Article by William and Ann Oppenhimer
“We set out to discover the art of America, and we found the art of the American people,” say Chuck and Jan Rosenak, of Tesuque, N.M., who recently transferred by sale and gift key pieces from their collection of contemporary American folk art to the National Museum of American Art, a division of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C.
This acquisition of 220 pieces from the Rosenaks’ collection makes the National Museum of American Art the foremost repository for contemporary folk and self-taught art in the United States.
With the Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. Collection (acquired in 1986), the James Hampton Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millenium General Assembly (which came to the museum in 1970) and other more recent acquisitions, the National Museum will become the central place for the study, preservation, exhibition and documentation of this art. The collection, owned by the American people, will have a variety and scope unequaled by any other public institution.
Although they both spent their working lives as attorneys, Chuck (now fully retired from the practice of law) and Jan Rosenak are known for their single-minded devotion to the study and documentation of contemporary folk art. Their three books — Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists, 1990; The People Speak: Navajo Folk Art, 1994; and Contemporary American Folk Art: A Collector’s Guide,, 1996 — have become essential to every collector’s and researcher’s reference library. Their painstaking assemblage of facts and photographs which describe over 400 artists is an invaluable contribution to scholarship in this expanding field.
“The law taught us to write and to meet a deadline,” says Chuck Rosenak. “We feel it’s very important to get the facts correct,” adds his wife. “Chuck is the creative one; I don’t mind the detail work. It’s a good combination.” Both contribute equally to the selection of objects and artists about which to write.
The Rosenak Collection would be impossible to duplicate today. For the past two decades, the Rosenaks have made it their mission to get to know as many artists as possible, to travel across the country seeking out unknown or little-known artists, and to interview and photograph these artists in an ongoing record of their lives and work. As artists die and their works are dispersed, the Rosenaks’ investigations become even more important as historical and artistic documents.
Examples from the Rosenaks’ collection are frequently picked for national exhibitions, as representative book illustrations and as classic examples of contemporary American folk art. The fact that their collection traveled to Lausanne, Switzerland, to be the first American folk art collection shown at the Collection de l’Art Brut testifies to its quality and uniqueness.
The objects selected by the Rosenaks are never merely whimsical or cute. They are rarely sweet or sentimental. In fact, they are often brutal, frank, tough, difficult and what the French call dur, or hard.
One of the most significant aspects of the Rosenaks’ collection is their interest in Native American art. After moving from Maryland to New Mexico 13 years ago, the Rosenaks began to explore the art of the Four Corners region. Because of their persistence and continuing interest, the Rosenaks quickly became experts, particularly in the non-traditional sculpture of the Navajos, something no one had concentrated on before. Johnson Antonio, Mamie Deschillie, Delbert Buck and the Willeto family, among others, are important Rosenak discoveries.
Their collection is especially strong in Native American pottery (Betty Manygoats, Helen Cordero, Louis Naranjo, Faye Tso) and textiles (Helen Greyeyes, Linda Nez, Fannie Pete, Florence Riggs), and a corresponding emphasis has been given in the National Museumâs choices. The recognition of Native American non-traditional work as significant is probably the Rosenaks’ primary contribution to the field of American folk art.
Hispanic art of the Southwest is also an important side of the Rosenak Collection. Artists such as Nicholas Herrera, Enrique Rendon and Felipe and Leroy Archuleta are represented by outstanding works rarely seen in the East but which are a valuable part of our American heritage and will be important to the National Museum of American Art’s holdings. Out of the 220 pieces, nearly 100 are either Native American or Hispanic in origin.
“We want to bring Navajo art to the attention of people who live on the East coast. Out West, all the trading posts are calling it folk art now and mixing it with traditional art. No one called it folk art before we came along,” say the Rosenaks.
“We were pleased that the National Museum took so many Navajo, Pueblo and Hispanic pieces. ”
Of course, African-American artists, both Southern rural and Northern urban, are well-represented in the collection. Again, the Rosenaks began collecting and studying these works before their importance was recognized by other collectors.
