Is it so surprising that New York has long been a center for folk and outsider art? From Electra Havemeyer Webb, founder of the Shelburne Museum, who started out in the glossy precincts of Park Avenue in the 1940s to Monty Blanchard, current president of the American Folk Art Museum, whose Tribeca loft is a geyser of the self-taught, the creatively independent, and the unexpected, the city has courted the unorthodox and rewarded variety. Or at least it used to. The imperial crown now sits heavily on New York’s head, and the place that is like nowhere else in the world seems bent on becoming like everywhere else. Which brings us to the once small, adventurous, and lovable Museum of Modern Art, now a monolith on West Fifty-Third Street. As the world knows, MoMA plans to rule the street in a vast expanse of glass and steel by demolishing a small gem of twentieth-century architecture, the former home of the American Folk Art Museum. You can turn to our Preservation page to find that many eloquent voices have been raised to save MoMA from taking this decade’s first prize for stupidity.
After nearly drowning in a sea of troubles, the American Folk Art Museum is newly buoyant, smaller but with big plans. It might just become a model of the way an institution can learn to reinvigorate itself. As for MoMA, being huge does not have to mean acting the bully. While the museum reconsiders, or pretends to reconsider, erasing Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s masterpiece in response to overwhelming outrage, it might answer a question posed by Tsien: what do we want the city to be…a series of differences that work together or a vast and uniform streetscape with none of the surprises that have always invigorated New York? Williams and Tsien’s building was perfectly suited to folk art by being unique. Surely MoMA is equal to the challenge of preserving and using it in a unique way. A piece of folk or outsider art is probably best defined as lying outside of the art world, as being a world of art unto itself. How wonderful it would be to see MoMA go down the block, step outside the confines of the art world, and help us reimagine our lives in art.
And yes, this is our folk art issue and contains, I hope, almost as much variety as folk and outsider art do-including a report from Meghan Dailey who was out among the folk of Brooklyn, hippest place on the planet, where a new generation buys, sells, and trades old things. This should be good news for anyone who worries that the past has been vaporized by the digital age or that there will be no new collectors.