The American Folk Art Museum in New York has been in the news a lot lately–and sadly too; it looks like they’re closing. Faced with the pressure of massive debt, the AFM sold its flagship building on West 53rd Street to MOMA and shrank to its smaller, auxiliary 5,000 sq ft location in Lincoln Square–what they allegedly rent for $1/year. The building on 53rd was built from scratch by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects specifically for the collection and opened in December, 2001. At the time “it was widely hailed as a sign of hope, both for the museum and New York. Here was evidence the city could recover from the terrorist attack of a few months earlier: a shiny bronze structure smack in the heart of Midtown that would be the first major art museum to open in Manhattan since the Whitney Museum in 1966,” (NYT, August 24, 2011). Since then the AFAM seems to be a lightening rod for particularly relevant trouble. “For example, its former chairman, Ralph O. Esmerian, promised to donate his collection of folk art, including a version of Edward Hicks’s ‘Peaceable Kingdom,’ but Mr. Esmerian also put the painting up as collateral against money he owed, and in 2008 it was put up for auction. In July Mr. Esmerian, who is no longer on the board, was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud,” (NYT, August 19, 2011). Perhaps again, as an indicator of our socioeconomic environment, the AFAM was forced to default on its construction loans in 2009. Their projected income from ticket sales and donations alike exceeded the reality of their position. The museum defaulted on its debt and this past May, its board decided to sell the building to its neighboring institution, the MOMA. While the sale got the museum out of its immediate hole, they were unable to raise additional funds for operating costs. Now the question seems to be, how to dissolve the institution? Where will these objects go?
What happens when a museum with such a carefully and specifically curated collection sells/donates its collection? The work itself seems as much defined by its relationship to the institution as the institution is defined by its work. If, for instance, Henry Darger is repositioned within the Brooklyn Art Musuem’s repertoire, and should they exhibit his work in conjunction with contemporary works does that change the way we view Darger? Does he start to emerge from the margins of “Outsider Art” into a space with different categorical potential (and therefore influence)? Obviously and for various reasons, Darger would never (nor should he) hold the status of a Pollack, for instance, but would his position and relation in our history-of-art-timeline change depending on his status within a specific collection? Would the same apply for the quilts in AFAM’s collection–how would these objects be integrated in other exhibits? Were everything to end up in a National History Museum, would we forget to think of these objects as art objects, considering them first and foremost practical artifacts endemic to a new country developing a cultural vocabulary? The historical implications/academic associations created by an institution’s curatorial hand suddenly becomes apparent to me.
As AFAM collected and exhibited this particular body of work it sought to define the significance of its collection, simultaneously reinforcing the significance of its own institutional contribution. Suddenly the work of curators shows its essential contribution to discussions around art. (While an obvious point, well curated experiences are often so seamless, that I take their curatorial authority for granted. I hardly notice it, focusing instead on the narrative it propagates.)
That said, and appealing to the internet ether (sometimes I feel I’m sending messages to outerspace) I don’t want the AFAM to close. Obviously I’m not in a position to fully comprehend the circumstances or needs of this institution as it goes through what must be a devastating time, but here are two postcards to metaspace:
Dear American Folk Art Museum, While we never shared the same state, your presence has helped me develop over the years, pressed me to follow paths of my own work and insight that I might have otherwise diminished and dismissed. Thank you so much. Yours truly.
Please don’t tear down the AFAM building. It would be such a waste! Perhaps instead you could incorporate its structure into your own and bring a new life to the building’s history. We must all protect one another, somehow. Yours truly.