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Home | Articles | Museum of American Folk Art; Building a Collection and Gifts

ince its founding in 1961, the Museum of American Folk Art has built an outstanding collection of more than 3,500 artworks from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

Girl In Red Dress With Cat and Dog; Ammi Phillips (1788–1865); Vicinity of Amenia, Dutchess County, New York, 1830–1835; Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches; Museum of American Folk Art, New York; promised anonymous gift; P2.1984.1.

The collection encompasses paintings, sculpture, furniture, textiles, and decorative objects. The underlying principles that have guided the formation of the permanent collection strike a fine balance between encyclopedic ambitions, historical and cultural context, and—most importantly—artistic merit.

Among the icons in the Museum’s collection of folk paintings is Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog by Ammi Phillips. Phillips painted portraits for more than fifty years, working primarily in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts. His long and prolific career is characterized by dramatic shifts in palette and style. This portrait belongs to Phillips’ Kent period, from about 1829 to 1838, defined by strong contrasts of color, heightened color in the cheeks, smooth brushwork, a concentration on the face of the sitter, and a geometric, decorative treatment of the bodies.

The Museum’s collection is particularly strong in folk sculpture from the 19th and 20th centuries. This includes familiar forms such as weathervanes and whirligigs, and idiosyncratic contemporary expressions. Among the large group of weathervanes in the collection is the monumental “St. Tammany” that once perched atop a fraternal lodge building, recently on view in the exhibition “Millennial Dreams: Vision and Prophecy in American Folk Art.”

Weathervane: St. Tammany; Artist unknown; East Branch, New York; Mid-nineteenth century; Molded and painted copper; 10 1/2" x 103" x 12", Museum of American Folk Art; purchase 1963.2.1.

American folk furniture combines the three-dimensional presence of sculpture with the exuberance of painted forms. An ordinary piece of furniture was transformed into a work of art through a manipulation of paint with a variety of tools that might include vinegar, putty, sponges, and fingers. An early 19th century two-drawer blanket chest from Massachusetts, a gift from legendary collector, author, and scholar Jean Lipman in honor of Cyril Irwin Nelson, displays bursts of dark rayed medallions against an ochre ground.

Other dynamic effects in wood were achieved through techniques such as marquetry in which images are built through small pieces of contrasting woods. Through the generosity of Marjorie and Robert Hirshhorn, the Museum is the repository for a number of outstanding pieces of marquetry from their collection.

The Museum’s extensive textile collection includes needlework, rugs, coverlets, and an exceptional gathering of quilts. Textiles provided one of the few creative outlets for women in the 18th and 19th centuries and remain relevant today. Needlework was a part of the schoolgirl curriculum and the early 19th century silk needlework of the personification of “Liberty” is an excellent example from Abby Wright’s school in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A charming symbol of America, this rare embroidery was the first purchase by the Jean Lipman Fellows, a group of supporters of the Museum whose yearly membership dues are designated in part for the purchase of a work of art.

Liberty Needlework; Lusina Hudson; Abby Wright School, South Hadley, MA—1808; Velvet, sequins, metallic threads, embroidery floss and watercolor on silk; 18 x 16 inches; Museum of American Folk Art purchase with funds from the Jean Lipman Fellows, 1996.

On view through January 2001, the exhibition An Engagement with Folk Art: Cyril I. Nelson’s Gifts to the Museum of American Folk Art, honors the donor and highlights 60 splendid works of folk art, half of which are quilts and textiles. One of the most important supporters of the Museum, Cyril I. Nelson has been actively engaged in folk art as a collector, a book editor, and a Museum Trustee. Folk art is at the heart of the cultural expression of all Americans and speaks directly to our diversity of heritage and shared national experience, individual creativity, and community values. Through the display of artworks from the permanent collection and changing exhibitions, as well as educational programs for adults and children, the Folk Art Institute, and the quarterly magazine Folk Art, the Museum of American Folk Art continues to stimulate recognition and discussion of the significance of traditional folk art and the work of contemporary self-taught artists.

Trade Sign: bicycle; Amidée T. Thibault (1865–1961); Wood, Columbia bicycle;
Width 84" Height 66" Depth 36"; Gift of David L. Davies 1983.24.1.
Construction is well underway for the Museum’s new building at 45 West 53rd Street. Designed by renowned architects Tod Williams, Billie Tsien and Associates, the Museum’s distinctive new 8-level, 30,000 square foot building will open to the public in late Fall 2001. It is the first new art museum to be built from the ground up in New York City since the Whitney Museum of American Art opened in 1966. The expansion fulfills the Museum’s long-term goal of establishing a permanent home for the study and appreciation of American folk art, quadruples exhibition space, and provides enhanced facilities for educational public programming, as well as an expanded library and rare book study room. Inaugural exhibitions will highlight important new additions to the permanent collection that have never before been seen in public. Look for the new Museum of American Folk Art in 2001!

The Museum of American Folk Art is located at Two Lincoln Square, Columbus Ave. between 65 & 66 Streets, New York, NY 10023. Hours of operation are: Tuesday–Sunday 11:30am–7:30 pm; closed Monday. Admission is free. School groups and other groups may arrange tours by calling 212.595.9533. For additional information please visit us online at www.folkartmuseum.org.

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