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Fig. 1: Situation of America, 1848. Artist unidentified, New York, 1848. Oil on wood panel, 34 x 57 x 1 3/8 in. Promised gift of Ralph Esmerian. Courtesy of The American Folk Art Museum.

After many years of planning, the American Folk Art Museum opened its magnificent new building in December of 2001. Proudly standing at 45 West 53rd Street in the heart of Manhattan, the museum and its soaring interior spaces reflect the widespread recognition of the significance of folk art in American life. As a vital element in American cultural history, folk art is a key to shared values and a rich heritage. Through folk art, we come to appreciate the diverse nature of America and the colorful tapestry that comprises our nation’s people. The road to the American Folk Art Museum’s current home and its role in both New York City and the country as a whole is a fascinating forty-year story of commitment and courage.

In 1963, the museum opened its galleries to the public for the first time in the rented parlor floor of a townhouse at 49 West 53rd Street. Previously, most exhibitions of folk art in museums were organized as art-historical surveys, in which works of art were generally presented by medium—paintings, sculpture, watercolors, and drawings. Within its first decade, the museum dramatically altered this approach, regularly staging one-person, thematic, and genre-specific exhibitions. Although budget and space restricted its earliest efforts, the museum’s exhibition program during the 1960s signaled a major change in the field. Throughout the following decades, the museum’s collection grew rapidly, principally through the generous contributions of collectors and patrons.

Because of the inadequate size and facilities of its rented gallery, the museum sought to move into a home of its own. In 1979, the museum purchased from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund two adjoining town houses at 45–47 West 53rd Street. Although the buildings were in poor condition and could not be used in their then-current state, they provided the basis for future growth and development.

The museum presented its exhibitions at 49 West 53rd Street until 1984, when it opened handsome new facilities nearby in a former jazz museum and Rockefeller carriage house at 125 West 55th Street. The 55th Street galleries opened with considerable excitement. This was a temporary move, yet an optimistic response to affirmative developments in the building program intended in part to prepare the properties on 53rd Street for demolition.

While negotiations on the future of the museum’s properties on 53rd Street continued, the museum created branch exhibition facilities at Two Lincoln Square in Manhattan, on the ground floor opposite Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Named for the principal contributor to the renovation and her late husband, the Eva and Morris Feld Gallery opened to great fanfare in 1989. The gallery provided more expansive exhibition space than either of the institution’s prior homes and permitted the development of exhibitions of scope and substance that often traveled to museums throughout the country.

Fig. 2: Flag Gate, artist unidentified, Jefferson County, New York, ca. 1876. Paint on wood with iron and brass, 39 1/2 x 57 x 3 3/4 in. Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr. Courtesy of The American Folk Art Museum; photography by John Parnell, New York.

In 1991, following the untimely death of the museum’s gifted director, Dr. Robert Bishop, who had led the museum since 1977, the Board of Trustees, staff, and I entered a period of long-range planning to prepare for the expansion into a new building on West 53rd Street, the museum’s historic home. The museum building would be the first constructed in New York from the ground-up since 1966. The museum moved into its striking new building, designed by the renowned architectural firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates, in December 2001. To be sure, the tragic events of September 11 diminished the joyous sense of fulfillment we otherwise would have experienced with the completion of our new home. And yet this structure evidences our belief in the future of our city and country, and in a significant way, constitutes an answer to those events. The very qualities that distinguish the American Folk Art Museum and the field that it represents—respect for the individual and for individual achievement and aspiration, openness, and diversity—serve as a response to the adversaries of our nation.

Simply stated, our new building is extraordinary. The American Folk Art Museum now has two splendid locations—its new home at 45 West 53rd Street and its recently renovated Eva and Morris Feld Gallery at Lincoln Square. Under the overarching theme of “American Anthem,” the museum promises a year of eloquent presentations of new acquisitions and works from its permanent collection. Each of the exhibitions is accompanied by an exciting series of educational events—a fascinating progression of engaging opportunities for learning—and a wonderful catalogue. These programs are the most ambitious in the history of the museum, and I warmly invite you to visit our new home in the weeks and months ahead. Membership in the American Folk Art Museum ensures that you will receive advance notice and privileged access to these programs. There has never been a better time to join. Come visit—soon!

Gerard C. Wertkin is Director of the American Folk Art Museum.

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