A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America
The Nevada Museum of Art’s new exhibit, A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America, is a 60-piece installation from Barbara L. Gordon’s private collection of 19th and 20th century American folk art. It makes a good—if imperfect—case for the genre, with its brightly colored still-lifes, odd but even-handed portraits of children alongside their pets, small domestic sculptures, and hand-painted, German-style furniture.
There’s a classic tobacco store Indian. There’s a carousel rabbit. There are paintings you might recognize, such as “The Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks.
The fact that many of these pieces were once deemed unworthy of the art world’s attention only gives the exhibit a subversive flavor, even if it may not deserve it. After all, folk art is popping up in contemporary museums all over the place, and A Shared Legacy has been a popular traveling exhibit for two years and counting. But the struggle for legitimacy was once very real for American folk artists.
“The majority of art being made at this time was folk art because most people did not have access to really fine painting or sculpture,” explained NMA communications director Amanda Horn. “It was always a patronage sort of lineage, and you had to be wealthy or a church [to participate].”
With the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the extra time and income it afforded, middle-class workers became middle-class patrons overnight.
“When you’re not completely focused on just trying to eat and survive, that’s where culture can start to be made,” said Horn. “It’s a growth time.”
But growth wasn’t enough to push the new crop of untrained artists into the realm of high art that belonged to the Romantics, Impressionists and Realists. And though many folk artists imitated the techniques of these Eurocentric styles, it was the mix of influences that really set them apart.
Portrait artists featured in A Shared Legacy place old-world tropes like the documentation of wealth and formal posing next to culturally inspired patterns, clothing and furniture that situates the works firmly in 19th-century America.
Sculptors do the same, using woodcarving techniques learned in their homelands to bring flag-clutching eagles and deeply stereotyped Native Americans to life. There is even an early attempt at using the female image to sell men’s products in Samuel Robb’s “Girl of the Period”—a life-size carving of a woman holding a cigarette and wearing an expression worth the entire trip to the museum.
That’s not to say there isn’t any room for improvement. Christina Barr, Nevada Humanities director and speaker for the NMA’s Art Bite on folk art, has praised the show as “a beautiful exhibit” with “a lot to offer” but also with a few things to be desired.
“It would have been nice to see a little more context given to both the condition of the exhibit and how it came to be, who the collector is and her story,” said Barr. As it stands, there’s a good chance you could walk out thinking that folk art is exclusively white, largely male and firmly in the past.
The museum seems to be addressing this problem the same way folk artists have always handled the inclusion issue—they’re just making their own stuff. This includes workshops, lectures, and a campaign that encourages locals to tag their own #FolkArtNevada pieces on social media.