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Exterior of the American Folk Art Museum | Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum | ©
Exterior of the American Folk Art Museum | Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum | ©

The American Folk Art Museum And The Legacy Of The Self-Taught Artist

Picture of Ruth Portes
Updated: 19 July 2016
New York is full of fascinating museums that expand visitors’ horizons and add to the city’s eclectic culture. The American Folk Art Museum is an institution that showcases the self-taught artist’s creative process, alongside the history and legacy of American folk art. Here, our preconceived notions are challenged, reshaped, and broadened, leaving the viewer with the need to revisit the space. Located on the Upper West Side at 2 Lincoln Square, admission to the museum is free for all who wish to expand their understanding of self-taught art and the immeasurable meanings within the works. We take a closer look at the American Folk Art Museum.

Founded in 1961, the American Folk Art Museum is an institution dedicated to the appreciation of traditional folk art and more contemporary creations of self-made artists of the past, present, and future. The museum holds over 7,000 artworks, ranging from portraits to embroidery and weathervanes in the permanent collection that dates from the 18th century to the present. The museum continues to collect art, having made over 100 new acquisitions in the last year. There are over 11,000 books and bound objects in the library, as well as 500 linear feet of archives.

Fraternal Apron Artist unidentified United States 1825–1850 Paint and gold paint on silk satin, with silk ribbon and silk fringe; cotton back 19 1/2 x 19" Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Gift of Kendra and Allan Daniel, 2015.1.93 Photo by José Andrés Ramírez

Fraternal Apron Artist unidentified United States 1825–1850 Paint and gold paint on silk satin, with silk ribbon and silk fringe; cotton back 19 1/2 x 19″ Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Gift of Kendra and Allan Daniel, 2015.1.93 Photo by José Andrés Ramírez.

When the institution was first founded it did not have a building, a permanent collection, or an endowment. However, the original trustees had a vision to advance the understanding of American folk art, and they hosted the institution’s first show in a rented space in 1961. By 1962, the museum’s permanent collection was launched with a gift of a gate in the form of the American flag, reflecting the museum’s early focus in 18th and 19th century folk art.

The museum broadened its mission after receiving its charter in 1966, changing its name to the Museum of American Folk Arts and expanding its definition of folk art to include aspects of American vernacular art from all areas of the country. In the 1990s, the museum began to focus even more on the diversity of folk art, presenting African American and Latino folk art in their permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. In keeping with the pace of its location, the museum hosts multiple events and educational programming throughout the year (about 16 a month) such as closer look tours of the exhibitions, receptions, free music events, and other educational talks and panels relating to the exhibitions on display.

In 2001, the museum chose its current name. While the word ‘American’ emphasizes its location and patronage, it does not mean that the museum only presents and collects American art. Rather, the museum’s exhibitions reflect worldliness and openness that define self-taught art as a whole, raising self-taught art from the fringe of the mainstream art world and establishing it as a respected genre.

Ronald Lockett (1965–1998, Bessemer, Alabama) Rebirth Bessemer, Alabama 1987 Wire, nails, and paint on Masonite 12 x 18 1/2 x 1 1/2" Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, L2015.2.3 Photo by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio

Ronald Lockett (1965–1998, Bessemer, Alabama) Rebirth. Bessemer, Alabama, 1987. Wire, nails, and paint on Masonite. 12 x 18 1/2 x 1 1/2″. Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, L2015.2.3. Photo by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio.

In addition to its own exhibitions and permanent collection, the museum also collaborates with several other institutions in the United States, participating in the organization of traveling exhibitions as well as lending artworks to other international folk art museums. Some past exhibitions include Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allen Daniel Collection, and Spring Fling: Quilts from the Collection.

Currently, the museum is showing two exhibitions centered on and inspired by Ronald Lockett, a self-taught African American artist from rural Alabama, whose work is saturated with a deep sensitivity to the injustices of the physical world. These two exhibitions are Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett, the first retrospective of his work, and Once Something Has Lived it Can Never Really Die, an exhibition of various works relating to the themes of twelve of Lockett’s works. These two exhibitions are eerie, thought-provoking, and inspiring.

American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square, New York, NY, USA +1 212 595 9533