A History of the Folk Art Society

A History of the Folk Art Society

Article by  Ann Oppenhimer 

In April 1987, group of 15 folk art enthusiasts met in Richmond, Va., for the purpose of forming a loosely knit club. The group went from a Richmond organization to a Virginia organization to a national organization all in the same evening. The name, Folk Art Society of America, was chosen during that initial meeting to eliminate the idea that the art would be limited to American art. A mission statement was drafted: “to advocate the discovery, study, documentation, preservation and exhibition of folk art, folk artists and folk art environments, with an emphasis on the contemporary.”

The founding officers were Ann Oppenhimer, president; John Morgan, vice president; Catherine Roseberry, secretary; Les Kreisler, treasurer; Charlotte Morgan, newsletter editor; with Judith Burch, Baron Gordon, Chris Gregson, Ray Kass, Bruce Koplin, Ellen Kreisler, Patricia Brincefield Lorenz, William Oppenhimer, Patricia Sharpe, Lester Van Winkle and Rob Womack as board members.

To solicit additional members, letters were sent to those who had assisted or otherwise participated in the 1984 Sermons in Paint: A Howard Finster Folk Art Festival at the University of Richmond. The first newsletter, Folk Art Messenger, a simple black-and-white, six-page fold-over, was published in November 1987 and was sent to 200 new members. The membership fee, which included the quarterly publication, was set at $20. The “Dancing Star” logo, still in use, was designed by Ronnie Sampson, then of Richmond, now a designer in San Francisco.

The first Messenger contained the following statement, which is interesting to read now, 15 years later, in the light of the endless debate over what to call this art we preserve, study, document:

We have no intention of entering into the great folk art debate among folklorists, art historians, material culture proponents, folk-life experts, collectors, artists, folk craftsmen, aestheticians or whatever. Rather, we would propose to bring various groups under one loosely structured umbrella, sharing and discussing ideas and information, not limiting the scope or the definition of folk art. These definitions will evolve with time; the parameters of our individual study and interests will define themselves. The main idea is to get people together, to form a network of people across the United States who are basically interested in the same thing, even if they call it by a different name.

Some people are still engaging in the same inane name discussions, but FASA continues to use the term folk art. The folk art designation continues to be used also by the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, even after the museum changed its name from the Museum of American Folk Art. (Perhaps this name change was done to de-emphasize American and be more inclusive of art from all over the world.)

The Folk Art Society has sponsored several exhibitions that were funded by other entities: The Bench and the Benchmaker: The Folk Art of Tom Gordon and Abe Criss, University of Richmond (1987); Folk Art Jubilation (1988), Richmond, produced with a grant from the Arts Council of Richmond; Unto the Hills: The Folk Art of Eastern Kentucky, University of Richmond (1989); Anderson Johnson: Folk Artist with a Mission, University of Richmond (1991).

In the start-up years, the society received several important grants from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, which partially funded publication of the Folk Art Messenger. The VCA has continued to recognize the society with small grants annually.

In 1988, the first national conference of the society was held in Richmond, in conjunction with the exhibition Folk Art Jubilation. Noted collector and author Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr., one of FASA’s charter members, was the featured speaker. More than 100 persons attended Hemphill’s lecture, and more than 400 attended the opening of the exhibition.

In May 1989, the second conference was held in Waverly, Va., at the home (by then, a museum) of the late folk artist Miles Carpenter. The exhibition 100 Miles: the 100th Anniversary of Miles Carpenter’s Birth inaugurated this event. Symposium speakers were Chris Gregson (conference chairman) of Meadow Farm Museum in Henrico County, Va.; Nancy Karlins Thoman of New York City; Barry Cohen of Alexandria, Va.; and Bruce Koplin of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Subsequent conferences were held across the United States: Washington, D.C. (1990), Chris Gregson and Patricia Lorenz, chairmen; Chicago (1991), Jim Arient and Robert Vogele, chairmen; Los Angeles (1992), John Turner, chairman; New Orleans (1993), Kurt Gitter and Alice Yelen, Warren and Sylvia Lowe, chairmen; Santa Fe (1994), Chuck and Jan Rosenak, chairmen; Atlanta (1995), Marshall Hahn and Randy Siegel, chairmen; Birmingham (1996), Georgine Clarke, chairman; Milwaukee (1997), Russell Bowman and Robert Vogele, chairmen; Houston (1998), John and Stephanie Smither, chairmen; Lexington/Morehead, Ky. (1999), Richard Wenstrup, chairman; San Diego (2000), Larry Kent, chairman; Richmond (2001), Tom and Donna Brumfield, William and Ann Oppenhimer, chairmen; Savannah (2002), Joe Adams, chairman; and St. Louis (October 2003), John Foster, chairman.

