Samplers. Fraktur. Portraits. Quilts. Hand-tinted photographs. Whole sections of yard shows. Lifelong artistic explorations created by a single artist. As seen throughout these galleries, the Museum’s holdings truly comprise a collection of collections.
This preponderance of sub-categories is a reflection of how collecting history has evolved over time. Whereas the Western history of “fine art” has had a long-established hierarchy of artistic media and subjects, during the early 20th century, the boundary-breaking modernist movement changed popular understandings of what could be considered art. “Folk art”—and later, “self-taught art” and “art brut”—emerged as new frameworks. Even though their definitions were imperfect and carried forward biases of their own, these developing fields made space for diverse creative expressions typically excluded from the formal art historical canon.
Many of these objects were seen as “rediscoveries”: for instance, shop signs and bedcovers, originally made for functional purposes, were freshly appreciated for their craftsmanship and visual power; the works of self-taught artists, often previously limited to local or family audiences, were exposed to a wider community of art lovers. Collectors developed expertise in concert with the greater recognition of makers, delving deeper into object histories as more material was brought into the marketplace.
At the American Folk Art Museum—founded in 1961 by dedicated collectors, dealers, and scholars—some of the first objects to enter the Museum’s holdings represented touchstones of the invention of the folk and self-taught fields. Works seen in Multitudes, such as selections of wildfowl decoys, needlework, and quilts, exemplify the iconic status now afforded to certain folk art categories due to their craftsmanship and striking graphic appeal. The acquisition of substantial sub-collections of artists like Henry Darger, Sam Doyle, Annie Hooper, and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein speaks as well to the Museum’s ongoing commitment to expanding scholarship and carving out an inspiring space for multi-voiced artistic viewpoints.