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 ftÂ location Â in Lincoln Square–what they allegedly rent for $1/year. The building on 53rd was built from scratch byÂ Tod Williams Billie Tsien ArchitectsÂ specifically for the collection andÂ 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 Hicksâ€™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).Â 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. Â 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.
Some great upcoming programming planned around Chicago Artist’s Month that I wanted to bring to your attention. This weekend, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art will present Henry Darger at Home (and) at Work, a program comprising two multi-disciplinary events about process, studio practice, and creativity in conjunction with Chicago Artists Month. The events start with a panel that includes some fantastic Chicago writers, and finish several weeks later with….a PUPPET SHOW. Awesome. You’ll find all the details below….
Finding inspiration in the Henry Darger Room Collection and the texts and imagery Darger crafted within it, Intuit has collaborated with the Chicago Underground Library (CUL) and The Anatomy Collective (TAC) to examine the relationship between writing, art-making and the creative process.
In collaboration with the Chicago Underground Library, Contemporary Authors and the Artistic Process, a panel discussion of authors followed by a bookmaking project with the audience, will take place on Saturday, October 2 from 11:00am – 1:00pm. In collaboration with The Anatomy Collective, Henry Darger’s Life (&) Work, a puppet show based on the life and work of Henry Darger and the collaborative text will take place on Thursday, October 28 fromÂ 6:00pm – 8:00pm. Both events take place at Intuit, 756 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, IL
Contemporary Authors and the Artistic Process
Saturday, October 2, 2010, 11am -1pm
$10; includes admission to Intuit’s galleries
A panel discussion featuring authors John Bresland, Stephanie Kuehnert, Audrey Niffenegger and Bayo Ojikutu will explore their multi-disciplinary sources of inspiration, the role biography plays in their work and how their studio contextualizes their practice. The 45-minute discussion will be moderated by Nell Taylor, Executive Director of Chicago Underground Library, with an introduction by Thea Liberty Nichols, Intuit’s Study Center Manager, and panelists will have books available for purchase.
Immediately following the panel, Intuit and CUL invite you to participate in a collaborative bookmaking project in homage to Darger’s life’s work, the masterpiece, In the Realms of the Unreal… Audience members are encouraged to bring in an item (a photo, artwork, magazine or newspaper clipping, etc.) or use items made available to create the text and imagery for a book that, once collaged together, will be housed within CUL’s collection and serve as the inspiration for the puppet show Henry Darger’s Life (&) Work on October 28.
Henry Darger’s Life (&) Work
Thursday, October 28, 6pm-8pm
Admission is by donation
Following Contemporary Authors and the Artistic Process, Theater group The Anatomy Collective will have just over three weeks to develop an exclusive puppet show that blends the tracings, clippings, ephemera and writing generated and collected by Darger with the book collectively created by attendees of CUL’s panel. The resultant performance will showcase TAC’s talents and resourcefulness in a whimsical epic that re-interprets Darger’s (home) life and (studio) work and the readers and viewers it continues to inspire.
For further information about this exhibition or to inquire about other Intuit programs, please contact Intuit at email@example.com or 312.243.9088.