Architecture Images-Upper East Side
American Folk Art Museum
|Tod Williams Billie Tsien & Associates|
|East 53rd Street|
|Late Modern (International Style III)|
|The façade of the 85-foot tall building is clad in sixty-three textured panels of a lustrous white bronze alloy known as Tombasil. The material—never before used architecturally—is faceted in three large planes that evoke the human hand and catch the light at different angles. A large skylight crowns a ceiling-to-floor open core, sending natural light through the entire height of the building.|
|Tombasil Panels on Facade|
The American Folk Art Museum is the leading center for the study and enjoyment of American folk art, as well as the work of international self-taught artists. It is located at 45 West 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, in Midtown Manhattan (New York City, USA).
The museum was founded on June 23, 1961, and opened its doors to the public for the first time on September 27, 1963, in the rented parlor floor of a townhouse at 49 West 53rd Street. In 1979, the museum purchased two townhouses adjacent to 49 West 53rd Street. While plans for a development of these properties were being devised, the institution continued to present its exhibitions in the rented gallery until 1984, when it opened facilities in a former carriage house at 125 West 55th Street. That building, however, was razed just two years later, leaving the museum without galleries of its own for almost four years. During that time, the institution continued to organize a full schedule of exhibitions and educational programs, utilizing public spaces and corporate galleries, and offered an extensive traveling exhibition program to museums throughout the country. In 1989, exhibition facilities at 2 Lincoln Square, opposite Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, were opened.
Diversity in programming became a growing emphasis for the institution in the 1990s. Major presentations of African American and Latino artworks became a regular feature of the museum's exhibition schedule and permanent collection. In 1998, the formation of the Contemporary Center was announced, a division of the museum that is devoted entirely to the work of twentieth- and twenty-first-century self-taught artists, as well as non-American artworks in the tradition of European art brut. Within a short time, the Contemporary Center established a leadership role in this field. In 2001, the Center announced the acquisition of twenty-four works by Chicago artist Henry Darger, as well as a huge archival collection of Darger’s books, tracings, drawings, and source materials, which combined now form the basis of the Henry Darger Study Center.
As the collection and the reputation of the museum continued to mature, so did the effort to develop a permanent home. It was determined that the museum would erect a 30,000-square-foot, eight-level structure on the 45 and 47 West 53rd Street lots, to be designed by the internationally recognized firm of Tod Williams & Billie Tsien. This building was inaugurated on December 11, 2001.
During the more than four decades of growth and development, the museum has enlarged its mission and extended the purview of its interests. Known initially as the Museum of Early American Folk Arts and concerned principally with the vernacular arts of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, especially of the Atlantic Northeast, the institution adopted a simpler but more inclusive name in 1966: the Museum of American Folk Art. As an expression of a further extension of mission, the institution chose its current name, American Folk Art Museum, in 2001. Recognizing that American folk art could be fully understood only in an international context, the word American functions as an indication of the museum's location, emphasis, and principal patronage rather than as a limitation on the kinds of art it collects, interprets, or presents.
In 2007, it was among over 530 New York City arts and social service institutions to receive part of a $20 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation, which was made possible through a donation by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Artworks and Exhibitions
The museum began to build a collection almost immediately after it was established. The now iconic Flag Gate (c. 1876) was its initial accession, in 1962, followed, a year later, by the Archangel Gabriel Weathervane (c. 1840) and the monumental St. Tammany Weathervane (c. 1890), now a centerpiece in the museum. The purchase, in 1979, of the famous Bird of Paradise Quilt Top (1858–1863) represented a turning point: The art of quiltmaking would become a major emphasis in the collection and public programs of the institution. Throughout the 1980s, the permanent collection continued to grow with major acquisitions of early American folk art, including Ammi Phillips’s masterpiece, Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog (1830–1835).
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, the institution was recognized for its lively exhibitions, many of which were pioneering in scope, including the wide-ranging and influential "Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists" in 1970, which explicitly took a broader view of the field than that originally articulated by the organization's founders. In this and other exhibitions, the museum argued against the notion that the creation of folk art was a thing of the past.
In anticipation of the completion of the new building in 2001, more than four hundred important works of early American folk art from the renowned collection of Ralph O. Esmerian were promised to the museum. These included a comprehensive collection of Pennsylvania German material, Shaker gift drawings, needlework samplers, and paintings by artists such as Edward Hicks and Sheldon Peck.
Recent exhibitions include:
"A Legacy in Quilts: Cyril Irwin Nelson's Final Gifts to the American Folk Art Museum" (2007–2008)
"Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel" (2007–2008)
"The Great Cover-up: American Rugs on Beds, Tables, and Floors" (2007)
"In the Atrium: Landscapes from the Collection" (2007)
"Martín Ramírez" (2007)
"A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr." (2006)
"Concrete Kingdom: Sculptures by Nek Chand" (2006)
“White on White (and a little gray)” (2006)
"Obsessive Drawing" (2005–2006)
"Surface Attraction: Painted Furniture from the Collection" (2005–2006)
"Ancestry and Innovation: African American Art from the Collection" (2005)
"Self and Subject" (2005)
"Darger-ism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger" (2008)
"Asa Ames" (2008)
The striking building now housing the American Folk Art Museum allows the institution to display more than five hundred artworks from its collection of more than five thousand objects.
