Twenty years ago, when Atlanta’s High Museum of Art became the first fine art museum in the country to hire a curator of folk art, it seemed poised to become a center for American vernacular art.
The High has built a collection of almost 800 pieces, focusing on works by rural, often African American, southerners. It boasts the largest number of drawings by Bill Traylor, the freed slave and sharecropper from Alabama who painted sharp, frenetic figures on scraps of cardboard. It has the most extensive collection of pieces by North Georgia Baptist preacher Howard Finster, who emblazoned almost anything — sidewalk slabs, bicycles, washing machine parts — with candy-colored, gospel-infused visions. And it owns one of the largest troves of Vining artist Nellie Mae Rowe’s fantastical paintings of farm life.
Although it took awhile for self-taught art to gain mainstream acceptance as fine art, the tide has turned. Major museums around the world have mounted exhibitions of Gee’s Bend quilts, for instance, and Alabama artist Thornton Dial was given a serious retrospective in 2010. Last year, the New York Times dubbed the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art From the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection “exhilarating” and “a breakout moment for outsider art, and its increasing infiltration, or dissolution, of the mainstream.”
Yet as self-taught art picks up steam, the High’s enterprise appears to be at a standstill.
The museum’s folk art curatorial position has been vacant for 15 months — ever since Susan Mitchell Crawley resigned in March 2013 — and there is no active search for a new curator. The position is not even budgeted for the High’s next fiscal year.
David Brenneman, the High’s director of collections and exhibitions, affirmed the High’s commitment “to the study, care and acquisition of folk art and self-taught art.” The museum, he said, is rethinking what it can afford and hoping to find a donor to fund the position with an endowment.
While the idea of a folk art curator has not been abandoned, Daniel W. Boone, a folk art collector who is on the High’s board of directors, suggested it is not exactly a priority.
“We’re pretty much on hold,” he said. “The idea has been kicked around, but it’s not always on the front burner . . . It’s sort of a chicken and egg thing. We need someone leading folk art to generate enthusiasm, and we don’t have that right now.”
The absence of a curator and the dearth of news of any major folk art acquisitions or exhibitions alarms some collectors.
“Who is championing folk art in the South if the High doesn’t have a curator?” said Carl Mullis, an Atlanta folk art collector and past chairman of the board of advisors for the Georgia Museum of Art. “I’m afraid the High may get left behind. Ten or 15 years ago, the High was one of the only museums in the field. That’s not the case now.”
Lynne Browne, a folk art collector from Highlands, North Carolina, concurs. “The High has a leg up on having a masterful collection, but it needs to move forward — folk art is exploding,” she said.
Browne has donated some of her most beloved pieces to the High, including Howard Finster’s 1979 painting on glass The Angel of the Waters, and Bessie Harvey’s dramatic root sculpture Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. With the curator position vacant, however, Browne said she has adopted a state of “wait and see.”
“I’m getting older and I’ve been collecting a long time, but I want to know my pieces are going to a good home. I don’t want to see the High squander this opportunity and let it slip away.”
Time, they say, is of the essence. This is a strategically significant moment in which major pieces are being sold and bequeathed, new talents are emerging and museums across the country are developing interest in the field. If the High has no one actively building relationships with collectors, identifying exceptional pieces and aggressively promoting and exhibiting folk art, many patrons might decide to donate elsewhere.
In addition, competition is fiercer now that the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., has a curator of folk art and the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio has an adjunct curator of American folk art. Other museums devoted to the field — the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago, and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe — are also expanding their holdings. Steve Slotin, a Georgia folk art dealer who founded the annual Folk Fest, said last month’s auction in Buford attracted international bidders.
“It’s unlikely the High will ever have a great French Impressionist collection,” Mullis said. “What they could have, if they had a curator really committed to it, is a wonderful collection of folk art.”
Brenneman said he was confident that donors would step up to support a folk art curator. All of the other curatorial positions at the High are endowed now that photography joined the list in April, courtesy of a $2 million donation from Donald Keough, the former president and chief executive of the Coca-Cola Company.
“It’s no more or no less challenging to fund self-taught art than to fund any other department,” Brenneman said, noting that the field attracts a great deal of popular interest.
Which, for a museum that is always looking to build its audience, would seem yet another reason to support it.
The irony is that Atlanta is the logical center for this art. “This is the visual blues, the art of the American South,” Slotin said. “Draw a circle around Atlanta and go out a couple of hundred miles — about 90 percent of all the folk artists live in this region. This is America’s truly original art form — a grassroots art uninfluenced by the European masters or the academic world, and it’s right here in our backyard.”