Published: April 17, 2012
It is axiomatic that three groups †collectors, curators and “the trade” †set the antiques world in motion. Curators are known for their scholarship. Dealers and auctioneers are famed for their expertise. Collectors †the mysterious “privates” of auction parlance †are the least well known, but without them the field would not exist.
With a decadelong history of presenting its annual Award of Merit to an individual dealer, auctioneer, curator or editor, the Antiques Dealers’ Association of America (ADA) has broken with tradition by presenting its 2012 Award of Merit to a group, the American Folk Art Society. The honor will be bestowed at a dinner at the Philadelphia Antiques Show on April 28.
The American Folk Art Society has no website and its membership is anonymous. What to write, we wondered? Hardly a problem, Antiques and The Arts Weekly soon discovered. Though not boastful, society members are hardly shy. They are generous, gregarious and passionate, sometimes to the point of eccentricity when it comes to their favorite subject: folk art.
“They have researched, written, published, promoted and supported the field of American folk art. Both singly and as a group, their contributions are enormous,” says ADA member Arthur Liverant, an organizer of the awards dinner.
“There are many deserving people out there, but the board voted unanimously to honor the American Folk Art Society,” says ADA president Judith Livingston Loto. “Members are active collectors who have committed to folk art through museums and other cultural institutions.”
The first organizational meeting of the society was convened on Saturday, November 18, 1978, toward the end of a decade marked by surging interest in American folk art. Guidelines were issued a little more than a year later. The membership met in full on January 1980. Among those present were Howard Feldman, Ralph Esmerian, Austin Fine, Thomas Rizzo, Robert Bishop, Joan and Victor Johnson, Harvey and Isobel Kahn and Helen and Steven Kellogg. The group received its tax-exempt status later that year.
Membership, by invitation only, was initially limited to 25 primary collectors who demonstrated sustained interest in American folk art. Today there are 60 members, including spouses and partners. A second membership category has since been extended to museum professionals who have made scholarly contributions to the field.
“Somewhere I have a picture of our first trip with the group. We flew up to Vermont in 1980. It was Halloween weekend and everything was on sale in the Shelburne Museum gift shop. I bought a huge witch’s hat and wore it to the meeting. It wasn’t as well received as I’d hoped,” Joan Johnson says with a smile.
“Vic and I were kids at the time and dumbfounded that they had asked us. Members like Bill Holland, Charlie Santore and Mary Black opened our eyes to quality,” says the Philadelphia collector, recalling the influence of the group’s first members.
In 1982, the Johnsons were joined by Arthur Kern and his late wife, Sybil. At 90, Arthur has three dozen articles to his name in publications such as The Clarion , The Magazine Antiques and Antiques and Fine Art. Beginning in 1981, when they wrote about the painter Benjamin Greenleaf, the Kerns dedicated themselves to research.
“What intrigued us is that there are so many artists about whom nothing is known,” says Kern, a retired physician and emeritus professor of medicine at Brown University in Rhode Island whose interest has never flagged.
Charles Burden was a pediatrician living in Woolwich, Maine, when Kern heard that Burden owned a Greenleaf painting and asked if he might see it.
“We met and Arthur invited me to join the society,” says Burden, whose extensive collections have included paint decorated furniture and other folk art, pyrography, coin silver, stoneware, patent medicines, temperance artifacts, advertising ephemera, Currier & Ives children, nursing bottles and Larkin memorabilia, much of which he has given away to the Maine State Museum, Strawbery Banke and other institutions. He currently collects maritime art and artifacts of Maine interest and is organizing the exhibition “Ahead Full at Fifty: 50 Years of Collecting at Maine Maritime Museum,” opening November 10.
Most members are recruited in the same manner as Burden, as one devotee glimpses an unmistakable spark in a fellow enthusiast.
“It is very selective. You have to have your collection vetted by members,” says society president Tracy Whitehead, a Chicago collector who attends meetings with her husband, Marc. “Truth is, you also have to travel well and be fun. Right now our group is really cohesive, excited and interested. Our members love learning. Our attendance is the best that it has been in the past number of years, and we are bringing in new people.”
“Many years ago, we started a lecture series in our local historical society and invited people like Betty Ring, Graham Hood, the Garretts and Mary Black to speak. We showed Mary Black around the Dutch area, which she was very interested in at the time. She told us about the society and suggested that we get involved,” recall Leslie and Peter Warwick, whose purchase of a New Jersey farmhouse launched their collecting career nearly half a century ago.
Members since 1988, they have made nearly 50 research trips with the society, two a year for the past 24 years. These excursions have taken the Warwicks and others south to Savannah, west to Los Angeles, even to Canada and Europe. Members take turns planning trips, generally conducted in the spring and fall. Over a long weekend, the group visits private collections and museum holdings that are typically off limits to the public.
“My view has always been that folk art is not created in a vacuum. You need to see what else is going on to understand it. For instance, we saw a fabulous collection of music boxes in Chicago, dined at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and made a side trip to Falling Water,” says Elizabeth V. Warren, an independent scholar and museum professional long associated with the American Folk Art Museum. Members have been served fried oysters by Bill du Pont and evacuated from a Portsmouth, N.H., hotel after a terrorist threat. Portsmouth auctioneer Ron Bourgeault made one phone call and the entire group was resettled in alternative accommodations.
Immediately following the Philadelphia Antiques Show, members will fly to Detroit for a trip that society members George and Kay Meyer helped to organize. Highlights will include visits to the Henry Ford Museum, Cranbrook and the Detroit Institute of Art, plus several private collections.
“These trips are pretty demanding. They go from 8 am to well past dinner. All are memorable,” says George Meyer. The Meyers collaborated on the books Folk Artists Biographical Index , 1987, and American Folk Art Canes: Personal Sculpture , 1992. The latter accompanied a major exhibition of canes that opened at the American Folk Art Museum and traveled to Colonial Williamsburg and the Detroit Institute of Art on its multi-museum tour.
Other extensively published members include the Warwicks, who have researched ceramics, portraiture, silhouettes, birth records and needlework; and Suzanne and Michael Payne, New York collectors who are portraiture authorities with a book in the works. Eager to lure society members to Maine, Charles Burden recruited fellow member Raymond Egan to help organize the Maine Folk Art Trail in 2008, featuring 11 museums from York to Searsport. Down East Books published the accompanying book, Art in Maine: Uncommon Treasures 1750‱925.
When not researching, writing or lecturing, members are underwriting programs and projects at institutions around the country. Between 1980 and 2012, the society has made awards to dozens of individuals and institutions. The group enjoys a special partnership with the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan. It has sponsored seven fall symposia at the museum. Four museum trustees †Elizabeth V. Warren, Lucy C. Danziger, Karin Barter Fielding and Barbara Gordon †and museum curator Stacy Hollander are society members. George Meyer is an emeritus trustee of the American Folk Art Museum.
Beyond scholarship, members sustain friendships over many years and great distance.
“We love being with other collectors. We learn from each other and thoroughly enjoy seeing what they have,” says Sally Gemmill.
Often, friendship and collecting are intertwined.
“It gets to the heart of collecting for me,” says California physician Jeffrey Pressman, who counts among his greatest treasures two pieces that once belonged to the late Harvey Kahn and his wife, Isobel.
“I can’t see these pieces without thinking of Harvey driving my wife, Nancy, and me around Baltimore, zipping in and out of traffic like a teenager. We enjoyed Isobel’s strawberries and liquor while we sat in their living room years before their collection was sold. I could go on about the memories these objects bring back of our friends, both collectors and dealers,” says Pressman.
“Are you kidding me?” Tracy Whitehead responded when Arthur Liverant called to tell that her that the ADA had singled out the American Folk Art Society for recognition.
Upon reflection, she adds, “Something Arthur said really hit home. We do support the field and the trade. Many of us count dealers among our best friends.”
The ADA Award of Merit dinner is planned for 8 to 10 pm at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, 1101 Arch Street in downtown Philadelphia. To order tickets, contact Lincoln R. Sander, executive director, Antiques Dealers’ Association of America, PO Box 529, Newtown, CT 06470; telephone 203-364-9913 or email firstname.lastname@example.org . More information at www.adadealers.com .
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