Chartered as the Museum of Early American Folk Arts when it was founded in 1961, the Museum originally focused on the vernacular arts of 18th and 19th century America, especially of the northeast. The institution adopted a more inclusive name Museum of American Folk Art in 1966. Over the years, it established a national and international reputation as a leading cultural institution dedicated to the collection, exhibition, and study of traditional and contemporary American folk art. As the American Folk Art Museum, it will present exhibitions and programs that embrace an even wider range of folk art, both traditional and contemporary, from the U.S. and abroad.
In anticipation of this major expansion and to underscore a spirit of dynamic growth, the Museum is changing its name to American Folk Art Museum. The new name emphasizes the American experience within a global mission. The American Folk Art Museum's Inaugural Season of Exhibitions, launched with the opening of the new building, will illustrate the Museum's commitment to an expanded range of interests from traditional folk art of the 18th and 19th centuries to the work of contemporary self-taught artists from the U.S. and abroad.
"The name change marks the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in the 40-year history of this institution as we eagerly await the completion of the expansion", said Gerard C. Wertkin, director of the American Folk Art Museum. "The new name makes a subtle but significant difference, reflecting our mission as America's foremost institution dedicated to promoting the knowledge and appreciation of folk art from this country and abroad, past and present."
The American Folk Art Museum's increasingly broadened outlook has been evident in a series of rotating exhibitions organized by the Museum over the past several years, including exhibitions on the folk art of Latin America, England, and Norway, among other countries and continents. The Museum is currently presenting the work of 20th century European and American self-taught artists who fit French artist Jean Dubuffet's definition of art brut. A number of paintings by artists represented in the exhibition ABCD: A Collection of Art Brut have already entered the Museum's permanent collection.
The American Folk Art Museum is small and can be somewhat hard to find. The museum's permanent exhibit has a diverse range of objects, quilts, hunting decoys, portraits, decorative pottery and boxes, weathervanes and religious objects, paintings and crucifixes; basically, artwork that you most likely won't find in other museums of American art. There's a lot of information explaining the history and importance of the work, but even if you stop to read everything, you won't end up spending more than two hours here. The staff of the museum is friendlier than those of a lot of other museums, making it a pleasure to visit.
The new building will quadruple the Museum's gallery space for the display of its expanded permanent collection and special exhibitions, provide educational facilities, and consolidate the staff offices. Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates' first major public project in New York City, the new facility will fulfill the Museum's long-term goal of establishing a permanent home for the study and appreciation of American folk art and allow the Museum to display a substantial number of artworks from its collection of 4,000 objects. It will also be home to the Museum's Contemporary Center, dedicated to the study and appreciation of the work of contemporary self-taught artists. The Museum will continue operating its current gallery space, the Eva and Morris Feld Gallery at Lincoln Square, as a branch museum, ensuring a significant presence in two of New York's most important cultural districts the Lincoln Center area and midtown Manhattan, near the Museum of Modern Art, the American Craft Museum, and the Museum of Television & Radio.
Clad in sixty-three lightly textured tombasil panels, a white bronze alloy, the eight-level, 85-feet tall structure will be capped by a skylight above a grand interior stair connecting the third and the fourth floor, with dramatic cut-throughs at each floor to allow natural light to filter into the galleries and through to the lower levels. The lustrous, sculptural facade is the product of a manual fabrication process evocative of the hands-oriented approach characteristic of folk art its panels are cast by pouring molten metal directly into gated forms on the concrete floor of the foundry. The faceted panels, which appear stonelike and metallic at the same time, will create different visual effects catching the light of the sun as it rises and sets, east and west along 53rd Street. The galleries on the four top floors of the building will vary in scale from intimate spaces to open areas to allow for a personalized art experience and the display of larger works. Art will also be integrated into public spaces, such as the lobby, stairwells, and hallways, utilizing a system of niches throughout the building that offers interaction with a changing group of folk art objects beyond the gallery setting. Visitors will be able to move between building levels by using three different staircases a layout that encourages multiple paths of circulation and gives the visitor the feeling of an architectural journey. Adding a sense of warmth to the building, the gallery floors will be made of wood set into concrete. Seven of the eight levels of the new building will be entirely dedicated to public space. The mezzanine level will house a small coffee bar overlooking a two-story atrium and offering views of 53rd Street. At the entrance level will be the Museum Shop, with access during non-Museum hours via a separate exit to the street. The museum offices, reference library, and educational areas, including an auditorium and classrooms, will be located on two levels below ground.
The $34.5 million Capital Campaign to fund the expansion project and boost the Museum's endowment has been spearheaded by Ralph Esmerian, Chairman of the Board, and Lucy Cullman Danziger, Campaign Chair and Board Executive Vice-President, under the presidency of John Wilkerson. To date, the Museum has successfully raised $31 million from private, public, and foundation sources, including $2.5 million appropriated by The City of New York and $500,000 by the State of New York in support of the new building.