Can the Folk Art Museum Be Saved? A Look at Three Endgame Scenarios

Can the Folk Art Museum Be Saved? A Look at Three Endgame Scenarios
The 53rd Street location of the American Folk Art Museum, which was recently sold to MoMA in an effort to settle a debt
(Courtesy of Dan Nguyen via Flickr)

After paying down its debts with the $31 million sum realized by selling its Tod Williams and Billie Tsien-designed 53rd Street building to the Museum of Modern Art, the ailing American Folk Art Museum must now decide what to do with its collection, which includes over 5,000 objects. The diversity and breadth of the museum's collection is a reflection of its singular vision, and the trove would best be preserved as a whole — but that seems challenging given the museum's current straits. In effect, the dilemma that the institution faces is whether or not it can shrink to a more manageable size and still retain a central place in the art community and in New York City, or whether it is too late to save it. 


Below, ARTINFO outlines the three strategies currently being considered by the Folk Art Museum:



One option being discussed is to try to offload the collection onto another museum, with the New York Times reporting that AFAM has been "in talks with the Smithsonian Institution for several months about possibly acquiring the collection in conjunction with the Brooklyn Museum." If transferring ownership to the Smithsonian doesn't work out — it requires approval by New York State authorities — some sort of loan agreement with the Brooklyn Museum might be considered. Sending the Folk Art Museum's collection to another institution is the single best option for preserving the integrity of the authoritative collection of American folk art, which includes everything from colonial quilts to collages and drawings by Chicago artistic savant Henry Darger.

But the Brooklyn Museum, already crunched for space and resources, would likely be unable to take custody of the collection — while sending it to the Smithsonian involves questions about shipping the collection out of state, a move that would cut off another New York public art resource. 

Negotiations over the collection continue to be confidential. As for the possibility of receiving the Folk Art Museum's collection, the Brooklyn Museum offered no comment, while the Smithsonian's Linda St. Thomas told ARTINFO in an email that "talks are ongoing." The Folk Art Museum itself did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 


Despite losing their larger building, the Folk Art Museum retains its 5,000-square-foot original space at Lincoln Center. The museum currently remains open in that space, hosting its "Super Stars: Quilts from the American Folk Art Museum" exhibition, as well as a 9/11 tribute quilt. Admission to the space is free. With enough funding, the Lincoln Center gallery could remain open and hold small exhibitions, showcasing pieces of the collection not on loan to other museums. Members of the staff are said to be lobbying to keep the institution going.


Given its financial difficulties and the current economic troubles of many art institutions, it is conceivable that the Folk Art Museum could very well close entirely, no matter what. "The financial picture has grown so bleak at the American Folk Art Museumthat its trustees are considering whether to shut it down and donate its collections to another institution," the Times reports. If long-term loans seem to bode well for the fate of the collection as a whole, the institution itself may pass into history.