by Ann Oppenhimer
On December 11, 2001, the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) opened in its sparkling new metal-clad building on West 53rd Street in New York City. This was the apogee, the apex, the culmination of a dream – FOLK ART had arrived and taken its place beside the big boys next door at the Museum of Modern Art. At last, FOLK ART was on the map!
Folk Art Messenger [Fall/Winter 2001-02]  covered this event with Tony Rajer’s three-page story describing the celebration of the new 30,000 square-foot-building and Board of Trustees Chairman Ralph Esmerian’s gift of more than 400 pieces from his legendary collection. American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum, a lavish 571-page catalogue weighing nearly six pounds, was published for this occasion, illustrating the extent and importance of this treasure trove of objects
Seven years later, in April 2008, both investment firm Merrill-Lynch and Sotheby’s auction house repossessed a portion of Esmerian’s “gift,” much of which turned out to be merely “a promised gift” used by Esmerian as collateral for a loan he subsequently was unable to repay. Sotheby’s took the paintings, including the prized Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, from the walls of the Folk Art Museum, and at that low point, the dream became a nightmare. On November 22, 2010, jeweler Esmerian was arrested for an alleged $217 million bankruptcy fraud and was led off in “stainless-steel bracelets,” according to ABC News. Out on $3.5 million bail, he pled guilty and awaits sentencing. It needs to be pointed out, however, that Esmerian, while chairman of the board, was a generous and caring patron of the Folk Art Museum who donated time, money and such important art works as Ammi Phillips’ Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, one of the signature pieces in the museum’s collection.
As more information hit the newsstands, it was learned that interest (not to mention the principal) on the museum’s $32 million loan had been going unpaid. The museum’s magazine, Folk Art, ceased publication in 2008. Staff positions were cut. Brooke Anderson, popular director and curator of the museum’s Contemporary Center, left to take a job as deputy director for curatorial planning at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The AFAM would no longer sponsor the Outsider Art Fair. Then, on May 3, after six years in the position, the museum’s Executive Director Maria Ann Conelli submitted her resignation, “to return to academia,” effective in July.
A final bomb fell on May 10, with the announcement that the museum building had been sold to the Museum of Modern Art for $31.2 million. The Folk Art Museum now will return to its much smaller (5,000 square feet) branch at 2 Lincoln Square, Columbus Avenue, for which it pays $1 per year rent.
Speculation was rampant. It seemed that every media outlet chimed in with a version of the story in blow-by-blow detail. Was the AFAM’s building to blame? There were pros and cons. New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz said the building was too small from the beginning, with a formidable exterior and not enough space inside to get back and view the art. Architectural critic Justin Davidson, also in New York magazine, praised the award-winning architecture of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and said they did the best they could with the narrow lot they were assigned.
It seems apparent in retrospect that a much too ambitious project was undertaken before the money was raised. Is there a parallel here with AFAM Chairman Esmerian’s business over-extensions? Admissions and contributions never achieved expectations. The economic downturn and recession didn’t help. For years, there were signs of trouble brewing, but hope remained that a financial miracle – or a deep-pocketed donor – would materialize. Unfortunately, this was not to be.
The museum’s woes are enumerated here for those who may not have followed the sad saga. To keep the dream alive, the field of folk art must continue to have strong representation in New York, which still remains the center of the art world.
The museum’s Lincoln Square branch has a long history of exhibitions and activities. In fact, shows have continued there throughout the past decade. Folk Art Society members may remember the reception AFAM hosted there for Howard Finster and FASA in 1989. Curator Stacy Hollander was about to deny entrance to a scruffy-looking, denim-clad gentleman, saying, “This is a private party.” Standing beside her to welcome guests, I said, “Stacy, Mr. Ginsberg is a member of the Folk Art Society,” and Allen Ginsberg was allowed to join the party.
Many are bemoaning the possibility that this unique building might fall to the wrecking ball, but now that it is sold, that’s someone else’s worry. As lovers of folk art, our main concern should focus on the preservation of the museum’s collections that could be shown either in small shows at Lincoln Square or in traveling exhibitions. We hope their publications will be revived. We long for a director and curators who are passionate and informed about contemporary folk, self-taught and outsider art.
Tom Brumfield, vice president of the Folk Art Society said: “During the past 25 years, enormous progress has been made in the field of contemporary folk art, which has moved from artists’ backyards to museums and universities. We need to continue this progress.”
All of us need to rally behind the American Folk Art Museum, to support it and encourage its staff and board of trustees to begin anew, to rise from the ashes and, again, to become the epicenter of folk art in New York.