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Save the American Folk Art Museum! (plus former director’s planned keynote speech)

Linda Dunne, acting director, American Folk Art Museum

At the end of my narrated slideshow about the last day of the American Folk Art Museum in its W. 53rd Street building, I wistfully stated:

We can only hope that there is a place in New York City for a museum of folk art.

With the NY Times‘ recent publication of two articles about the museum’s dire plight—one on Saturday by Kate Taylor, the other today by Robin Pogrebin—the odds for AFAM’s survival in New York may have been further diminished.

While I believe that the Times absolutely had a journalistic responsibility to publish Taylor’s scoop about serious discussions now in progress to close AFAM and transfer its collection to the Smithsonian Institution (with some works possibly to be shown at the Brooklyn Museum), my feeling is that this news is likely to have a chilling effect on possible donors who might have been interested in contributing to an effort to save the museum but may now believe (if they didn’t already) that any rescue attempt is a lost cause. (It is also possible, but less likely, that by highlighting the museum’s desperate situation, the Times articles could instill a heightened sense of urgency in potential supporters.)

Shutting down AFAM should be Plan B. There wasn’t much information in the Times’ articles, though, about any Plan A: an all-out appeal to megabucks donors—public, private, corporate—to keep the museum and its major collections in New York, allowing it to gradually pick up the pieces with a renewed sense of purpose.

Linda Dunne, AFAM’s acting director (who, we were told, assumed the role of museum press spokesperson after Susan Flamm left that post), has so far been a non-spokesperson for CultureGrrl—not responding to my phone messages or e-mails, which began earlier this week. Calls placed to various extensions at the administrative offices of the museum (even including the one for membership and development), connected me only to voicemails. If a live person gets back to me with some substantive news, you’ll be the first to know.

Having suffered from not only budgetary but also managerial shortfalls, the museum needs to reach out (if it hasn’t done so already) for help from its wiser professional colleagues in the Association of Art Museum Directors (to which it belongs) and in the New York museum community. The local museum with which AFAM has the greatest affinity, in terms of the nature of the collections, is the Museum of Arts and Design. MAD got everything right in its move to a bigger building that AFAM got wrong. Most importantly, it acquired the financial underpinning it needed before opening the doors, three years ago, to its new, inviting home on Columbus Circle.

A partnership with MAD could be worth exploring, as might be a two-city partnership with another preeminent American folk art museum—the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, VA. This might help to address the concern expressed to Pogrebin by Stacy Hollander, AFAM’s curator, that transferring the collections to the Smithsonian and Brooklyn Museum would fail to “fulfill the function of a stand-alone folk art museum….The contribution in terms of the scholarship would no longer occur, and that would be a tragedy.”

At the time of the closing of the W. 53rd Street museum, Hollander still had a show scheduled for this fall in AFAM’s smaller Lincoln Square space: “Life: Real and Imagined—A Decade of Collecting.” But the only shows currently listed on the museum’s website are Current Exhibitions, Past Exhibitions and Traveling Exhibitions. I have not yet been able to determine whether any future exhibitions are now anticipated. (I’ll update here if I hear.)

Paradoxically, while the Times was running its litany of AFAM’s woes in today’s “Arts” section, the Wall Street Journal today ran (in its “Greater New York” section) Melanie Grayce West‘s profile of crafts collector and museum benefactor Nanette Laitman, a prime mover behind MAD’s successful move to Columbus Circle.

Even more paradoxically, Maria Ann Conelli, the former director of AFAM, who fled the sinking ship last month, is scheduled to be keynote speaker for the Directors Forum, Oct. 23-25 in New York, titled, “Expecting the Unexpected” [via], organized by the Art Museum Partnership.

Conelli’s topic (scroll down): “Budgets, Boards and Bad Decisions.” This is undoubtedly a subject that she knows a lot about.

Maria Ann Conelli, then AFAM’s executive director, beseeching a City
Council committee two years ago to approve, at full 1,250-foot height,
the MoMA/Hines skyscraper, to which AFAM had hoped to sell its air rights

an ArtsJournal blog