Although the American Folk Art Museum received a great deal of press attention upon the closing of its award-winning building on Fifty-Third Street last year, the really big story was to be found in its immediate resurgence. Beginning with the hugely successful red and white quilt show at the Park Avenue Armory and continuing with the world class exhibition Jubilation/Rumination at its Lincoln Square galleries, the museum has shown the energy and resilience of folk art itself, partnering with the South Street Seaport Museum, loaning material to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and otherwise taking a healthy and diversified approach to its own shows. As its trustees continue their search for a new director we talked with them about the museum's future.
Fig. 1. Entrance to the American Folk Art Museum at 2 Lincoln Square in Manhattan.
"I feel as if Laura was dealt a handful of deuces, while I got a handful of kings,"
says Edward "Monty" Blanchard, the president of the board of the American Folk Art Museum. We are sitting in Laura Parsons's light-filled downtown penthouse apartment, where clean-lined furnishings set off dramatic African art and dozens of paintings and sculptures by American self-taught artists-some small, others quite large, including a wonderful Noah's Ark with a separate lifeboat for the skunks. Blanchard is being a bit modest in comparing the way in which Parsons guided the museum past the shoals of near financial collapse with his relative smooth sailing afterwards. He was, in fact, the "money man" on the board and had no small hand in keeping the museum afloat. But it is true that being president of the board now is much more fun. The hard decisions have been made, the budget is balanced, and the museum is moving ahead in ways that reflect its reputation for innovation (after all, it was the first museum to be devoted to folk art)-exploring exciting ways to present and share its collection and to move scholarship and appreciation of its particular bailiwicks-folk and outsider art-forward.
Fig. 2. Installation view of the Jubilation/Rumination exhibition at the Lincoln Square galleries.
Though Parsons preceded Blanchard as board president, he and his late wife, Anne, were responsible for getting her involved with the museum, and art, in the first place. They met in the Bahamas in the mid-1990s, when Parsons accompanied her husband, the business magnate Richard D. Parsons, on a Merrill Lynch junket that Blanchard, an investment banker at the time, and his wife also attended. While her husband was in meetings Parsons visited an art gallery where she was drawn to the work of a local painter, Amos Ferguson. She soon discovered that two others in the banking group had arranged to visit Ferguson in his home. "The three of us went together to Ferguson's tiny three-room house-that's how I met Monty and Anne," Parsons says, and "how I first started collecting. Every room was piled high with his brilliantly colored paintings of bible stories and local life. I bought one-a portrait of one of his granddaughters-and haven't looked back." From then on, whenever Parsons accompanied her husband on business trips, she sought out galleries displaying the work of other outsider artists. A psychologist, she quickly came to feel that these artists "bared their souls in their work, and since I find people fascinating I find their art tells me something about them-while revealing that it is the infinite number of ways of expressing the individual spirit that makes our culture so rich."
Fig. 3. Blanchard and Parsons with a Noah's Ark by William R. Jauquet (1945-), 1987, in Parsons's collection. Photograph by Robert Essel.