American Folk Art Museum

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 52 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned

I’m impressed by the sheer blackness of the Folk Art Museum’s gallery space, as designed for the Gabritschevsky show.  It’s super different from anywhere else I’ve seen art yet.

I have a problem with the idea of “folk art.” In my mind, it always translates as “art that’s just not very good.” The naive stuff, the outsider stuff, the untrained stuff, the stuff made by people not right in the head…always it feels to me like there’s some qualifier that attaches to the creator or the work that sets your expectations lower. And for me art is all about high expectations.  I know there’s a Museum of Bad Art, and that’s cool.  Badness can, if it’s bad enough, be instructive and entertaining. But I wouldn’t want to go to a museum of mediocre art.  So I’d never been to the Folk Art Museum.

The Folk Art Museum also has one of the sadder recent histories among the city’s cultural institutions.  The museum built itself a large and beautiful home down the block from the Museum of Modern Art back in 2001.  However, demand to see folk art is apparently far smaller than they figured, and they couldn’t pay back what they borrowed to build it.  So the museum sold its building to MoMA in 2011 and moved uptown to a much, much smaller space in the white marble monolith that houses the Church of the Latter Day Saints diagonally across from Lincoln Center.  MoMA has since controversially demolished the old building, which really was striking, to further its own relentless expansion.

This is particularly sad because the museum has a substantial collection, but nowhere to display it.  When I visited, all of the small yet cavernous space was devoted to work by two artists, both in the “not right in the head” category. 

Eugen Gabritschevsky was Russian born and well on his way to a promising career in the biological sciences, including postdoctorate work at Columbia, when in 1931 he was institutionalized in Germany.  Carlo Zinelli was born in Italy in 1916 and committed to a psychiatric hospital in Verona in 1947, where he lived the rest of his life, until 1974.  Aside from both being in mental institutions, the two men and their art had little in common that I could see.

I’m going to be looking at more art by institutionalized people when I go to the Living Museum, at some point in this project.  It often feels uncomfortable, like it’s exploitative, or like there’s so little basis for understanding what the artist was thinking that any interpretation on my part is presumptuous.

Gabritschevsky, Untitled, no date
Zinelli, Untitled, no date

But should you go to the Folk Art Museum?  They know what they’re doing.  The two exhibits were beautifully installed, they used iPads cleverly, wall texts were generally great, and I really liked the way they suspend frames via cables, so that they float in the air.  But I’m not sure the museum in its current incarnation is going to win any hearts and minds.  If you already have a deep love of folk art, you should go.  Everyone else can feel just fine skipping it.

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Address 2 Lincoln Square, Manhattan
Cost Free
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