After many years of planning, the museum is opening a magnificent new building at 45 West 53rd Street in Manhattan; at the same time, the organization is seeing the most significant additions to its permanent collection in the forty years since its founding.
Details, American Folk Art Museum
As a result, it seemed appropriate for me to take a broad, backward look at the institution as it embraces the long-awaited realization of the very goals that sparked its establishment. I do not intend this essay to be a history of the museum, but rather a review of some of the highlights of a fascinating forty-year story of commitment and courage. Founding Trustee Adele Earnest contributed her "History of the Museum, 1961 - 1978" to the midsummer 1978 issue of The Clarion (now Folk Art magazine). In the winter 1989 issue, the museum published a comprehensive study, "The History of the Museum of American Folk Art: An Illustrated Timeline." Both of these resources remain valuable introductions to the museum, and I am happy to acknowledge my reliance upon them in the preparation of this essay. The museum's first decade was a time of multiple beginnings, as its founders -- Adele Earnest, Cordelia Hamilton, Herbert W. Hemphill Jr., Joseph B. Martinson, Marian Willard Johnson, and Arthur M. Bullowa -- sought to give shape and structure to a shared vision. For them, folk art was a vital element in American cultural history, and it warranted the establishment of an institution in the city of New York devoted to its collection, exhibition, and interpretation.
When the Board of Regents of the New York State Education Department granted a provisional charter on June 23, 1961, the prospects for acquiring a home or a collection for the Museum of Early American Folk Arts, as the new organization was initially called, were uncertain at best. The choice of New York City, then acknowledged as the art capital of the world, was significant in itself. The very idea that folk art could be studied and appreciated as art, rather than as material culture or historical or ethnographic artifact, was a by-product of the growth of modernism as a movement in the history of American culture.