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On “Options Dim for Museum of Folk Art”

The New York Times is reporting that the American Folk Art Museum in NYC will probably go under. This is mainly about financial issues, both the larger economy and mismanagement, but there is also an intertwined intellectual one and this can be seen clearly in the NYT story.

Billie Tsien, an architect who designed the new building, said the museum’s capacity to raise money was in part limited by its subject matter; New York’s movers and shakers do not tend to collect quilts and weathervanes.

The American Folk Art Museum has been pretty consistently hostile to the field of folklore studies–those scholars who actually study the vernacular arts of the United States, the Americas, and the world in context. On intellectual grounds, this day could have been foreseen long ago. That the architect who designed their (former) brand new building understands the museum so narrowly to be a thing of quilts and weathervanes speaks to how out of sync with contemporary folk art scholarship the museum was. There are no shortage of potential donors interested in folk art in New York City, its just that their folk arts of interests were not central to the agenda of the museum.

On more than one occasion, American Folk Art Museum staff told graduate students with whom I work that if they wanted a real museum job working with folk art they needed to get degrees in art history, not folklore studies. Well, those students are doing just fine and are studying and working with folk arts and artists everyday while the American Folk Art Museum is going under. Financial foundations are important, but so are intellectual ones. An elitist art history was not the best platform upon which to erect a museum nominally dedicated to the arts of diverse peoples and communities. I am not against art history, but I am against an art history that is opposed to folklore studies without even knowing what the field is about.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Whoa. They acquired Henry Darger’s stuff. Interesting that they thought being next to MOMA was the place to be. Kind of makes your point, doesn’t it?

    September 7, 2011
    • Hi Barbara. Yours is a very succinct and clear example. In the abstract, I have no qualms about anyone’s art and there really no such thing as a person making art outside of any ties to community, to social relations with other people, but to prioritize what some call “outsider art” under the banner of “folk art” speaks to the problem that I had in mind. It need not have happened this way. The ethics, the aesthetics, the intellectual footing, and the economics all seem off course to me.

      September 7, 2011

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