Breaking ground: British folk art at the Tate

In 1768, when the British Royal Academy of Arts was established, it emphatically distinguished the fine arts from crafts by exiling the latter, declaring that "no needlework, artificial flowers, cut-paper, shell-work or any such performances should be admitted." By 1948 artworks from outside the main­stream still had not overcome this prejudice, prompting the designer, writer, and folk art enthusiast Enid Marx to note that "England is one of the few countries where folk art has not found a recognized place in any of our great national collections." Six more de­cades passed with works generally categorized as "folk," "naive," "vernacular," "self-taught," "popular," and "outsider" art still ignored by the British art estab­lishment and not represented in any national institution.

But in 2009 Tate Britain, led by curator Martin My­rone, initiated a series of workshops entitled "Folk Art and the Art Museum" that have culminated in the Tate hosting British Folk Art, the first ever national exhibition of British folk art. The exhibition's eponymous catalogue illustrates and discusses some fifty pieces and includes three well-considered essays by Myrone, co-curator Jeff McMillan, and assistant curator Ruth Kenny.

Myrone understands the complexities of the subject and takes a fresh approach, writing that, "re-instituting ‘British Folk Art' in the context of the Tate, and the national collection of British Art, is less a matter of trying to fix a category than attempting to open it up as a source (we hope) of pleasure and provocation."

Myrone invited the contemporary artist and folk art enthusiast Jeff McMillan to work with him and together they established a few basic principles, all somewhat alien to traditional museum conventions, as a framework for this groundbreaking exhibition. Myrone emphasizes their desire to explore "the modes of making (particularly where these appeared idiosyn­cratic and improvised)" and McMillan adds that they set out to show works that serve as a "reminder of the hand-made object, with its brilliant imperfections and anomalies." They hoped to achieve their goals by avoid­ing disputes about definitions and counter-definitions and by selecting, Myrone says, "objects (specific ex­amples wherever we could) that had been collected, prized or written about as ‘folk art.'" McMillan also suggests that "a generalization about folk art might be to say that it has its origin in tradition," and proposes that "what becomes interesting, then, is finding the most intriguing and original examples of these art forms."

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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