What can a 21st century calendar savant and a 19th century girl possibly have in common? Innate creative brilliance. Works by both are included in the exhibition Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum, now on view in New York City through August 17th, 2014.
Jessie B. Telfair, Freedom, 1983. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York.
The show’s title is based on the idea that all Americans, as citizens of a start-up nation, were originally self-taught as they forged identities in a new and in many respects undefined land. Folk art – art produced without any formal artistic training or education – reflected this from the start but over time the self-taught ideal has come to be associated with artists working outside of the mainstream. The works in this show are best-in-class examples of the self-taught artistic tradition in the United States.
George Widener, Funeral for Titanic, 2007. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York.
The artwork is organized into seven themes – Achievers, Messengers, Ingenuity, Encoders, Improvement Guides and Reformers – an organizational device that highlights currents in American history across the four centuries represented here. Encoders includes Funeral for Titanic, 2007, by calendar savant George Widener. He notes that the Titanic sank on a Monday and was mourned on a Tuesday. That Tuesday is represented here, “starting on April 16, 1912, and going forward every Tuesday for 700 years. The number of Tuesdays approximately corresponds to the number of people who were rescued from the sinking ship.”
Newburyport Needlework Picture, c. 1810.Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York.
Jessie B. Telfair’s Freedom Quilt, 1983 (pictured at the top of the post), is included in the Reformers section. Telfair created this quilt as a response to losing her job after she tried to register to vote. The Newburyport Needlework Picture, c.1810, an elegant scene embroidered entirely in silk, is displayed as part of the Improvement theme. This work is thought to be the work of an anonymous nine-year old Newburyport girl. With over 100 works, there are many examples of ‘homegrown’ creative talent to explore in this show. Are they all works of genius? Does genius reside within us naturally or alongside us for cultivation? Watch this TED talk on the nature of genius, and decide for yourself.
Sideshow Banner, c. 1930-40. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York
The visitor experience: what worked
Content: This show has a very clear point of view throughout. Each work has a unique story and these are told through well-written, engaging label copy.
Website: The dedicated exhibition website is highly visual, and includes pictures of all works, all label copy, options to sort by theme, artist or century, and supplemental information too.
Social: The hashtag for this show is #AFAMGenius. Assigning hashtags in advance is a smart way to establish where conversations about the exhibition should take place online, and shows that the museum is staying current.
Grandma Moses, Dividing of the Ways, 1947. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York.
The visitor experience: room for improvement
Audio guide: I am never going to dial a phone number (repeatedly) to listen to an audio guide. I forgot to check about downloading the audio to my phone in advance, and it just seemed like a hassle once I arrived. See my Iran Modern review for more on this.
Website: The home page navigation is slightly confusing. For example, rolling over the “Achievers” theme picture makes eight descriptive words appear. These actually are not navigational options, though the onscreen behavior implies otherwise. Also, why is there a link to an article about Kaleidoscope Quilts on the home page? This is not a show about quilts. The information hierarchy could use some tightening up.
Asa Ames, Phrenological Head, c1850. Collection American Folk Art Museum.
Remarks specific to the American Folk Art Museum:
Given the museum’s recent history, it may seem churlish to criticize the museum’s current space. But what are exhibitions without visitors? This is not a visitor-friendly space. It is a single lobby area shared by the gift shop, the exhibition gallery, and the bathrooms. The floor is tiled and the ceiling is high which means it is LOUD. Every sound – babies crying, staff chatting, toilets flushing, and hand dryers blowing – is amplified. It couldn’t be less conducive to viewing art or taking the time to read the carefully researched labels. Surely temporary, transparent walls could be installed?
I started writing this blog because I was so surprised at how un-evolved the visitor experience in museums still is, as compared to the consumer experience at retail, or the guest experience in hotels and restaurants. We’ve all had great shopping and dining experiences, and our expectations of a brand, a site visit, and an exhibition are increasingly sophisticated. It is a mistake to think that artwork and curatorial expertise are enough to supersede a mediocre visitor experience.
This show is an impressive showcase for the museum’s larger permanent collection and, thanks to a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, will be accessibly by many more visitors through a seven city, nationwide tour. I’m curious to hear about the installation (and see pictures) in the other venues. The works are visionary, technically adept, and historically interesting. In the right setting, this show should really shine. Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum is on view through August 17, 2014 and then will travel to the following cities:
Figge Art Museum, Davenport, IA
Mingei International Museum, San Diego, CA
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA
St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO
Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, FL