:

    Love the photo of all the wonderful quilts! Glad to know people are promoting the continuation of the museum. Thanks for your article- Shell

    2 years ago

  • MootiDesigns

    MootiDesigns says:

    Great display!

    2 years ago

  • shanmae919

    shanmae919 says: Featured

    This is a fundamental problem happening throughout the Museum world, smaller institutions are having a hard time battling for their a place of relevancy in today's society. However, AFAM should take a look at the thriving Craft and Folk Art Museum in Santa Monica, CA, or the American Visionary Museum in Baltimore, MD. Though craft or folk may not be as "hot" as design is perceived to be, it's all about changing that perception by engaging the visitor to make them dedicated to the place and seeing it as indispensible.

    2 years ago

  • blueskyclouds

    blueskyclouds says:

    Oh thank you for this article...I have been dying to get to New York one of these days (I live in Arizona) and my first stop was always going to be AFAM...I didn't realize it almost closed! I adore folk art...another place I still want to get to is the American Visionary Museum in Baltimore. I would be so depressed if these places didn't continue to exist and thrive. I find so much raw heart and soul in folk art...it is incredibly important to acknowledge it and elevate it for our culture. (LOVE that photo of all the red/white quilts, as a former quilter myself)

    2 years ago

  • allthingswhite

    allthingswhite says:

    I have visited many of the museums in NYC and AFAM is one of my favorites!

    2 years ago

  • Mclovebuddy

    Mclovebuddy says:

    that's sad to read. hopefully, their collection will be absorbed by other institutions so the works can continue to be shown.

    2 years ago

  • fantasyfloorplans

    fantasyfloorplans says:

    I think folk art is important to our heritage. I invented my career of drawing floorplans of TV homes and perhaps I'd even be classified as a folk artist.

    2 years ago

  • oldworldprimitives

    oldworldprimitives says:

    I really need to visit the AFAM soon. I didn't realize they were having so many troubles.

    2 years ago

  • acuriousbrood

    acuriousbrood says:

    Had no idea the AFAM was in a pickle, sad. It is one of my favorites. I hope it prevails. The red and white quilt exhibit is magical. Genius way to display them. Wish I had seen it in person.

    2 years ago

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery says: Featured

    I think it raises the question of what folk is and how it can be defined, there's something of traditional craft in there. Things I tend to think of that are cultural and could disappear in the blink of an eye.

    2 years ago

  • gilstrapdesigns

    gilstrapdesigns says:

    I love that display.

    2 years ago

  • ElenaMary

    ElenaMary says:

    they have a very important collection which should stay together..glad they were rescued at the very last minute!!!

    2 years ago

  • PattiTrostle

    PattiTrostle says:

    Great display. Hate to hearabout the trouble they are having. Sad.

    2 years ago

  • FranceGallery

    FranceGallery says:

    An interesting story on the status of folk art in today's society. The quilt collection is lovely!

    2 years ago

  • outofline

    outofline says:

    Love the hanging quilts, gorgeous! Craft can be seriously moving, same as art:)

    2 years ago

  • SeaSand

    SeaSand says:

    This is one of my favorite museums! I hope I it can survive and keep folk art on the minds of patrons and the country.

    2 years ago

  • BrittneyWest

    BrittneyWest says:

    I love anything displayed hanging. Beautiful exhibit and photo, as well as a great article! Thanks! "Let the beauty of what you love be what you do." --Rumi

    2 years ago

  • pippatree

    pippatree says:

    Great article and I agree with 'outofline' - yes 'Craft can be seriously moving, same as art' - Art and craft are really just the same thing, or at least should be.

    2 years ago

  • ericawalker

    ericawalker says:

    I visited AFAM for the first time last year. What a beautiful, important institution. Thank you for this info!

    2 years ago

  • AurDenDesigns

    AurDenDesigns says:

    If people like us who value handmade and the process do not support them, who will? This is something we can actually take control of.

    2 years ago

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies says:

    I have never been there but would love to visit. Thanks for the information.

    2 years ago

  • minibytes

    minibytes says:

    Never been but would love to go check it out if I'm able!

    2 years ago

  • gulliver62

    gulliver62 says: Featured

    It doesn't surprise me that folk art, particularly in NY, hasn't been as valued as the huge institutionalized museum work and/or gallery works. I recall having a long, heated discussion w/friends several years ago about "what is art, and what's valued." I LOVE folk, outsider, raw, self-taught, whatever you want to call art that isn't the results of a fine arts degree or isn't blessed by some well-known gallery owners. There is incredible value in fine arts/training, I'm not bashing that...but folk/outsider art has never been respected or valued by institutions. Let's call a spade a spade here--it's often about perceived financial value! I have collected folk art for years and never miss the FolkFest in Atlanta every August. There are works there that defy description. Many of those artists have been laughed at by galleries and museums for their entire careers. There should be room and reverence for ALL art. My personal definition of art is anything that evokes emotion. I may not love it all (cows with wings?), but I value it all.

    2 years ago

  • bananasaurusrex

    bananasaurusrex says:

    Yea FOLK! Thank you for this!

    2 years ago

  • goosegreaseundone

    goosegreaseundone says:

    i love the folk art museum. it is my absolutely favorite museum here in nyc. this museum needs to stay open!!!!

    2 years ago

  • SkateBetty

    SkateBetty says:

    Cool! i didn't even realize that NYC had a folk art museum!

    2 years ago

  • TheScarfTree

    TheScarfTree says:

    Loved the photo and article! Great work! Thanks!

    2 years ago

  • ZinniaFolkArts

    ZinniaFolkArts says:

    As an importer and aficionado of Mexican folk art, I find that people love folk art for the joy it expresses--the joy of the maker and the joy of the object. Folk art ties the artisan to the past in a unique way that fine art and other craft do not because folk artisans are not really self taught, many have learned to excel at their craft from their parents and grandparents and the communities in which they live. This connection to tradition, learning from one's surrounding and using materials from one's environment to express cultural beliefs and practices is what Mexican folk art is all about. And it's different from fine art in that way. Saludos!

    2 years ago

  • helengiddens

    helengiddens says:

    What a red and white sight! I have been working on a red and white quilt, not quite finished. Two of my quilts though managed to be shown at the earlier location and one at the Armory. I understand that the term folk art has lost some luster. Opinions like people go through stages but I am personally proud, very proud my quilts were even considered as a participant on view at The Museum of American Folk Art, NYC. Glad the word is out and things are looking up again. Art comes from the soul and those long past generations as well as all of us as children have no art degree. Nor do I but consider myself an artist and those quilters before me that passed the traditions. Folk or not art comes out. This museum and its works must continue. ... Love the spectacle of all those quilts. Great!

    2 years ago

  • helengiddens

    helengiddens says:

    oops, meant AFAM.

    2 years ago

  • RealLifeEmpire

    RealLifeEmpire from RealLifeEmpire says:

    Beautiful! There's an upcoming art doc you guys may enjoy. http://www.nkisiconcorde.com/

    1 year ago