Museum of Fine Arts, Boston showcasing the “art of the people,” folk art

Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), Collecting Stories: The Invention of Folk Art reflects on benefactor and donor Maxim Karolik’s quest to champion the “art of the people.” The exhibition examines the creation of folk art as a collecting category in the early 20th century.

Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, Karolik championed the then-radical notion of incorporating American “folk art” into the Museum’s collection and disrupting long-held standards and definitions of so-called “fine art.” Through Karolik’s enthusiasm and generosity, the MFA became one of the first encyclopedic museums in the country to actively collect works by artisans, craftspeople, women, schoolchildren, sailors and other artists who were free from the strict rules of traditional Western academic training. Karolik’s expansive vision of American art proved to be ahead of his time—while MFA curators ultimately accepted its value, the reluctance to display folk art alongside fine art remained for decades to come.

Folk art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The exhibition features 59 works on paper shown in two successive rotations and 20 sculptural objects drawn primarily from the MFA’s Karolik Collection of American Folk Art. Generously supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Collecting Stories: The Invention of Folk Art  is the third in a series of three Collecting Stories exhibitions funded by the Henry Luce Foundation that presents understudied works from the MFA’s collection to address critical themes in American art and the formation of modern American identities. Previous exhibitions include Collecting Stories: A Mid-Century Experiment and Collecting Stories: Native American Art.

The exhibitionis organized into three sections:

The Invention of Folk Art and Maxim Karolik and the MFA

In the 1910s,’20s and’30s, many American modern artists sought to identify a distinctive national artistic heritage to serve as inspiration for their own work. In the process, they invented a new category of art to be known as American Folk Art. These artists admired the bold color, graphic silhouettes, flattened perspectives and exaggerated proportions often found in the work of non-academically trained painters, hobbyists and skilled artisans, as exemplified by such highlights as a foot scraper in the form of a chicken (about 1890–1900), Farmstead in Passing Storm(1849) by an unidentified artist, and Sarah Ann Drew,(about 1827) by Ruth Whittier Shute.

This section of the exhibition also examines how Karolik brought this new trend in collecting to the MFA in the 1940s,anddemonstrateshow his approach to collecting folk art was ahead of his time.

Karolik’s “Art of the People”

Karolik sought to capture and preserve the artistic spirit of the young democratic nation. Artists that had previously gone unrecognized—including itinerants, hobbyists, students, women and those from poor and rural communities—brought new perspectives on American life by introducing new subject matter, from portraits of livestock and homesteads to local celebrations or personal events.

This section highlights the diversity and richness of Karolik’s broad vision of American art, while simultaneously reorienting folk art within the larger democratization of visual arts happening in the 19thcenturythanks to improved printing, communication and transportation technologies.

Labels Matter

While Karolik’s contributions to the MFA’s collection are expansive, they also reflect the prejudices held in the mid-20th century. This section acknowledges that his collection lacks work by Black, Latin American and other underrepresented artists of the 19th century.

In the past 60 years, the MFA has made efforts to rectify those omissions, while also advancing the story further into the 20th and 21st centuries by acquiring art often referred to as “outsider” or“ visionary.” A small sampling of those works is shown—including a 19th-century Face Jug made in Edgefield, South Carolina and a drawing by visionary artist Martin Ramirez—with the acknowledgement that there is still much more work to be done.

This final section also questions the contemporary use of the term “folk art,” and introduces the MFA’s multiyear initiative exploring how to better understand and display artwork historically labeled as such.

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