Established and recognized artists such as William Blayney, Sam Doyle, Lee Godie, Jon Serl, S.L. Jones, Justin McCarthy, Nellie Mae Rowe, Miles Carpenter, William Dawson, Herbert Singleton, Derek Webster and Georgia Blizzard are represented, along with certain signature pieces that have long been associated with the Rosenak Collection — Leslie Payne’s New York Lady, Gregorio Marzan’s Statue of Liberty, Howard Finster’s Bible Flying, Uncle Jack Dey’s Acupuncture Pitchfork Style and Andrea Badami’s The Boss and His Wife, for example. Lesser-known artists such as Russell Smoky Brown, Rex Clawson, John Gerdes, John Harvey, Leon Kennedy, Robert Roberg, Patsy Billups, Donald Paterson, Carl Piwinski, Welmon Sharlhorne and Jane ( In Vain ) Winkelman may be familiar to readers of the Rosenaksâ books but to few others.
“We’ve always tried to collect what no one else is collecting like the Papago horsehair baskets we’re collecting now, for example,” says Chuck Rosenak. “The term they prefer is Tohono O’odham,” says Jan. “In less than a year, we have collected 18 miniature baskets made of horsehair and ten larger ones made of willow and yucca. The Tohono O’odham people live in southern Arizona and Mexico, in a land even more arid and desolate than the Navajo.”
“Another field that interests us is European Art Brut, or so-called Outsider Art, the sort of thing the museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, has” the Rosenaks say.
The price of the gift/purchase agreement made between the Rosenaks and the National Museum of American Art has not been revealed. However, in 1986, when the Hemphill Collection was purchased, it carried an official price tag of $1.4 million for 386 pieces, although the appraised value was much higher. The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of 273 objects cost the Milwaukee Art Museum $1.55 million when it was sold by gift/purchase to the museum in 1989. According to MAM Director Russell Bowman, the Hall Collection was valued at $2.3 million at the time it was acquired [see Folk Art Messenger, Spring 1990].
Chuck Rosenak says, ” Collecting this material was our pleasure, and we never did it for financial reward but only because we were on a voyage of discovery. ”
Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, deputy chief curator at the National Museum of American Art, was the person mainly responsible for the selection of the objects, with input and veto power from Elizabeth Broun, director of the museum. Hartigan is to be commended for her foresight in initiating the acquisition of two important folk art collections, the Rosenak and the Hemphill Collections, for the Washington institution.
The Rosenaks say they are pleased that NMAA will have these pieces, “but I wanted to be sure that Elizabeth Broun and the museum staff really loved folk art,” says Chuck Rosenak. Jan says, “Lynda Hartigan has had a love for this material for over 20 years. Certain pieces she had her eye on, and she was persistent about getting them for the museum. ”
Because of extensive renovation beginning in the year 2000, the National Museum of American Art will remain closed for two or three years, and the permanent collection will be placed in storage. However, the museum will put together eight fairly small exhibitions of 50 to 75 works each — of 19th-century American paintings, photography and folk art, for example — which will travel to other museums during the three-year hiatus. “We want the collection to have as much exposure as possible, even though the museum will be closed, ” says Hartigan, explaining that rental costs for participating museums will be kept to a minimum.
According to Hartigan, the Rosenak Collection will not be put on view as a separate entity anytime soon. In the meantime, some pieces from the collection will be put into the normal rotation of the permanent collection in the National Museum of American Art’s folk art gallery.
“We specified that the works be integrated into NMAA’s collection and not be kept separate as the Rosenak Collection. It is our desire to see them as part of the history of 20th-century American art, ” Chuck Rosenak says.
When asked, as they frequently are, what advice they would give to beginning collectors, the Rosenaks say, “Read in the field all you can. Visit all the exhibits and regional shows in your area. Learn about the artists and visit those you like.Visit galleries, too. Buy what you love and want to live with.
Chuck and Jan Rosenak are off to explore new places and discover new artists. “We may still start a museum,” says Jan. “I wouldn’t mind that at all. ”
“You can’t tell we got rid of anything by looking at the house,” says Chuck Rosenak, laughing. “We’ve got plenty of art left. “
WILLIAM OPPENHIMER is a retired obstetrician/gynecologist and is the Chief Financial Officer of the Folk Art Society of America.
ANN OPPENHIMER is the Executive Director of the Folk Art Society of America
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: