Published: January 14, 2020
By Greg Smith
BOSTON – Jotted across the catalog cover for Sotheby’s January 25 single-owner auction “A New Dimension of Tradition, Important American Folk Art,” two lines of text appear that indicate something special is brewing in Beantown. They read “Proceeds of the sale to benefit a new folk art initiative at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.”
The 135-lot sale, its owner’s name withheld, has seven lots estimated in the six-figures and another four above $60,000. The expected top five lots include, from the top, a molded copper Goddess of Liberty weathervane attributed to William Henis or Vincent Baldwin ($350/450,000); a molded copper and zinc Cooperstown Cow weathervane ($250/350,000); a full-bodied molded copper squirrel weathervane attributed to Cushing & White or L.W. Cushing and Sons ($150/250,000); a Federal paint- and smoke-decorated pine tall case clock, works by Silas Hoadley ($150/250,000); and a portrait of Andrew Jackson by Edward Hicks ($120/180,000).
In a release, the MFA wrote, “This transformative gift will position the MFA to break new ground in the interpretation and display of folk and self-taught art by fostering an innovative, contemporary approach to the field.”
Antiques and The Arts Weekly spoke with Ethan W. Lasser, MFA Boston’s John Moors Cabot Chair, Art of the America, to dig down further into what this budding initiative will entail for the department and the public going forward.
Lasser noted that the initiative is in its infancy, but a new curator is on the horizon that will lead it forward.
“We are in the early stages of imagining the future of this initiative, and it will develop over the next several years with the appointment of a new curator, and input from many colleagues, scholars and community partners,” he said.
The MFA’s folk art initiative plans to parse community interest as it incorporates folk with fine art, allowing the public to offer input on what they would like to learn from these works so that the museum can further develop unique perspectives.
“A key element of the MFA’s Strategic Plan, MFA 2020, is identifying ways for our audiences to connect with the artwork we share in our galleries and the programs that illuminate it,” Lasser said.
In addition to historic folk art, the initiative casts a broad net into the Twentieth Century, to include Outsider Art, Visionary Art and any other works considered non-canonical.
The initiative places a focus on cross-cultural diversity, an area that self-taught and folk art, by their very nature, are advantageously positioned to explore.
“Folk and self-taught art is inherently accessible and approachable for visitors; for many, these objects evoke connections to everyday life, and show the ways that people from diverse backgrounds and communities express artistic creativity…. Folk art challenges narrow definitions of ‘what is art’ and ‘who is an artist’ – and creates space for greater inclusion of many voices, narratives and histories. We also want to engage colleagues across the museum in thinking cross-culturally, across the breadth of the collection, and connect folk artists in the Americas to self-taught artists from other parts of the globe,” Lasser said.
The museum was accused of racism in 2019 following harassment claims from a Dorchester, Mass., school that had taken a class field trip to the institution in May that year. Its response to the matter – from immediate apology, public discussions, the banning of two members and commitments going forward – were transparent and sincere. In December, 2019, the museum posted an opening for “Senior Director of Belonging and Inclusion,” a new position that the job listing says “will play a critical role in delivering our promise to be a Museum that belongs to all of Boston.”
Proceeds from the Sotheby’s sale will be directed towards gallery displays, interpretations, programming and temporary exhibitions. Among these is the upcoming exhibition “Collecting Stories: The Invention of Folk Art,” on view May 2 to March 7, 2021. The museum will also offer the three-course study series “Folk Art: Multiple Perspectives” in May.
In summary, Lasser said, “Our goal is to reimagine and reanimate the folk art collections for all of our audiences.”
For additional information, www.mfa.org or 617-267-9300.
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