Art News

American Folk Art Museum in New York Considering Closure

artwork: Possibly William Matthew Prior - "Moonlit Scene", circa 1850–1865 - Oil on canvas - 23 1/2" x 33 1/2" - Collection of the American Folk Art Museum, NY

New York, NY (New York Times):- The financial picture has grown so bleak at the American Folk Art Museum that its trustees are considering whether to shut it down and donate its collections to another institution, said a person involved in the discussions, who requested anonymity because the talks are confidential.  No final decision has been made, and members of the folk museum’s staff are said to be lobbying to keep it going in some form. But the museum’s leadership has been in talks with the Smithsonian Institution for several months about possibly acquiring the collection in conjunction with the Brooklyn Museum. A decision to dissolve the museum and transfer its collection would require the approval of both the New York State attorney general’s office and the State Department of Education. The attorney general’s office would consider, among other things, whether the transfer would put New York State residents at a disadvantage.

artwork: Consuelo “Chelo” González Amézcua "In the World", 1962 - Ballpoint pen on paper - 28" x 22" - Collection of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.Even if ownership of the collection were transferred to the Smithsonian, one possibility being discussed is to have the Brooklyn Museum display some of it long term, making it still accessible to New Yorkers. The folk art museum has one of the country’s finest collections of American folk art, including some 5,000 quilts, paintings and functional objects like weathervanes. But it has long been plagued by serious financial problems. In addition to its holdings of folk art, the folk museum has a collection of outsider art, including several thousand drawings, books and related material by Henry Darger. A decade ago the museum borrowed $32 million, in the form of bonds, to finance the construction of an impressive building on West 53rd Street in Manhattan, designed by the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. In 2009, after suffering substantial investment losses in the financial crisis, the museum defaulted on its debt, and in May the trustees decided to sell the building to the Museum of Modern Art, down the block, in order to pay off the debt.

But the sale of the building for $31.2million, while covering the debt, did not leave the museum with any extra cash. And it left, if anything, an even more difficult conundrum for the museum about how to move forward. The museum still has a small, 5,000-square-foot space in Lincoln Square, at Columbus Avenue near 66th Street, where it could continue mounting small shows if the trustees felt that it could sustain the costs of keeping a staff and paying to store, conserve and insure the collection. The museum remains open at that location these days, and admission is free. The building on West 53rd Street is closed. The museum’s president, Laura Parsons, said of the current situation: “The board took the first step of discharging its obligations to the bondholders — the next step is to determine what the best outcome for the museum and the art is.”

Ms. Parsons declined to go into greater detail, saying that the discussions were confidential. Compared with the Brooklyn Museum, which has had to make hard choices in recent years about what parts of its own enormous holdings to keep, the Smithsonian would appear to have greater resources to take care of the folk collection. But there will most likely be pressure to keep some of the collection in New York, making a loan arrangement with the Brooklyn Museum appealing. A spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for the Brooklyn Museum, Sally Williams, said that the museum’s director, Arnold Lehman, was out of town and that she had not been briefed on any discussions.

artwork: Eugene Amézcua - "Untitled #14" - Undated - India ink on graph paper 16" x 21" -  Collection of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

The Folk Art Museum has suffered considerable bad fortune over the years. For example, its former chairman, Ralph O. Esmerian, promised to donate his collection of folk art, including a version of Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom,” but Mr. Esmerian also put the painting up as collateral against money he owed, and in 2008 it was put up for auction. In July Mr. Esmerian, who is no longer on the board, was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud. The Museum of Modern Art has said that it does not know yet what it plans to do with the folk museum building. The museum sits between MoMA’s building and the site of a high-rise being planned by Hines, the real estate developer, which will include multiple floors of galleries for MoMA. One possible plan would be to tear down the folk art museum’s building to allow MoMA to make maximum use of the space. The museum has lost several top employees since its financial problems started a few years ago. Brooke Davis Anderson, who was in charge of the museum’s collection of outsider art, departed last year for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The museum’s executive director, Maria Ann Conelli, left this year.

The folk art museum’s situation is a stark warning of what can happen when a museum overreaches in constructing a new home. Founded in 1961, the museum survived some early near-death experiences. When it decided to build a permanent home, it engaged high-profile architects and borrowed the $32 million by issuing bonds through New York City’s Trust for Cultural Resources, a public benefit corporation that helps major cultural institutions borrow money for capital projects. Some critics have attributed the museum’s troubles to its architecture, saying that it was unwelcoming and did not display the art and artifacts attractively. To be sure, the museum never drew the crowds it had projected in estimates made during the planning process, or received enough contributions to support its interest payments. It was the first institution that borrowed through the trust to default on its debt. Visit the museum’s website at …