Folk Art Through The Decades


Since 1953 fourteen words have declared themselves to all who enter the Museum of International Folk Art with the compelling mystery of scripture or a message on an ancient tomb: “The Art of the Craftsman is a Bond Between the Peoples of the World.”

Despite its dramatic presentation above the museum entrance, the inscription is unattributed; the author chose anonymity after carefully choosing words that spoke for themselves. Painted by an artist’s hand at the threshold of a new museum, the original display emphasized the visitor’s experience of the handmade world just beyond the door. To cross the threshold was to transcend the borders of mind, place, and time.

Sixty years after the museum’s grand opening on September 5, 1953, its founder, Florence Dibell Bartlett, is remembered as the visionary who created the world’s first international folk art museum, now internationally known for advancing the world’s view of, and appreciation for, folk art. The original hand-painted letters (crafted by her close friend, renowned woodblock-print artist Gustave Baumann) were later replaced by weatherproof materials. Bartlett’s inscription continues to express her belief that folk art is a unifying force in an increasingly troubled world.

Looking back on the museum’s sixtieth anniversary, Museum of International Folk Art director Marsha Bol says Bartlett’s message of bridging cultures and generations through folk art was groundbreaking in the field for her time. “Here was a woman who had lived through two world wars and had seen the United Nations built, and in her mind, the way to peace was through the craftsman,” Bol says. “Today, we would use the term ‘folk artist’ rather than ‘craftsman,’ but we still clearly understand what she means.”

Bartlett was not an art historian, an ethnologist, or a scholar of any kind. Her family had deep philanthropic roots in her hometown of Chicago, though she preferred to call herself a “civic worker.” In line with that calling, her most fervent wish was to create a museum that would actively engage, educate, and inspire the masses in the folk arts and cultures of the world.

Until 1953 such engagement was largely limited to individuals like Bartlett with the means to travel and collect. But her gift of her collection, a museum building, and her longtime Alcalde home to the State of New Mexico (later sold to provide ongoing funds for the museum) made the adventure of international exploration accessible to the public. Bartlett had compiled much of her collection in such far-flung places as Morocco, Egypt, and the Sudan. Yet she chose to make her greatest cultural contribution off a bumpy dirt road in the still-remote, eastside hills of Santa Fe.

Of all the museum details that Bartlett pondered, the most important was how to communicate the meaning of folk art— its social and cultural value and the connections it inspires between art and people—to those who had never heard the term. She narrowed it down to folk art’s common promise. Writing in a 1953 edition of El Palacio dedicated to the occasion of the museum’s founding, she defined the institution’s aim: “[to] contribute toward greater mutual understanding among the various peoples of the world” and to be “a link in drawing the people into closer fellowship.”

With that issue, El Palacio officially entered the folk art conversation, though the magazine had from its inception included folklore among its subjects. Indeed, in the founding issue editors promised not only to “print live notes from the field of archaeology,” but also to “continue a regular folklore department under the heading ‘Once Upon a Time.’”

The new museum, however, gave El Palacio reason to take a more active voice as a documentarian of, and witness to, how the world viewed folk art. Although debates about the meaning of folk art had been circulating in scholarly circles since at least the 1930s, both El Palacio readers and museum-goers would learn that definitions of folk art are not easy to come by. The 1846 establishment of the term folklore by English writer and antiquary William John Thoms launched terms like folk art, folk life, and folk culture, used to describe the creative traditions and cultural lifeways of largely lower-class residents of rural, agricultural communities. Such communities demonstrated great ethnic and cultural diversity, and their artworks commonly reflected refined and complex skills and cultural symbolism. Still, the homegrown nature of these traditions inspired stereotypical scholarly and popular descriptions of the work as provincial, simple, quaint, crude, unschooled, and unsophisticated. These led to such artistic genres as primitive art, naive art, and peasant art, which were applied in broad brushstrokes in popular conversation, as well as in popular and scholarly writings.

“The language and attitudes of early scholars and writing were uppity and class-conscious,” Bol says. “It was the way the world was, and nobody thought a thing about it.”