The façade of the 85-foot tall building is clad in sixty-three textured panels of a lustrous white bronze alloy known as Tombasil. The material—never before used architecturally—is faceted in three large planes that evoke the human hand and catch the light at different angles. A large skylight crowns a ceiling-to-floor open core, sending natural light through the entire height of the building.
Intimate areas, reflecting the domestic scale of much of the museum's collection, allow for a personalized art experience. Open galleries feature spaces for the display of larger, more dramatic works. A unique cantilevered concrete stairway connects all levels of the building. Additional types of staircases not only provide varied paths of circulation between floors but also give visitors different visual experiences.
Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects have won numerous awards for the building—among others, an American Institute of Architects National Honor Award (in 2003); the World Architecture Awards for Best Building in the World, Best Public/Cultural Building in the World, and Best North American Building, as well as the New York City American Institute of Architects Design Award (all in 2003); and the Municipal Art Society New York City Masterwork Award (in 2001).
^ For more information about the history of the American Folk Art Museum, see Gerard C. Wertkin, "Foreword," in Stacy C. Hollander and Brooke Davis Anderson, American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (New York: American Folk Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001), pp. 10–13.
^ New York Times: City Groups Get Bloomberg Gift of $20 Million. Retrieved on September 3, 2007
^ See "A Selection of Awards," Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects official website.
Folk Art. Magazine published annually by the American Folk Art Museum.
Anderson, Brooke Davis. Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum. New York: American Folk Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.
Anderson, Brooke Davis. Martín Ramírez. Seattle: Marquand Books in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2007.
Hollander, Stacy C. American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum. New York: American Folk Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.
Hollander, Stacy C., and Brooke Davis Anderson. American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum. New York: American Folk Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.
Zimiles, Murray. Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel. With a foreword by Gerard C. Wertkin and an essay by Vivian B. Mann. Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press in association American Folk Art Museum, 2007.
American Folk Art Museum
Chartered as the Museum of Early American Folk Arts when it was founded
in 1961, the Museum originally focused on the vernacular arts of 18th
and 19th century America, especially of the northeast. The institution
adopted a more inclusive name – Museum of American Folk Art – in 1966.
Over the years, it established a national and international reputation
as a leading cultural institution dedicated to the collection,
exhibition, and study of traditional and contemporary American folk
art. As the American Folk Art Museum, it will present exhibitions and
programs that embrace an even wider range of folk art, both traditional
and contemporary, from the U.S. and abroad.
In anticipation of this major expansion and to underscore a spirit of
dynamic growth, the Museum is changing its name to American Folk Art
Museum. The new name emphasizes the American experience within a global
mission. The American Folk Art Museum’s Inaugural Season of
Exhibitions, launched with the opening of the new building, will
illustrate the Museum’s commitment to an expanded range of interests
from traditional folk art of the 18th and 19th centuries to the work of
contemporary self-taught artists from the U.S. and abroad.
“The name change marks the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in
the 40-year history of this institution as we eagerly await the
completion of the expansion,” said Gerard C. Wertkin, director of the
American Folk Art Museum. “The new name makes a subtle but significant
difference, reflecting our mission as America’s foremost institution
dedicated to promoting the knowledge and appreciation of folk art from
this country and abroad, past and present.”
The American Folk Art Museum’s increasingly broadened outlook has been
evident in a series of rotating exhibitions organized by the Museum
over the past several years, including exhibitions on the folk art of
Latin America, England, and Norway, among other countries and
continents. The Museum is currently presenting the work of 20th century
European and American self-taught artists who fit French artist Jean
Dubuffet’s definition of art brut. A number of paintings by artists
represented in the exhibition ABCD: A Collection of Art Brut have
already entered the Museum’s permanent collection.
At the Museum by Jason Wiggins
The American Folk Art Museum is small and can be somewhat hard to find.
The museum’s permanent exhibit has a diverse range of objects, quilts,
hunting decoys, portraits, decorative pottery and boxes, weathervanes
and religious objects, paintings and crucifixes; basically, artwork
that you most likely won’t find in other museums of American art.
There’s a lot of information explaining the history and importance of
the work, but even if you stop to read everything, you won’t end up
spending more than two hours here. The staff of the museum is
friendlier than those of a lot of other museums, making it a pleasure
About the New Building
The new building will quadruple the Museum’s gallery space for the
display of its expanded permanent collection and special exhibitions,
provide educational facilities, and consolidate the staff offices. Tod
Williams Billie Tsien and Associates’ first major public project in New
York City, the new facility will fulfill the Museum’s long-term goal of
establishing a permanent home for the study and appreciation of
American folk art and allow the Museum to display a substantial number
of artworks from its collection of 4,000 objects. It will also be home
to the Museum’s Contemporary Center, dedicated to the study and
appreciation of the work of contemporary self-taught artists. The
Museum will continue operating its current gallery space, the Eva and
Morris Feld Gallery at Lincoln Square, as a branch museum, ensuring a
significant presence in two of New York’s most important cultural
districts—the Lincoln Center area and midtown Manhattan, near the
Museum of Modern Art, the American Craft Museum, and the Museum of
Television & Radio.
Clad in sixty-three lightly textured tombasil panels, a white bronze
alloy, the eight-level, 85-feet tall structure will be capped by a
skylight above a grand interior stair connecting the third and the
fourth floor, with dramatic cut-throughs at each floor to allow natural
light to filter into the galleries and through to the lower levels. The
lustrous, sculptural facade is the product of a manual fabrication
process evocative of the hands-oriented approach characteristic of folk
art—its panels are cast by pouring molten metal directly into gated
forms on the concrete floor of the foundry. The faceted panels, which
appear stonelike and metallic at the same time, will create different
visual effects catching the light of the sun as it rises and sets, east
and west along 53rd Street. The galleries on the four top floors of the
building will vary in scale from intimate spaces to open areas to allow
for a personalized art experience and the display of larger works. Art
will also be integrated into public spaces, such as the lobby,
stairwells, and hallways, utilizing a system of niches throughout the
building that offers interaction with a changing group of folk art
objects beyond the gallery setting. Visitors will be able to move
between building levels by using three different staircases – a layout
that encourages multiple paths of circulation and gives the visitor the
feeling of an architectural journey. Adding a sense of warmth to the
building, the gallery floors will be made of wood set into concrete.
Seven of the eight levels of the new building will be entirely
dedicated to public space. The mezzanine level will house a small
coffee bar overlooking a two-story atrium and offering views of 53rd
Street. At the entrance level will be the Museum Shop, with access
during non-Museum hours via a separate exit to the street. The museum
offices, reference library, and educational areas, including an
auditorium and classrooms, will be located on two levels below ground.
The $34.5 million Capital Campaign to fund the expansion project and
boost the Museum’s endowment has been spearheaded by Ralph Esmerian,
Chairman of the Board, and Lucy Cullman Danziger, Campaign Chair and
Board Executive Vice-President, under the presidency of John Wilkerson.
To date, the Museum has successfully raised $31 million from private,
public, and foundation sources, including $2.5 million appropriated by
The City of New York and $500,000 by the State of New York in support
of the new building.
After many years of planning, the museum is opening a magnificent new
building at 45 West 53rd Street in Manhattan; at the same time, the
organization is seeing the most significant additions to its permanent
collection in the forty years since its founding. As a result, it
seemed appropriate for me to take a broad, backward look at the
institution as it embraces the long-awaited realization of the very
goals that sparked its establishment. I do not intend this essay to be
a history of the museum, but rather a review of some of the highlights
of a fascinating forty-year story of commitment and courage. Founding
Trustee Adele Earnest contributed her “History of the Museum,
1961-1978” to the midsummer 1978 issue of The Clarion (now Folk Art
magazine). In the winter 1989 issue, Alice J. Hoffman—now the museum’s
director of licensing—published her comprehensive study, “The History
of the Museum of American Folk Art: An Illustrated Timeline.” Both of
these resources remain valuable introductions to the museum, and I am
happy to acknowledge my reliance upon them in the preparation of this
The First Decade, 1961-1971
The museum’s first decade was a time of multiple beginnings, as its
founders—Adele Earnest, Cordelia Hamilton, Herbert W. Hemphill Jr.,
Joseph B. Martinson, Marian Willard Johnson, and Arthur M.
Bullowa—sought to give shape and structure to a shared vision. For
them, folk art was a vital element in American cultural history, and it
warranted the establishment of an institution in the city of New York
devoted to its collection, exhibition, and interpretation.
When the Board of Regents of the New York State Education Department
granted a provisional charter on June 23, 1961, the prospects for
acquiring a home or a collection for the Museum of Early American Folk
Arts, as the new organization was initially called, were uncertain at
best. The choice of New York City, then acknowledged as the art capital
of the world, was significant in itself. The very idea that folk art
could be studied and appreciated as art, rather than as material
culture or historical or ethnographic artifact, was a by-product of the
growth of modernism as a movement in the history of American culture.
The museum began to build a collection almost immediately after it was
established. Hemphill presented the now famous Flag Gate (c. 1876) as a
gift in 1962. The museum’s initial accession, this piece remains among
the most celebrated works of art in the permanent collection. Adele
Earnest contributed the Archangel Gabriel weathervane (c. 1840) the
following year. Featured as the cover image on the catalog of the
institution’s first exhibition, which was on view in the gallery of the
Time and Life Building in October and November of 1962, the weathervane
served as a well-loved symbol of the museum for many years.
During its first decade, other gifts also came to the museum, along
with one major purchase: the monumental, 9-foot-tall St. Tammany
weathervane (c. 1880), perhaps the country’s largest. With a handful of
exceptions, the institution’s earliest acquisitions were
three-dimensional objects. The museum soon established a reputation for
the visual strength and aesthetic importance of sculpture in its
permanent collection, a reputation that was enhanced in 1969 by
Alastair B. Martin’s gift of 140 outstanding wildfowl decoys. Its other
holdings were, relatively speaking, minor.
The museum opened its galleries to the public for the first time on
September 27, 1963, in the rented parlor floor of a town house at 49
West 53rd Street. George Montgomery, who had organized traveling
exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art, was appointed the museum’s
first director in 1963, a post he held only until 1964. For the most
part, the institution’s approach to the collection and exhibition of
American folk art was grounded in the fine arts, following—but
extending—the model of curator Holger Cahill, whose groundbreaking
exhibitions at the Newark Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in the
1920s and 1930s helped establish the field. The exhibition program of
the first decade was ambitious. Although the museum’s emphasis, as
might be expected, was on the nineteenth century and the Northeast, the
institution staked out a national and even international purview for
itself almost from the beginning.
Although it consistently received excellent reviews for its
exhibitions, many of which were truly pioneering in scope, subject
matter, and scholarship, the institution’s goal of financial stability
remained elusive. Even so, the museum continued to present provocative
and engaging exhibitions.
The new museum established a reputation for its innovative programming
and fidelity to mission. Its success in fulfilling its objectives was
recognized by the Board of Regents in 1966, when it awarded a permanent
charter to the institution under the name Museum of American Folk Art.
Nevertheless, the decade ended in doubt and even despair. Due to
financial difficulties, the Board of Trustees considered closing the
institution’s doors forever in 1971.
The Second Decade, 1971-1981
If there were few reasons to celebrate the beginning of the museum’s
second decade, there were at least several reasons for encouragement. A
grant from the National Endowment for the Arts funded a series of
exhibitions that helped sustain the museum’s reputation as an innovator
and drew more visitors than any of the exhibitions held during the
institution’s first decade. The museum also received a grant from the
New York State Council on the Arts; this funded the planning and
organization of a series of Bicentennial exhibitions on the folk arts
of New York State.
Wallace E. Whipple, director from 1971 to 1972, explained that the many
encouraging developments masked a more serious reality, and the
financial strain on the institution was intense. Consideration was
given to the sale of the museum’s collection at auction. This was a
controversial proposal; ultimately, the museum retained ownership of
the most important works of art in its collection. The brief but
brilliant directorship of Bruce Johnson (1975-1976) helped bring a
renewed sense of purpose to the organization. Shows presented during
his tenure broke all attendance records. The museum also produced a
series of illustrated catalogs and books during this period. The
momentum that Johnson inspired continued beyond his tragic death in a
motorcycle accident at the age of twenty-seven.
One of the museum’s new trustees of that time was Ralph Esmerian, a
young collector whose name appears in museum records for the first time
in 1973. Esmerian entered an uncertain institutional environment with
the conviction that the institution not only would survive but, if
properly nurtured, would build a national center in New York for the
study and appreciation of American folk art. He served as treasurer
until 1977, as president from 1977 to 1999; since 1999, he has served
In 1977, the museum’s Board of Trustees appointed Robert Bishop
director. Bishop was a talented promoter who took a broad, inclusive
view of folk art. A prodigious author in the fields of the American
folk and decorative arts, Bishop placed great emphasis on the museum’s
publication program. The summer 1977 issue of The Clarion was no longer
a newsletter; in addition to providing a glimpse of the museum and its
programming, it featured topical essays on a variety of aspects of
American folk art. It would soon be recognized as an important resource
for the study of the subject and help boost membership in the museum.
In order to encourage gifts to the museum, Bishop set an example by
promising works of art from his own collection. In 1978, one year after
he arrived at the museum, Bishop boldly published “A Guide to the
Permanent Collection” in the midsummer issue of The Clarion. Many of
the objects illustrated in the article were his own promised gifts;
others were the gifts or promised gifts of his friends and associates,
including Trustee Cyril I. Nelson. For the first time since its
founding, the museum now held a collection of quilts and other
textiles, and this collection would soon become one of its greatest
strengths. Also, the collection now included paintings and sculpture by
twentieth-century self-taught artists. Another successful initiative of
Bishop’s early years was the establishment of the museum’s volunteer
docent program in 1978. Lucy Cullman Danziger, now executive vice
president of the museum’s Board of Trustees and chair of its Capital
Campaign, initially served as a founding docent and as docent co-chair.
In 1979, several trustees came together to purchase the famous Bird of
Paradise Quilt Top (c. 1860) for the museum. Another major acquisition
was David Pottinger’s gift in late 1980 of his comprehensive collection
of midwestern Amish quilts. During the same year, the Museum received
Effie Thixton Arthur’s bequest of her large collection of chalkware
figures. Most celebrated of the accessions during this period was a
highly significant promised gift, the collection of figural sculpture
assembled over many years by Dorothea and Leo Rabkin. Although it still
had a long way to go, the museum was clearly building a permanent
collection of true substance and depth.
Because of the inadequate size and facilities of its rented gallery,
the museum sought to move into a home of its own almost from its
earliest days as an institution. In 1979—through an introduction from
Maureen Taylor, a trustee of the museum, and her husband, Richard, a
former trustee, and the interest of Blanchette Rockefeller—the museum
was able to purchase from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund two adjoining
town houses at 45-47 West 53rd Street, formerly a residence for
actresses called the Rehearsal Club. This purchase would prove to be
one of the single most significant events in the history of the
Although the buildings were in poor condition and thus could not be
used, they provided the basis for future development. Through the
generosity of Ralph Esmerian, the principal contributor of funds toward
this purchase, and other thoughtful members of the Board, the museum
could now look forward to a home of its own. If the second decade began
in doubt and uncertainty, it ended on a very high note, indeed.
The Third Decade, 1981-1991
When I joined the staff of the museum as assistant director in late
1980, it became clear that the building project was the principal order
of the day. The museum began to devise plans for development on West
53rd Street—an effort that dominated its third decade. These plans were
complicated by a series of zoning, tenant, and legal issues that
absorbed the time and attention of the museum’s board and
administration. To be sure, the museum continued to organize a full and
varied schedule of exhibitions and educational programs. In 1981 the
museum established a graduate program in folk art studies in
conjunction with New York University, the first of its kind in the
nation. The Folk Art Institute, an accredited program leading to a
certificate in folk art studies, was initiated in 1985. The decade also
witnessed impressive growth in the permanent collection, but the
development of the museum’s future home took precedence over everything
The museum presented its exhibitions at 49 West 53rd Street until 1984,
when it opened handsome new facilities nearby in a former jazz museum
and Rockefeller carriage house at 125 West 55th Street. This was a
temporary move, an optimistic response to affirmative developments in
the building program, intended in part to permit the properties on 53rd
Street to be prepared for demolition. Under the terms of the lease
covering the 55th Street galleries, the museum was required to vacate
in 1986 (the building was subsequently razed).
Without galleries of its own for almost four years, the institution
organized a remarkable series of exhibitions and educational programs
by utilizing public spaces and corporate galleries and forming
partnerships with other museums. In addition, the museum strengthened
and extended its traveling exhibition program to institutions
throughout the country. As of the end of the museum’s fourth decade,
its exhibitions have been presented in no fewer than 150 museums and
other venues in the United States and abroad, representing both a major
public service and a professional affirmation of the merit of the
While negotiations on the future of the museum’s properties on 53rd
Street continued, the museum undertook the creation of branch
exhibition facilities at Two Lincoln Square in Manhattan, on the ground
floor of a multi-use building opposite Lincoln Center for the
Performing Arts. Occupied under a tripartite agreement with the owner
of the premises and the City of New York, this former “public arcade”
provided more expansive exhibition space than either of the
institution’s prior galleries. It opened to great fanfare in 1989.
Named for the renovation’s principal contributor and her late husband,
the Eva and Morris Feld Gallery at Lincoln Square has supported a
broad-based public program since it was opened twelve years ago.
Back in 1980, Bishop and I began a series of talks with Jean and Howard
Lipman for the purchase of their collection of American folk art. As a
result, the museum accessioned thirty-nine key works and sold the
remainder at auction to fund the purchase. Among other significant
accessions during the museum’s third decade, Elizabeth Ross Johnson
contributed a group of twentieth-century paintings and sculpture in
1985. The same year, Animal Carnival, Inc., through Trustee Elizabeth
Wecter, transferred a collection of animal sculptures. Martin and Enid
Packer’s collection of tenth-anniversary tin arrived in 1988, and in
1989 Margot Paul Ernst gave her woven coverlet collection in memory of
Susan B. Ernst. That same year, an encyclopedic gathering of painted
tinware and other objects, the gift of the Historical Society of Early
American Decoration, also came to the institution.
The expected development of a multi-use building on six lots—upon which
so much energy was expended during the decade—did not occur. The
project had to be scuttled. That fact, and Robert Bishop’s increasingly
serious illness, cast a shadow over the end of the museum’s third
decade. The museum’s thirtieth anniversary passed with little notice.
The Fourth Decade, 1991-2001
Robert Bishop died on September 22, 1991, and was deeply mourned by a
wide circle of friends and professional associates. After serving as
acting director during Bishop’s illness, I was appointed director of
the museum in December of that year. My goals as director included a
renewed focus on the building program, greater diversity in exhibitions
and collections, more sustained use of the permanent collection, and a
concentration on new scholarship. The board, the staff, and I entered a
period of long-range planning and self-study to help prepare for the
realization of these objectives.
Over the course of the first thirty years of its history, the museum’s
programming was remarkably diverse—indeed, by its very nature the folk
art field is multicultural—but diversity became even more of an
emphasis in the 1990s. Major presentations of works by African American
and Latino artists became a regular feature of the museum’s exhibition
schedule and permanent collection. In 1991, a grant from the National
Endowment for the Arts funded the purchase of an important collection
of contemporary African American quilts.
In 1993 the museum rededicated the south wing of the Eva and Morris
Feld Gallery at Lincoln Square as the Daniel Cowin Permanent Collection
Gallery, so named in memory of a deeply respected trustee. In 1998 I
announced the formation of The Contemporary Center, a division of the
institution devoted entirely to the collection and exhibition of the
paintings, sculpture, and installations of twentieth- and now
twenty-first century self-taught artists. Its establishment prompted
the gifts to the museum of important works by twentieth-century
self-taught artists from M. Anne Hill and Edward Vermont Blanchard, Sam
and Betsey Farber, and David Davies. In 2001, The Contemporary Center
announced the acquisition, by purchase and by gift, of twenty-four
works by the great Chicago artist Henry Darger, as well as a huge
archive of Darger’s manuscript books, tracings, drawings, and source
Although the Eva and Morris Feld Gallery greatly improved its capacity
to serve the public in the 1990s, the museum persisted in its efforts
to create a permanent home and determined to develop a new building on
the lots at 45 and 47 West 53rd Street. The museum’s trustees
commissioned the internationally recognized architectural team of Tod
Williams Billie Tsien and Associates to design a 30,000-square-foot
structure on the two lots, and they announced the commencement of a
$34.5 million Capital Campaign to underwrite the costs of construction
and the establishment of an endowment.
Known initially as the Museum of Early American Folk Arts, the
institution adopted a more inclusive name in 1966; as the Museum of
American Folk Art, it established a reputation for examining virtually
every aspect of the folk arts in America. The museum has now chosen its
new name, the American Folk Art Museum, as an expression of a further
extension of mission.
In anticipation of the opening of the museum’s new home, many
thoughtful donors have given or promised highly important objects in
virtually every medium for the permanent collection. Indeed, the growth
of the permanent collection has been a striking feature of the 1990s.
The most significant gift comprises more than four hundred works of art
representing the heart of Ralph Esmerian’s folk art collection.
Founding trustee Adele Earnest struck a millennial note seventeen years
ago in the concluding paragraph of her book Folk Art in America.
Although she herself did not live to see the realization of her dream,
she fully anticipated its fulfillment. “When I climb the hill near my
home in Stony Point,” she wrote, “I will look straight down the Hudson
River, thirty miles to New York City where our [museum] shall stand. On
that triumphant day, our Angel Gabriel will blow his horn, loud and
clear, in honor of all who have served our cause, and especially for
those who have served and passed through the pearly gates. Blow!
Excerpts from an essay published in Folk Art (summer 2001, vol. 26, no.
2), the museum’s quarterly magazine.
The American Folk Art Museum is pleased to announce that its building
at 45 West 53 Street, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects,
continues to receive awards for its magnificent design. Most recent
honors include the American Institute of Architects National Honor
Award and the NYACE Engineering Excellence Award, both of which were
received in 2003. The American Folk Art Museum was awarded the
prestigious Arup World Architecture Award, a top international prize,
for "Best New Building in the World for 2001." The Museum was chosen
among 300 international projects completed during 2001. Entries came
from 45 countries, and included a wide range of types and sizes of
buildings–from some of the world’s best-known architectural firms to
small one-person practices. New York City-based architects Tod Williams
and Billie Tsien joyously accepted the $30,000 award for their design
at a ceremony in Berlin on Friday evening, July 26, 2002.
The American Folk Art Museum also won the award for "Best North
American Building" and "Best Cultural Building in the World." The
Awards are organized by World Architecture Magazine and were judged by
a panel of leading architectural experts, drawn from all around the
world. “All of us at the museum are delighted that Tod Williams and
Billie Tsien have received this important professional recognition for
a design that captures the very essence of creativity which forms the
core of the museum’s mission,” said Gerard C. Wertkin, director of the
American Folk Art Museum. “Their magnificent new building provides a
perfect setting for the museum to present the great works of art that
comprise our collection.”
The American Folk Art Museum opened December 11, 2001 to great critical
and public acclaim. Coinciding with the three-month anniversary of the
terror attacks on the World Trade Center, the unveiling of the new
building represented progress, growth, and renewal during a city-wide
effort to revitalize New York’s cultural, social and economic life. It
is the first new art museum built from the ground up since the Whitney
Museum of American Art opened in 1966. “This may not be a big
building—by American standards—but it is a magnificent one. The design
is a very interesting response to New York, where building are usually
so glassy. Here there is a real weightiness; it suggests a different
take on contemporary architecture,” noted Naomi Stungo, the editor of
World Architecture magazine who presented the award.
About the Building
The 30,000 square foot building is clad in sixty-three lightly textured
tombasil panels (a white bronze alloy). An eight-level, 85-foot tall
structure, it is capped by a skylight above a grand interior stair
connecting the third and the fourth floors, with dramatic cut-throughs
at each floor to allow natural light to filter into the galleries and
through to the lower levels. The lustrous, sculptural facade is the
product of a manual fabrication process evocative of the hands-oriented
approach characteristic of folk art – its panels are cast by pouring
molten metal directly into gated forms on the concrete floor of the
foundry. The faceted panels, which appear stonelike and metallic at the
same time, create different visual effects catching the light of the
sun as it rises and sets, east and west along 53rd Street. The
galleries on the four top floors of the building vary in scale from
intimate spaces to allow for a personalized art experience to open
areas for the display of larger works. Art is also integrated into
public spaces, such as the lobby, stairwells, and hallways, utilizing a
system of niches throughout the building that offers interaction with a
changing group of folk art objects beyond the gallery setting. Visitors
are able to move between building levels by using three different
staircases – a layout that encourages multiple paths of circulation and
gives the visitor the feeling of an architectural journey. Adding a
sense of warmth to the building, the gallery floors are made of wood
set into concrete. Seven of the eight levels of the new building are
entirely dedicated to public space. The mezzanine level houses a café
overlooking a two-story atrium and offering views of 53rd Street. At
the entrance level is the Museum Shop, with access during non-museum
hours via a separate exit to the street. The museum offices, reference
library, rare book room, and educational areas, including the
auditorium and classrooms, are located on two levels below ground.
In the words of architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the following
statement documents what it takes to “build a museum” from vision to
This new eight-level building devotes the four upper floors to gallery
space for permanent and temporary exhibitions. A skylight above a grand
interior stair allows natural light to filter into the galleries and to
the lower levels through openings at each floor. As a result, dramatic
interior spaces are animated by a wash of light, enhancing the
experience of the visitor.
Art has been built into the structure and circulation paths of the
building using a series of niches that offer informal interaction with
a changing selection of folk art. The experience of the museum visitor
is conceived as a personal journey composed of surprise encounters with
both new and familiar objects through the use of diverse paths. The
museum’s collections and exhibitions are presented through traditional
and non-traditional display spaces, creating a memorable environment
for frequent as well as first-time visitors.
At the mezzanine level, a small café overlooking 53rd Street provides a
dramatic view of the two-story atrium. The building extends two levels
underground; one floor holds the new auditorium and classroom
facilities, while the lowest level houses administrative offices and
the library. At the street level is a new museum store accessible
during non-museum hours via a separate entrance.
This forty-foot-wide building is surrounded on the front and back sides
by sites owned by the Museum of Modern Art. The facade of the American
Folk Art Museum is designed to make a strong but quiet statement of
independence. It is sculptural in form, recalling an abstracted open
hand that folds slightly inward to create a faceted plane. Metal panels
of tombasil, a form of white bronze, clad the building. Spaces between
each panel reveal the darkened wall of the weather barrier behind.
These panels catch the glow of the morning and early evening sun as it
rises and sets, east and west along 53rd Street.
When first asked what the facade of the museum might be, our rather
facetious response was that it might be made of old bubble gum. The
second impulse was to consider tilt-up concrete panels cast on the
vacant lot next door to our site. One could imagine the layers of urban
archeology that could be uncovered and incorporated into the facade of
the building. Obviously, both these ideas were not realistic, but they
revealed our desire to clad the building in a material that was both
common and amazing, and that would show a connection with the handmade
quality of folk art. We wanted the building to reflect the direct
connection between heart and hand.
We decided to look for a material that had a warmer color. Tombasil is
a commercially produced white bronze alloy used for boat propellers,
fire hose nozzles, and grave markers (hence its name). It has a warm
yet silvery quality that we liked. We were interested in the direct
fabrication technique; one that revealed how the panels were made.
Samples were made at first by pouring the material directly onto the
concrete floor of the foundry. We also tried pouring tombasil onto
steel plates for a smoother finish. Although the results were
interesting, they were also uncontrollable. The intense heat of the
molten metal caused water entrapped in the concrete to explode; the
results were interesting pockmarks but dangerous working conditions.
The heat also caused the steel plates to warp and buckle. Working with
the Tallix foundry in Beacon, New York, we eventually developed a more
controlled situation using sand molds taken from concrete and steel.
We previously used fiberglass in an installation of screens that we had
designed. We very much liked the translucency and its “low tech”
quality. Originally, we wanted to use a screen wall of fiberglass to
shield the primary staircase. The screen would create silhouettes of
people walking up and down the stairs. We wanted the screen to be blue.
However, since it was a permanent part of the building, the fiberglass
needed to be fireproofed, a process that would have produced a murky
brown tone. The samples show how the color changed as we worked with
the fabricator to produce what eventually became the blue-green panels.
This stone comes from a small quarry north of Venice. The stone occurs
as large boulders that are dug out of the earth and cut into more
standard rectangular blocks. In northern Italy pietra piesentina is
used for paving as well as for exteriors and interiors. In the museum,
it is used on the floors and walls of the lower, ground, and mezzanine
levels in a flamed or roughened finish. The stone’s warm gray tone
complements the concrete used throughout the building and creates a
contrast to the cool blue-green tone of the fiberglass.
The materials of the museum are a balance of warm and cool. To counter
the coolness of the concrete and glass, many elements throughout the
museum are made of Douglas fir, which has a warm reddish hue. Solid,
full-length fir planks are set into terrazzo ground concrete in the
gallery spaces. Solid wood rails run along the glass handrails. This
same wood is also used in a woven manner as a balustrade wall
separating the café (on the mezzanine level) from the ground level of
the museum. It also appears as a series of fins along the wall of the
Laminated Insulated Glass
An extremely clear glass, Starfire, manufactured by Pittsburgh Plate
Glass, was chosen for the windows. Glass usually has a green tint to
it, which causes both light entering the building and views out of the
building to have a greenish quality. To keep views of the city true to
their color, this special transparent glass was used.
The concrete throughout the museum has been finished using different
techniques; although the material stays the same, it varies in color
and finish. The slabs throughout the building are terrazzo ground to
produce a smooth finish that reveals the stone aggregate. The
poured–in–place concrete walls are bush hammered. This technique
involves using a jackhammer over the surface, which creates a rough but
Cold Rolled Steel
The handrails along the main stair, which runs from the top to the
bottom of the gallery spaces, are fabricated from blued cold rolled
steel. We chose the steel because it is both humble and elegant.
Terne-Coated Stainless Steel
The exterior of the north facade of the building is finished with thin
sheets of steel. They are used in an overlapping manner, rather like
enlarged shingles, to create both depth and texture.
Heath Tile Terra Cotta Hand-Glazed Tile
The Heath Company started as an art ceramics studio in Sausalito,
California, fifty years ago. The entry and the interior walls of the
bathrooms are finished using their white tile. Each tile is hand
glazed, which causes variations in the final color.
Benches in the gallery and tables in the library are custom made by
cabinetmaker Steven Lino from cherry wood. Cherry is similar in color
to the Douglas fir, but it is a deeper red and a harder wood.
The work of Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates bridges different
worlds - across theory and practice; across architecture and the fine
arts. Williams had a seasoned foundation in the practice of
architecture with over six years as an associate in the office of
Richard Meier before starting his own practice in 1974. Tsien brings to
architecture a background in the Fine Arts and a keen interest in
crossing disciplinary boundaries.
Both architects maintain active teaching careers parallel to their
practice. Tsien has taught at Parsons School of Design, SCI-ARC,
Harvard, Yale, and UT Austin. Williams has taught at the Cooper Union,
SCI-ARC, Harvard, Yale, and UT Austin and held the Thomas Jefferson
chair at the University of Virginia in 1990. They shared the Jane and
Bruce Graham chair at Penn in 1998. Billie Tsien is on the boards of
the Architectural League, the Public Art Fund, and is a vice president
of the Municipal Art Society in New York City. Tod Williams is on the
advisory board of the School of Architecture at Princeton.
Among several awards the American Folk Art
Museum was selected "Best New Building in the World for 2001" and in
October, 2002 the building was awarded the prestigious Brendan Gill
Prize by the Municipal Art Society of New York.
Area: 30,000 square feet
Client: The American Folk Art Museum ( www.folkartmuseum.org )
Architects: Tod Williams Billie Tsien, Architects
Project Architect: Matthew Baird
Associate Architect: Helfand Myerberg Guggenheimer Architects
Director: Gerard C. Wertkin
Deputy Director: Riccardo Salmona
Project Manager: Seamus Henchy & Associates
General Contractor: Pavarini Construction
Acoustical Consultant: Acoustic Dimensions
Structural Engineers: Severud Associates
Mechanical Engineers: Ambrosino, DePinto & Schmeider
Curtainwall Consultant: Gregory Romine
Lighting Design: Renfro Design Group
Exhibition Design: Ralph Appelbaum and Associates
Graphic Design: Pentagram
Bronze Panel Foundry Tallix
Concrete Consultant: Reginald Hough FAIA
With thanks to www.arcspace.com for construction notes. Full article at;