Our current exhibition, American Made: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum, is Crystal Bridges’ first exhibition of folk art. It was curated especially for our museum by Stacy Hollander, Curator at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Hollander visited Crystal Bridges for the opening of the exhibition, and I had an opportunity to sit down with her and talk about the show and about folk art in general. I’ll post our interview here in a series of short chats.
Note: You can hear more from Dr. Hollander in the free audio tour of American Made, which is downloadable for both Apple and Android devices.
How were the objects for this exhibition selected?
Because this was Crystal Bridges’ first exhibition of American folk art and because the American Folk Art Museum in New York wanted it to be a really powerful and stunning introduction for your audiences, there were a few icons in the collection that I absolutely wanted to feature: Tammany, for instance; the man on a bicycle trade sign; the applique carpet. There were a few pieces of great scale and great beauty that I wanted as anchors for the exhibition also, because so much of the early folk art is very domestic in scale. Aside from quilts, which are also among the monumental works of art of the period, the majority of the other forms are fairly modest in scale. So to create some visual dynamism in the galleries I wanted to include some pieces that would really fill one’s eyes and become vantage points. The exhibition functions as an introduction to virtually all the forms of early American folk art. So it needed to fulfill that function, but it also needed to be best of kind.
I have heard that folk art was not considered works of art until the 1950s or so…
You know, that’s a funny term and a funny idea: “not considered works of art.” I mean, portraits were always considered works of art. Miniatures were always considered works of art. Needleworks, ornamental drawings and paintings, they were always works of art, it’s just that they weren’t works of academic art, of museum art. They were a different kind of art. But if the works that are on view in the show were not valued for their skill and their beauty, they would not have been valued and cherished and preserved by families and survived. These are the special pieces that people made. There are thousands and thousands of utilitarian quilts, for instance, that have not survived and are not in museum collections because they were utilitarian and that extra special artistic intend was not put into them. So the works of art that come into museums are those examples that are exhibiting all the qualities that one looks for in any work of art in any art arena.
It’s tantamount to saying, “okay there are works of art in Crystal Bridges’ collection. Why are those works of art there? Why isn’t everything that was ever made by anybody in the museum?” Because there are millions of people who are making art, but it’s not art that is going to receive the recognition and the critical assessments over time that have them endure as expressions that are universal and important and need to be seen. And the same thing is entirely true in the field of folk art.
That’s a great way to think of it. I guess the argument is that if they were really, really great, that might not have happened to them.
Well now I’ll play my own devil’s advocate. Certainly many of the artists we recognize today in the academic arts, they didn’t all receive recognition in their own lifetimes and their work wasn’t always valued. And there are artists whose work has been lost, some pieces that would now be considered important, and they haven’t survived. It’s a cyclical thing, value. And what is considered important in one age might not be considered as important in another age.
Some of the works in this exhibition are extraordinarily fragile. Paper dolls, for instance. How does something like that survive?
Yes, the survival of some of the works that are on view are minor miracles, and one can only assume that they were cherished by families before they were passed out of those families into museums.
How do you find out about the people who made them?
That’s one of the challenges. But also as, a curator and a scholar, one of the most exciting things about the field is that there’s still so much to discover. Some of it is an “aha” moment. If you’re aware of a body of work that shares similar stylistic characteristics and techniques so you can start putting pieces together as a body of work, and then something turns up that has a name on it–then all the pieces start falling into place. If there is anybody’s name on a work, then it’s a place to start. The internet has sped things up tremendously, but the more resources that are available, the more possible it is to continue to identify objects and artists. It’s just continuing to take the clues that you have and go to the resources of that period, of that region, just follow the trail and see what you discover. It’s fun.
Some of these works were made right around the time of the revolution. Was there a change in the style of American folk art after the Revolution?
One aspect of the exhibition introduces the notion of antiquarianism. The development of institutions devoted to preserving history that was being made in early America, it was a long time coming, it wasn’t an immediate part of the plan. The American Antiquarian society was founded in 1812. So it was something that had to catch up. But the centennial, a hundred years of nationhood, really sparked a wider awareness of history and wanting to capture American history, as well as a nostalgia for looking back over America history. And yes, there was a significant change in the arts of the pilgrim century and the artists in post-revolutionary America. One of the changes is that the earliest material that survives from the colonial period is very English in nature–it’s very English or its very Dutch. It is very specifically reflecting the nature of the arts in the host countries as people came to the colonies and brought those techniques and those ideas. But things change and tastes change and the longer you’re away from the mother country, you know, a different culture emerges. And that’s what you see in the arts that start to be made in the revolutionary period and beyond. They’re coming out of a different set of priorities, they’re not answering to English and Dutch and whatever other culture, they are beginning to be more directed to forming an American culture.
Was that a conscious effort?
We all respond to whatever’s happening in our own time. But I think that certainly when you’ve perpetrated something like the American Revolution and independence and starting a country in an entirely new and experimental model, then yeah, I think there’s a pretty wide awareness and kind of an individual investment in contributing to the success of that story.
How do you think the exhibition will be received here at Crystal Bridges?
It’s always a revelation for those that are not familiar with folk art to be confronted with the actual art and to, frankly, be immediately overwhelmed by the beauty of it, the power of it, the communicative nature of it, and the incredible accessibility of it. It draws you in. It’s very seductive and it draws one in in a way that has no sense of intimidation or needing to step back. People fall in love.
I think when someone who has not seen this art before walks into the show I think it will dispel all kinds of preconceived notions about folk art. Because the experience of the artist, the expertness and skill of the artistry, is palpable in every work of art and again that talks to why is this art in museums. Why is this art? Because it is conceived and executed with all the artistic integrity that one would expect of a work of art.