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American Folk Art Museum Names Anne-Imelda Radice As Director

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Anne-Imelda Radice with Michael Conforti, director of the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, at the Clark’s inclement 2008 ribbon-cutting ceremony for its Stone Hill Center
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

A crucial missing ingredient for the American Folk Art Museum’s recovery was a new permanent director. Now, more than a year after Maria Ann Conelli left the building and after it sold its flagship Tod Williams Billie Tsien-designed facility to the Museum of Modern Art, AFAM today announced that Anne-Imelda Radice, former director of the federal government’s Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) will assume the financially challenged museum’s directorship, effective Monday.

At IMLS, she served out her four-year term (ending in 2010), during which she approved and managed over $1 billion in IMLS grants to museums and libraries and raised additional private funds for initiatives. After that, she was a principal at the Dilenschneider Group, a New York-based communications and marketing firm, where she provided nonprofit management and financial advice and guidance on how to work with the U.S.Government’s Executive and Legislative Branches.

We know that she can navigate the federal bureaucratic maze. But can she also lead museums? From 1983-89, she was the first director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, and from 1972-76 she was an assistant curator of education at the National Gallery in Washington.

There’s one thing missing from the resumé of this longtime museum leader—folk-art expertise. The subject of her doctoral dissertation was Simone del Pollaiuolo, the 15th-century Florentine architect, and her art-historical background is in 13th- to 16th-century Italian painting, 15th- to 16th-century Italian architecture, Rome’s city planning and the architecture and art of the U.S. Capitol.

She does profess “an aesthetic and scholarly appreciation [of folk art],” but has no degree in it.

That’s far from a deal-killer, though: The ranks of museum directors are filled with highly distinguished art historian/administrators lacking in-depth background in their institutions’ chief collecting fields (most notably, Glenn Lowry, the Islamicist who directs the Museum of Modern Art).

It’s early days to learn what ideas Radice has for her new institution and how proficient she will be as a fundraiser, but she has let it be known that she wants not only to “maintain our strong presence in New York City” but also to “expand our museum’s role as the preeminent voice of and resource for folk art and the contemporary art of the self-taught in the country.”

As it happened, AFAM’s headhunters did contact a museum director who has not only a successful administrative track record but also a deep background in folk art—Paul D’Ambrosio, the president and CEO of the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY (whose William Matthew Prior show I recently reviewed for the Wall Street Journal).

With a position he’s already well satisfied with, a wife, Anna, who directs the nearby Munson-Williams-Proctor Museum in Utica, NY, and children happily ensconced in their schools, Paul indicated that he somewhat reluctantly took himself out of contention for the New York post.

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Paul D’Ambrosio, president and CEO of the Fenimore Art Museum, in front of William Matthew Prior’s self-portrait
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s what Paul said to me during my July visit, when I asked him about AFAM’s situation, without knowing that he had been a quasi-candidate:

Circumstances being different, there’s nothing I wouldn’t give for that job, because this is my field. But this [the Fenimore] has a great folk art collection, a great Native art collection, a great venue for fine art exhibits, plus the Farmers Museum [located across the street]. Given my love for this material, there’s no better job [than AFAM's directorship] in the country, financial situation or not, because, honestly, their debt is paid off and they’ve got programmatic money for three years.

I could dive into that. I could get people excited. I don’t know whether it would work or not, but it’s actually not a bad time to jump in and try to do something for three to five years and steer them away from going down the wrong path again, in terms of overreaching in that idea of a permanent home.

They could have a permanent home that’s a little different from what they tried to have. I know a lot about museums and false hope, which I’ve seen many, many times. When we built this [new Fenimore] wing, we assumed attendance would boom. It grew but it didn’t boom, but luckily we didn’t stake our financial future on that. I think that in some regards the Folk Art Museum did, in terms of not just attendance but donor base. The building was bleeding money.

But that collection is phenomenal!

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Installation shots from Compass: Folk Art in Four Directions (to Oct. 7), AFAM’s exhibition on view at the South Street Seaport Museum, New York
Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

What I most appreciated about today’s auspicious AFAM announcement was that Radice made a point of crediting her curator, high up in the press release:

I have tremendous respect for [senior] curator [and director of exhibitions] Stacy Hollander [who organized the installation pictured above], who has one of the strongest curatorial visions in the field, and I look forward to working with the entire institution.

That’s what I’d call a good start.

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