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New American Folk Art Museum Opens in New York - 2001-12-12

A new museum opened it doors to the public in New York this week, three months after the September 11 attack on the city, a sign of New York's resiliency and determination to move forward.

The new building provides a permanent home for the American Folk Art Museum's collection, which has been shown in limited gallery space for years. Now the collection of traditional folk art has a home of its own in one of New York's most prestigious areas with neighbors like the Museum of Modern Art and CBS Television.

The museum is devoted to folk art produced in the United States from the 18th century to the present. Stacy Hollander, the senior curator for the museum, says folk art is difficult to define.

"It is the material that people used in their homes, that they made for their neighbors. It is pottery and quilts and weathervanes and needlework and furniture, but embellished and decorated to a degree that it assumes an artistic integrity over and beyond utilitarian function," Ms. Hollander says.

For its inaugural year, the museum will focus on its permanent collection in a three-part series of exhibitions called "American Anthem." The first part, on display through June, highlights two recent gifts.

More than 400 objects recently given to the Museum by collector Ralph Esmerian fill three of the new Museum's four levels of exhibition space. It is the largest gift ever given to the museum and was considered the leading private collection of American folk art.

Mr. Esmerian first became interested in collecting as a young man living in Greece. When he returned to the United States he switched his interest to American folk art. He says the collection began with a "slip," or broken piece of decorative pottery.

"Suddenly, I saw that little dish over there, that is hanging there in a gallery and said 'Wow' and it got me going into Pennsylvania German, slip from the Pennsylvania German communities of the 18th and 19th centuries. That was my first passion. From there, like a domino theory, it broadens out into other areas," he says.

Mr. Esmerian, currently the head of the museum's Board of Trustees, says he knew at the outset of his collecting career that he would devote his energies to American folk art.

"When I lived away from America for a couple of years, it gave me a perspective that I had never had before growing up in this country, a perspective of a country that truly was the country that the world wanted to come to, a country whose culture and civilization had spread throughout the world. And I realized how special a place I lived in," he says. "And the thought of suddenly, really liking American folk art of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and then realizing this is the foundation of the society in which I live, I said 'Wow.' This makes it even more interesting," he explains.

The Esmerian collection is essentially many collections within one, including paintings, furnishings, pottery, scrimshaw, embroidery and woodwork. One section is called "Girls at School, Women at Work."

Curator Stacy Hollander explains it includes many examples of the needlework and ornamental arts that young girls were expected to learn from the late 18th century through the turn of the 19th century.

"It includes watercolors on paper, painted pieces of furniture, ornamental needlework. And then, as a grown up these skills would be applied to large scale, monumental textiles such as bed rugs, bed covers, embroidered or appliqued carpets. So there are a number of works made by women in this exhibition that shows that range," she says.

The remaining exhibition space is devoted to the panoramic watercolors of Henry Darger, a self-taught 20th century artist.