Jerry Saltz Beyond Thunderdome: Folk Art Museum Architecture Defended By Critics

by Paddy Johnson on May 17, 2011 · 7 comments Opinion

Still more writers think critics Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith should not be blaming The Folk Art Museum’s architecture for its financial woes. First NY Mag Saltz colleague Justin Davidson piped in Thursday, calling it akin to “faulting Mercedes-Benz for making such lovely cars that minimum-wage workers go bankrupt buying them”, and now Paul Goldberger at The New Yorker says architects can only work with what they are given.

Jerry Saltz describes himself as “almost tweeted to death” for his opinions in yesterday’s Facebook note on the subject, going on to give a spirited defense why he thinks both Goldberger and Davidson are off-base. The long and the short of it seems to lie in the idea that neither have made a compelling argument for why the museum is good for art, though this swipe is priceless: “he [Goldberger] blithely suggests that AFAM ‘would be ideal for ”¦a house for the museum’s director.’ This is a defense? As much as I whine about the new MoMA, I wouldn't wish this “house” on any museum director. Well, maybe [former Guggenheim Director] Thomas Krens.”

Kudos to Saltz for landing that punch, but that won’t be the knock out. As I mentioned last week, the New Museum’s architecture doesn’t do much for the art either, and yet it seems to be surviving just fine. The Guggenheim, too, has this issue (no one wants to look at art with a hood over it, but that’s what you get thanks to those endless exhibition nooks), but the building itself is at least a tourist attraction. The Folk Art Museum never gained that status.

Regardless Goldberger seems to think it should have, last week writing, “if this is not quite the finest piece of architecture in New York since the Guggenheim ”¦ it is pretty close.” Ah, yes, and what a crowd pleaser it is too. Just look at the google image results for the term “Folk Museum” and what see how many tourists were so compelled by the building that they took shots of the museum’s exterior: there’s a whole page of images! Compare this to the New Museum, MoMA, or virtually any other museum in the city and you’ll scroll for pages before running out of shots.

My hope through all this though is that New York museums will learn from the Folk Art Museum’s woes (without doing the same as Dia and departing for the greener pastures of Beacon). Building on tiny lots just because that’s the only property available isn’t always a great way to build programs. Maybe it’s idealistic, but the first, and I’d argue the most important, way to grow a museum is simply by producing great shows.


Sven May 17, 2011 at 6:08 pm

 the museum was horrible for looking at art. everytime i went, it felt like looking at a show inside a closet. so, the architecture failed in its purpose. i agree with the whiners .

Anonymous May 17, 2011 at 6:22 pm

This exchange via facebook is worth adding to the comments: 

Lori Ellison: The Museum of Visionary Art in Baltimore seems to be doing a better job. Maybe this kind of art isn’t as important to people as the other museums in the city?

Paddy Johnson: I wonder if there’s a perception problem the folk art museum needs to fight. I suspect there’s an idea that smaller cities do a better job with folk art because, like much folk art, they are outside city centers themselves. Rightly or wrongly I often feel like I need to travel outside New York to see the best of it.

sally May 18, 2011 at 2:34 pm

According to their mission statement they are “devoted to the aesthetic appreciation of traditional folk art and
creative expressions of contemporary self-taught artists from the United
States and abroad.” Their programming includes quite a lot of Henry Darger and Martin Ramirez. Also lots of quilts. And thematic shows that variously contextualize domestic women’s art of the 18th & 19th centuries, “contemporary self taught artists” who are so “seduced by material, technique, color, form, line, and texture” that their art approaches abstraction, and “self-taught African American artists from the rural South and the urban North.” The phrase “self-taught” seems to come up a lot.

That awful term “outsider artist” seems to have gone away (thank goodness). But in a way that phrase was useful because it clearly indicated the power structures at play when art works created without regard for the art historical discourse get pulled into the system and contextualized by — and commodified according to — the discourse. The architecture of this building seems to really reinforce that dynamic. It looks like a cramped up monolith. So you’ve got art experts conferring validity on objects that were never seeking art world validity in the first place, and the way this is done is by showcasing them in an abstract modernist building near the MOMA. You may be (insane, female, African-American, quilter) but lucky for you us art connoisseurs can recognise talent and quality in the strangest places. It smacks of old school anthropological and ethnological acquisition and display.

Any folk art museum anywhere will struggle with this particular problem of perception — but I think architecture can actually go a long way toward making a statement about an institution’s approach to power, and this building really does seem kind of creepy and outdated.

Anonymous May 21, 2011 at 3:08 pm

I think that’s the best defense of the bad architecture argument I’ve read because it so specifically draws a line between disjunct relationship between the purpose of the museum vs that of the building.  Of course, for me this goes back to a problem of branding. The New Museum at least has a building that matches their mandate. This does not. 

Joseph Young May 19, 2011 at 1:47 pm

AVAM is doing fine even despite its $16 ticket price in a city, Baltimore, where the other major art museums are free (and in close proximity to more free museums in DC). 

Coco Lopez May 18, 2011 at 8:18 am

 the biggest problem with getting people to actually visit this museum is that it’s next to MoMA

Hhalle May 24, 2011 at 1:09 am

I have to agree with the first comment in this thread. If “architecture killed AFAM,” as Jerry put it, then it was the Modern’s expansion, which put its main entrance at the Folk Art Museum’s doorstep, effectively sucking all the oxygen out of the situation.

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