In 1991, the National Advisory Board was elected to represent various regions of the country. The Folk Art Society thus became more of a national entity. The original NAB members were Jim and Beth Arient, Naperville, Ill.; Robert Bishop, New York City; Russell Bowman, Milwaukee; Georgine Clarke, Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Norman Girardot, Bethlehem, Pa.; Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Washington; Herbert W. Hemphill Jr., New York City; Warren and Sylvia Lowe, Lafayette, La.; Roger Manley, Durham, N.C.; Seymour Rosen, Los Angeles; Chuck and Jan Rosenak, Santa Fe, N.M.; Stuart Schwartz, Rock Hill, S.C.; Adrian Swain, Morehead, Ky.; John Turner, Berkeley, Calif.; Robert Vogele, Chicago; and Willem Volkersz, Bozeman, Mont. At present, 31 persons serve on the National Advisory Board, including eight of the original members.

The society moved to its Richmond headquarters office in 1993 and subsequently expanded its operations to include a reference library and, later a part-time employee, Emmanuelle Delmas-Glass, assistant to the president, who came on board in 1996.

In 1996, a breakthrough occurred with the initiation of the Folk Art Society’s Web site: www.folkart.org, under the supervision of designer Katharine Gates of Oculeum in New York City. Since then, the Web site has grown to include more than 25 full-length articles from past Messengers, including a few foreign-languages articles. Other features are a quarterly calendar, conference registration details and registration forms, links to other sites and a complete listing of the contents of back issues of the Folk Art Messenger. The Web site receives more than 12,000 hits per week from around the globe. Membership in the society and registrations for the conferences can be achieved through the secure site using MasterCard or Visa. The society’s toll-free number (1-800-527-FOLK) also facilitates these transactions as well as the dissemination of information to the public. To date, about half the membership has supplied the FASA office with e-mail addresses, where they receive frequent calendar updates and other pertinent information. The feedback has been positive for this new communication tool.

The winter of 1997 brought another breakthrough in the publication of the expanded Folk Art Messenger (20 pages) when John Hoar of MarketDesign took over the design and created the first color cover. More color pages were added gradually, until the first full-color, 40-page issue was published in 1999. The editorial decision not to include advertising was reassessed and postponed indefinitely, since there is no advertising department and the Folk Art Society continues to operate with only one part-time employee. The volunteer staff of the Messenger, in addition to the publisher, consists of Hank and Genevieve Chenault, editors; William Oppenhimer, assistant editor; Lynne Browne and Anton Rajer, contributing writers; Catherine Roseberry, copy editor; and Peter Beck, computer consultant.

While the Folk Art Society is no longer actively sponsoring exhibitions, the annual conference sites have been the locations of exciting and provocative exhibitions, many initiated in conjunction with the conferences. A symposium, featuring nationally known speakers, constitutes the scholarly component of each conference. Tours of private and public collections of folk art are offered during the long weekend, and the well-attended house tours are popular. During each conference, the benefit auction of folk art donated by members, dealers and artists provides essential monetary support for the society’s projects.

Since 1989, the Folk Art Society’s Awards of Distinction are presented at each conference to at least one artist and/or at least one scholar or contributor in the field who has made a difference. Each award is documented by an engraved plaque and is usually, but not always, given to a recipient in the area where the conference is held. To date, 34 Awards of Distinction have been given. Plaques also have been presented to six folk art sites or environmental works of art. According to an article in The Los Angeles Times, the plaque awarded to Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village in 1992 prevented the destruction of “a site worthy of preservation and protection,” after Bottle Village was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1994.

Under the chairmanship of John and Stephanie Smither, a portion of the Houston conference’s auction proceeds was dedicated to the memory of Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. The board of directors decided to purchase each year at least one art object that would be donated in Hemphill’s memory to a museum or a university. Since then, the following art donations have been made: Tim Lewis’Adam and Eve to Owensboro Museum of Art, Owensboro, Ky.(1999); Ted Gordon’s drawings (2) to Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, Calif. (2000); Georgia Blizzard’s Elvis to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Va. (2001); Lorenzo Scott’s Christ on the Cross to Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, Ga. (2002); and Howard Finster’s Empty Road to Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ga. (2002). In 2001, another serigraph of Howard Finster’s Empty Road was given in honor of William and Ann Oppenhimer to Longwood Center for the Visual Arts in Farmville, Va., by the FASA Board of Directors. These donations honor the artist and also the museum to which the art is given. This project has proven to be one of the most worthwhile initiatives of the Folk Art Society.

This article first appeared in The Folk Art Messenger Volume 16, No. 1 Spring 2003.

You can order it for $15

ANN OPPENHIMER is the Executive Director of the Folk Art Society of America

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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