What moved from the Newark Museum, to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and finally to Colonial Williamsburg – all within the span of just 25 years?
American Folk Art!
In 1930 and 1931, curator Holger Cahill organized two exhibitions of folk art at the Newark Museum: American Primitives: An Exhibit of the Paintings of Nineteenth Century Folk Artists and American Folk Sculpture: The Work of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Craftsmen. Dorothy Canning Miller, future MoMA curator and Cahill’s future spouse, helped with the shows.
These exhibitions presented objects made by house painters, sign painters, cabinet makers, blacksmiths, sailors, housewives, and girls in finishing school. Museum staff traveled the eastern seaboard from Maine to Virginia, combing antique stores, whaling museums, and farmsteads to gather items as diverse as ships’ figureheads, weathervanes, hunting decoys, toys, cookie molds, and embroidery. Contemporary American artists including Alexander Brook, Robert Laurent, Elie Nadelman, and William Zorach lent folk art from their personal collections. Art dealer Edith Halpert also played a major role.
Folk art fit neatly within the mission of the Newark Museum, where director John Cotton Dana had always been interested in this “homespun type of American art.” Fifteen years earlier, his Homeland Exhibit featured handmade items from about twenty of Newark’s immigrant groups, including German, Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Hungarian communities. The objects were selected from items that students brought from home to their schools.
Holger Cahill defined folk art as “the untutored expression of the common people” intended for an audience beyond the elite and free from connections to art movements or academies. He argued that folk art was remarkable because of its aesthetic merit rather than its historic value. For Cahill and others, folk art provided modern art with a lineage in America and could serve as a source of inspiration for contemporary artists. Yet he cautioned, “like everything else in American art this simple and naïve expression cannot be called altogether indigenous.”
Newark Museum trustee Arthur F. Egner felt differently. He declared, “some would have us believe that all our Art has come to us in ships. This exhibit is a refreshing demonstration that native in America there have existed fine observation and handiwork.”
Folk art infiltrated the Museum of Modern Art in 1932 when Cahill was made acting director during Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s leave of absence. For the next year, Cahill presented an exhibition program that trustee A. Conger Goodyear called a “flood of Americana.” He restaged the Newark folk art exhibitions as American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750-1900. In the interim, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of MoMA’s founders, had bought many of the objects on view.
In 1938, Barr and Miller included folk art in the first traveling exhibition that MoMA sent to Paris. The following year, Rockefeller lent twenty-three works of art to MoMA’s Art in Our Time, the musuem’s tenth anniversary exhibition. In 1939, she dispersed her collection of folk art to institutions including Colonial Williamsburg, Dartmouth College, and the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA accessioned about fifty items of sculpture and painting from her collection, including some of the same weather vanes, painted toys, and embellished birth certificates discovered by Newark employees.
During this time, however, MoMA was struggling to define its relationship to the past. Critics continually assailed the institution for not being “modern” enough. It was unclear whether a museum of modern art should even maintain a collection of historic art. And so steps were taken to relocate the folk art collection.
MoMA sold a selection of European art and American folk art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the mid-1940s. The works were transferred per the agreement of both museums that they had passed from the “category of modern to that of ‘classic.’” Though these European objects still remain a point of pride at the Met, the folk objects were ignored. In 1955, these objects and the folk art still at MoMA migrated to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection at Colonial Williamsburg, where they remain today.
The unusual journey of these objects highlights folk art’s dual and sometimes conflicting importance as both art and history.
For full information on the provenance of these and other works, use the search feature on the website of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum: http://emuseum.history.org.
Quotes above are from:
American Primitives: An Exhibit of the Paintings of Nineteenth Century Folk Artists. Newark: Newark Museum, 1930. American Folk Sculpture: The Work of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Craftsmen. Newark: Newark Museum, 1931. Holger Cahill. “Folk Art: Its Place in the American Tradition,” Parnassus 4, no. 3 (March 1932): 1-4. A. Conger Goodyear. The Museum of Modern Art: The First Ten Years. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1943. Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art, 1929-1967. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977.