Early numbers of El Palacio commonly highlighted local and regional artistic and cultural traditions, including Pueblo Indian pottery, Spanish Colonial New Mexican santos (paintings and sculptures of saints), and the religious and ceremonial rituals of Pueblo and Hispano residents. While traditional Hispano and Native arts today are frequently (and for some contemporary artists and scholars, arguably) referred to as “folk art,” early contributors alternately referred to local artistic traditions as “primitive art” and “handicraft.” The centuries-old history of regional art forms is emphasized; a poetic and romantic nostalgia about the past is also evoked, presenting the work as reflections of exotic cultures lost in time. Additionally, “Spanish” or “Mexican” artworks are often lumped into one vague category, failing to explain the development of Hispano arts in New Mexico as a unique genre.

El Palacio’s initial archaeological bent focused on Pueblo art and cultural traditions, but by the mid-1920s, local Hispano arts, especially santos, were being discussed more seriously. Still commonly noted as “primitive art” in its pages, santos were recognized as a regional art form and a collectible one, at that. In 1929 every issue highlighted a New Mexico bulto (sculpture) or retablo (painting) on the cover, and a feature devoted to santos included a photograph of a painted or sculpted saint, presumably from the Museum of New Mexico collections, with a brief history of its origins, religious symbolism, and often, its significance in New Mexico religious tradition.

Like many of her New Mexico contemporaries, Bartlett collected santos and other traditional Hispano and Native arts from New Mexico and displayed them at El Mirador, her beloved Alcalde home. Eventually, her estate donated them to the museum. According to various accounts, however, she did not originally intend for the folk art museum to be a venue for regional folk art. In a booklet published by the International Folk Art Foundation as a tribute to Bartlett on the museum’s tenth anniversary, renowned cultural historian John B. Jackson wrote that Bartlett “stated on many occasions that she did not wish the folk art of Spanish-American New Mexico to be included in the collection of the future museum, any more than she wished Pueblo Indian art or Anglo-American folk art to be included. Not only (in her opinion) were these fields adequately provided for in other museums, they did not belong in a museum whose purpose as she saw it was to introduce the folk art of foreign peoples to the American public.”

While the museum eventually built a major New Mexican Hispano folk art collection and devoted the Hispanic Heritage Wing to its display, the museum’s beginnings were true to Bartlett’s expansive international view. For the most part, however, she avoided the precarious path of telling people what folk art is in favor of showing them.

“The fact that she called it art that was worthy of preservation, worthy of exhibition, shows she was trying to elevate perceptions of folk art,” says Laurel Seth, executive director of the nonprofit International Folk Art Foundation, which Bartlett founded to help support the museum’s future. (Seth also cowrote and coedited with Ree Mobley the 2003 book Folk Art Journey: Florence D. Bartlett and the Museum of International Folk Art [Museum of New Mexico Press]).

“Many people still viewed folk art as backward and primitive—peasant art in the worst sense,” Seth continues. “But Bartlett definitely did not think of it as primitive. She also loved New Mexico folk art. She resisted having it in the museum at first because she didn’t want to impose on areas that other arts organizations were already covering in Santa Fe.”

As quoted in another tenth-anniversary publication, this one issued by the Museum of New Mexico Press and the International Folk Art Foundation, Bartlett said, “Folk art is the spontaneous, unstudied expression of those who have the spark of joy which leads them to create beauty, even in the simplest forms of everyday use.” But by many accounts, Bartlett was a practical woman of few words. The architect John Gaw Meem, paying tribute to her on the museum’s tenth anniversary, singled out her “quiet poise.” Seth, whose father and grandfather both represented her interests as attorneys, says, “She was very private, shy. She preferred being behind the scenes. She didn’t want the museum to be named after her or her name included with the inscription above the door. She wanted the focus on folk art.”

And so with fourteen carefully chosen words, Bartlett invited the world into the cross-cultural heart of folk art. For her, it was a vibrant mosaic of living traditions whose communal history and aesthetics reflect alternative and culturally sophisticated ways of being in the world, even in the most isolated, economically deprived places. She emphasized its broad points of connection— individual to individual, culture to culture, artist to art work to viewer.

Less than a year after the museum’s opening, in 1954, Bartlett died. Today, Seth says, “I don’t think people in general know her as well as they should.” But even if they don’t know her name, they know her words—the sacred mantra that has guided the museum’s growth from her original gift of some 5,000 folk art objects from thirty-four countries to the home of the world’s largest international folk art collection, with more than 150,000 objects from over 150 countries on six continents. The maxim has guarded the thoughtful expansion of Meem’s decidedly modern original building to a modern-day destination for tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Bartlett’s generosity and her philosophy of building bonds through folk art has inspired other collectors to follow her lead. The next major museum gift after Bartlett’s came in 1979, when collector and designer Alexander Girard and his wife, Susan, donated a collection of 106,000 objects that now form the worldly and whimsical exhibition, Multiple Visions: A Common Bond. In a 1982–83 interview in El Palacio, Alexander Girard described his dedication to collecting and exhibiting folk art in a way that surely would have made Bartlett smile: “My thought in this collection and exhibition is to present opportunities for connecting with people all over the world, while avoiding the bromide of ‘one world.’ It’s true that all the ‘people’ in the exhibit, like real people, have hands, feet, eyes, and bodies, and often they do the same things. But the truth is, they do them differently. What becomes interesting is seeing the differences as well as the similarities; that’s the real pay-off, the third dimension.”

In 1998 folk art collector Lloyd Cotsen, former CEO of the Neutrogena Corporation, donated a collection of 3,500 textiles and international folk art objects to the museum, along with an endowment for exhibiting the collection in the uniquely interactive Neutrogena Wing and for collections storage. In a 1998 El Palacio interview, Cotsen said, “I guess the bond I have is a fascination with how people express themselves, what they think, how they think in cultures so far distant from mine . . . . That’s why I started collecting. It was a physical link to another culture that I loved.”

Meanwhile, scholars continued to debate the definition of folk art. In 1973 the museum opened What Is Folk Art?, a three-year exhibition whose stated aim was “to emphasize that a neat, compact definition of folk art is not easy to achieve, involving as it does two distinct factors: the producer (folk) and the product (art).” Using 900 diverse folk art objects to illustrate the complexity of attempting to “partition artistic endeavor into a hierarchy of classes,” the exhibition invited viewers “to ponder over these stereotyped notions.”

The exhibition was particularly well-received. But by the 1980s, Bol says, scholarly attempts to define folk art, particularly in the context of emerging genres of “craft,” “outsider art,” and “visionary art,” again picked up steam. In a 1982 issue of El Palacio, National Endowment for the Arts folk arts specialist Robert Teske weighed in on the “controversy.” Teske discarded ideas of folk art “defined emotionally” as “the art of the common man” and “defined aesthetically” as “simple,” “naïve,” “technically unsophisticated,” and “instinctual to the point of unselfconscious.” He centered its definition around three ideas: “communal aesthetic,” “traditional nature,” and “social context.” Yet in closing his very convincing arguments, even he conceded that “there remain a number of grey areas.”

Today, Bol says, scholars are more comfortable with those areas. “The notion of having to rigorously define folk art versus fine art versus craft, etc., has mostly gone away. The field of folk art has broadened, and the world has changed, but folk art, as Bartlett understood it, is still purposeful.”

While scholars debated the definition of folk art, folk artists kept making it. And Bartlett’s dream of advancing public knowledge and perceptions of folk art has lived and evolved in a dynamic, experiential museum environment. The museum’s world-class collections and pioneering exhibitions and publications are now internationally known and respected. The museum continually reaches for new ideals of global connection.

“You can’t ever rest on your laurels,” Bol says. “Bartlett got out there and saw what was being done and what could be done. Our obligation to her is to keep moving this institution forward.”

Beyond presenting new and thought-provoking exhibitions and publications, Bol says the museum’s primary goal is to “form partnerships that have lasting value.” The museum’s partnership with the International Folk Art Market, for example, is providing more opportunities for sustainable folk art communities. Partnerships with individual artists remains at the heart of museum exhibitions and educational initiatives, including the Gallery of Conscience, which addresses social issues and spotlights today’s folk artists as the voices of their communities. The internet and other technologies have made it easier for museum staff to maintain an ongoing dialogue with folk artists and to connect with other global stakeholders. The museum is currently building relationships and exchange opportunities with artists, organizations, and governments in Saudi Arabia, Southern China, Laos, and beyond.

“It has taken a long time to build up enough expertise and connections to be truly international,” Bol says. “Now, in the museum’s sixtieth year, more opportunities come into play from different directions. Bartlett’s dream of international connection is a daily reality. I think she would be happy.”

Carmella Padilla’s most recent book is The Work of Art: Folk Artists in the 21st Century, published by IFAA Media and distributed by the Museum of New Mexico Press. She is a recipient of the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and a frequent contributor to El Palacio.