At the entrance to the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan there is a dedication to the contribution of Joyce Berger Cowin, the Museum’s board member, who recently pledged $2 million to ensure its future.
“I always knew that when the time came and the Museum needed an angel, I would step forward,” Mrs. Cowin said about her gift. “I never wanted our collection to go into storage, which is what may have happened if we were acquired by a larger institution.
For fifty years, visitors have enjoyed this small, admission-free museum. It was Mrs. Cowin who had championed the opening of a satellite Museum at 2 Lincoln Square, on Columbus Avenue near Lincoln Center, and today it is the American Folk Art Museum’s home. Here, thousands of people have attended changing exhibitions that elucidate the broad scope of folk art, which includes traditional American works, or the art of contemporary self taught masters from both the US and abroad or beautifully designed utilitarian objects such as intricate quilts and whimsical weathervanes.
Mrs. Cowin’s interest in American folk art came about as a result of a stroll through a street fair with her late husband some forty-five years ago. Her husband worked at Burnham & Company at the time, and one of his co-workers was manning a table with his wife. The Cowins felt they had to make a purchase. “There were several items on the table and this one box just jumped out at my husband,” she said. “It was very small but beautifully designed, and we bought it. That was the start of our interest in folk art.”
The box turned out to be tramp art. This style of wood carving flourished from the mid-1870s through the 1940s. It is characterized by ornate and layered whittling of objects such as cigar or fruit boxes, which are then embellished with notched or chip carved edges. It’s a vernacular folk art form that continues to intrigue collectors to this day.
Mrs. Cowin continued: “We started going to the Museum more often and eventually my husband was invited to join the Board. This was when Bob Bishop was the director.” When her husband died, Mrs. Cowin joined the Board in his place. She has been actively involved ever since and her passion for folk art is palpable.
So too is her passion for education, which is one of her highest priorities and an important component of her gift to the Museum. A graduate of Smith College, she attended Columbia University’s Teachers College and has served on its Board of Trustees for more than forty years. At the American Folk Art Museum, in addition to special tours for school children, the Museum also holds “Families & Folk Art” the first Saturday of each month, which includes interactive tours and art-making activities. A teen docent program teaches young people about the collection and hones their speaking skills. And “Make it Thursday” combines craft demonstrations with discussions by museum curators. One of Mrs. Cowin’s favorite American Folk Art Museum programs is “Guitar Afternoons,” which takes place every Wednesday from 2 to 3 p.m.
Mrs. Cowin is most enthusiastic about the Museum’s new Executive Director, Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, who stepped into the leadership role in September, 2012. “Anne is igniting everyone,” she said. “We’re on a yellow brick road because of her. That’s why it’s so inspirational for me to continue to be involved.”
Mrs. Cowin’s commitment to the Museum’s future has proved essential to helping it meet its mission of “getting the art out there,” both in its own exhibitions and its collaborations with other museums.
“We want to share our collection with other institutions because this brings recognition for the folk art tradition and highlights the work of self-taught artists as well,” she said. “Our works of art are on view in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And one of the most memorable exhibitions we organized was Red & White at the Armory, in 2011, the exhibition of Joanna Rose’s magnificent quilts, which was outstanding. People walked in and were completely astonished. It was absolutely mesmerizing.”
The Museum’s exhibition of works of art from its permanent collection, “Compass: Folk Art in Four Directions,” has been most recently on view at the South Street Seaport Museum (through February 3, 2013). Mrs. Cowin commented, “It received great acclaim and was very well-attended until Hurricane Sandy turned off the lights!”
Currently on view at the Museum is an exhibition of tinsel paintings – reverse paintings on glass that incorporate metal foil, which shimmers when seen by gas lamps or candlelight (the dominant forms of illumination in the 19th century, when these paintings were made). “Foiled: Tinsel Painting in America” is accompanied by an exhibition tracing the use of brilliant, shiny materials in many forms of folk art, traditional and outsider; both exhibitions close on January 13, 2013.
The Museum’s next exhibition, opening January 24, 2013, is “Artist & Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed,” which will run through May 26th. A portrait painter who was unique in that he made his work available to middle-class Americans including many African Americans, Prior was a versatile artist who was one of the first 19th century Americans to make art accessible.
An exhibition of works by Bill Traylor (1852-1948) opens on June 11 and will be on view through September 22. Traylor was from Montgomery, Alabama, and went from the life of a slave to a sharecropper during the Civil War. He was also a factory worker, and, for a time, a homeless man. A brilliant observer who recorded his memories of farm life in Alabama and his firsthand experience of the contemporary urban scene, Traylor’s paintings are among the museum’s most priceless treasures.
“Folk art has a special charm. It is easily understandable and appealing as opposed to contemporary art, which I find puzzling. Best of all, it is non-commercial. It wasn’t created to be sold, but rather to beautify homes, to be displayed and enjoyed,” she explained.
“They could’ve just used plain white bunting,” Mrs. Cowin continued, referring to textiles in the Museum’s collection. “But instead they arranged pieces of cloth, or scraps of worn clothing, and worked out the colors to create intricate patterns. And these quilts are now such an important aspect of American art.”
Open every day except for Monday, the American Folk Art Museum also has a fantastic gift shop with unique, handcrafted objects for the home, jewelry and other accessories, and toys. The shop was cited in the 2010 Zagat Survey as “a can’t miss for quirky, original, handmade gifts selected with a knowing eye.”
For further information about the museum, visit www.folkartmuseum.org.
Written by Mary Frances Duffy, e-mail: MFDuffy@connoisseur-magazine.com
Correspondent for Connoisseur Magazine
Captions and Photo Credits for American Folk Art Museum article:
1) Joyce Cowin, a member of the Board of Directors of the American Folk Art Museum, has pledged $2 million to the museum. (Photo Credit: Gavin Ashworth)
2) “Button Tree” by Gregory “Mr. Imagination” Warmack (1948-2012) features wood and cement with buttons, bottle caps, and nails. (Photo Credit: John Parnell, New York) Collection of the American Folk Art Museum
3) The tinsel painting “Watermelon with Knife” is from the late 19th century. The popular American fruit perfectly symbolized the theme of abundance. (Photo Credit: Gavin Ashworth)
4) “Nancy Lawson” by William Matthew Prior will be part of a show of the artist’s works that opens on January 24, 2013 at the Museum.(Photo courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum)