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‘A Kind of Archeology’: Folk objects as collectible art
An interesting research-based book that peeps into the glorious past of American folk art, also explores some of its negative aspects.

On the one hand, it takes us through the wonderful world of folk-art collectors who had the vision to see the hidden beauty and value of the fascinating folk-art portraits, carvings and weathervanes, hitherto relegated by mainstream America to barns, dustbins and attics. On the other hand, it rekindles debate over the apparently ‘seamy underbelly’ of the process of folk-art collecting, as The New York Times columnist Eve M. Kahn, testifies to the ‘Carousel of misbehavior in the folk art world, wherein owners have somewhat muddied the attributions of works over the past century or so; added irrelevant flourishes to those quaint, old woodcarvings, and inadvertently let paint spatters gather on carelessly stored canvases.

Providing a backgrounder to ‘A Kind of Archeology: Collecting American Folk Art, 1876-1976’ (Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press; October, 2011; 464 pages; Price: $ 65), an accompanying note elaborates: “It begins by examining the evolution of the concept of folk art, relating it to 19th- and early 20th-century movements like romanticism, nationalism, arts and crafts, and colonial revivalism. Four sections follow, each presenting a category of collector-antiquarian and ethnologist, modernist, decorator and aesthete, and patriot and nationalist-and offering portraits of individual collectors and dealers.”

The subject of her classic study, ‘The Antiquers’, were chiefly white, professional, male collectors of traditional decorative arts such as furniture and silver. At other end of the spectrum were the earliest folk art collectors, mainly a bohemian crowd. The pool was made up of artists, immigrants and outsiders, drawn to folk art not by its apparent prestige value but by its sheer artistic, instructive as well as ethnological significance. Although pioneer collectors sought out and preserved objects that are today regarded as icons, little has been known of their motivations, aesthetics, or display techniques.

In a foreword to the book, Barbara Luck notes: “American folk art has been studied exhaustively from the standpoint of the objects themselves, but Elizabeth Stillinger’s long-awaited book is the first to take a comprehensive look at the material’s earliest collectors and their motivations. . . . The clarity of Stillinger’s writing makes her extraordinary intellectual synthesis not only accessible but appealing to laymen and scholars alike."

In fact, going beyond merely encapsulating the timeline of collection and collectors, the art historian has painstakingly pinpointed the fallacies of certain culture culprits in her detailed documentation, based on an extensive research for over decade and a half. For this, she pored through museum and several family archives. She writes how the painter Fred Dana Marsh and his wife took liberties with carousel horses, which would flabbergast a present-day collector.

The Marshes (their homes in Maine, Florida & upstate New York) carved wooden tails and manes to replace lost horsehair fringe, and added glass jewels to reins and saddles. In the 1960s, when the two gave those animals to the Smithsonian Institution, curators discovered the misguided, drastic alterations. As a consequence most of the collection has been in storage for many years,” the author mentions.

Col. Edgar Garbisch and his wife would practically buy a painting a day in the 1940s. But the couple maintained little precious data about their provenances and artists. There’s no evidence they were really concerned about any kind of research or careful documentation. Ultimately, their collection ended up loosely scattered as museum gifts, leaving experts to ponder over its sources and origin.

It was possible for Ms. Stillinger to report on owners’ misdeeds, intentional or otherwise since ‘a majority of them are no more alive,’ she stated in a recent interview, adding, ‘you only hope you will not offend their descendants.’ The author also notes of museum administrators’ bad behavior. The American Folk Art Museum was so haphazardly managed in the mid-1970s that the institution had to pay off a pile of debts by disposing large part of its permanent collection. Officials had relied on financing from a private businessman and its founder Burt Martinson. But he passed away in 1970. Incidentally, the museum this year fell into debt pit again. Its collection escaped dispersal, only just. Funds had been flowing from Ralph Esmerian, a jewelry merchant serving prison time for fraud.

The book closes with the exhibition ‘The Flowering of American Folk Art, 1776–1876’, which opened in 1974. The show was so successful that prices shot skyward, and folk objects, after a century of being disregarded, misunderstood, then championed by a few enthusiasts and gradually accepted in a small segment of the art world, did ultimately enter the finicky realm of highly desirable and collectible art.