Santa Fe Folk Art Museum Celebrates Global Culture
The history of the museum
Opened in 1953 in the foothills of Santa Fe, the world’s largest folk art collection will radically expand your notions of what belongs in a museum: ceramics, jewelry, masks, puppets, quilts, dolls, textiles and more. It all started with the tireless efforts of Chicago heiress Florence Dibell Bartlett (1881–1954), the daughter of a hardware wholesaler – he was the originator of the True Value label – whose interests were decidedly more intellectual. than hammers and nails.
Bartlett began visiting New Mexico in the 1920s and began amassing a folk art collection that would eventually include over 2,500 pieces from over 30 countries. She later commissioned architect John Gaw Meem, known for popularizing the “Santa Fe style”, to create a building for her collection, a gift to the people of New Mexico.
Philanthropy, it turns out, ran in the family. His sister, Maie Bartlett Heard, co-founded Phoenix’s Heard Museum, dedicated to Native American art, while his brother, Frederic Clay Bartlett, donated his unrivaled collection of modern masterpieces, including Georges Seurat. A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte — at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Bartlett’s mission, however, was more ambitious and progressive than simply showing off the considerable collection she had acquired around the world. “The art of the craftsman”, she once said, “is a bond between the peoples of the world”. After two devastating world wars accentuated the differences between cultures, she hoped instead to highlight our commonalities. She was particularly fond of handmade goods, which contrasted sharply with the turn of the 20th century towards impersonal industrialization. Strolling through the galleries, it is impossible not to be a bit moved. It doesn’t matter if they come from Peru or Poland, Tibet or Tanzania, artisans will always make ceremonial items to commune with their deities, memorials to honor their dead, and toys to entertain their children.
Inside the museum
Over the years, MOIFA has grown tremendously. The Hispanic Heritage Wing (currently home to an exhibit of Hispanic folk music from New Mexico that includes handmade instruments and costumes) and the textiles-filled Neutrogena Wing, where the namesake collection includes Ceremonial Fabrics Indonesian, Bolivian feathered costumes and Japanese kimonos. But the museum arguably shines brightest in the Girard Wing, with Multiple Visions: A Common Bond, an ongoing exhibit that opened in 1982.
In a unique twist, the collection’s donor, mid-century modernist designer and architect Alexander Girard (also nicknamed “Sandro”), designed his own exhibit, and its curation is groundbreaking and immersive. Rather than pasting objects in rows behind glass, Girard created whimsical vignettes, cramming figurines, miniatures and toys from around the world into detailed scenes of bullfights, baptisms, parties, markets, weddings and even gatherings of angels and demons, without any of the screens. separated by region of origin.
The massive wing features 10,000 pieces of folk art – only about 10% of the total Alexander and Susan Girard collection – with the artwork intentionally left unlabeled; the idea is simply to let this colorful mish-mash of cross-cultural art wash over you.
“The must-have item in our collection is actually 10,000 must-have items,” says Villela. “Coins are coming at you from all directions – don’t forget to look up!” (Of course, if you’re dying to learn more about all those unlabeled items, you can pick up a printed gallery guide or an iPod multimedia tour.)
After spending a few hours digging deeper and deeper into every corner of Multiple Visions, Villela hopes you’ll take the elevator (aka “Vehicle to the Vault”) to an overlooked hidden gem: Lloyd’s Treasure Chest, named of the late art collector and former CEO of Neutrogena, Lloyd Cotsen, who donated many pieces to the museum. “In addition to the temporary exhibitions, there is an exhibition on ‘What is folk art?’ “, explains Villela. “I think a lot of us think we know what folk art is – maybe quilts or duck decoys – but what else in the world are they doing?” The open-air vault includes works such as a wedding rickshaw from Bangladesh, mechanical toy robots from Japan and a popular fabric sculpture by American artist Mary Bowman of an anthropomorphic cow and coyote holding each other hand on a couch.
If you don’t mind the crowds, you might want to visit the annual International Folk Art Market, held the second weekend of July in the square outside. Founded to create economic opportunities for folk artists around the world, the market hosts around 160 vendors from more than 50 countries, including Guatemalan beadworkers, Indonesian upholsterers and Ukrainian icon painters. Sure, you can pick up countless goodies on a shopping spree around the world, but the festival offers something more meaningful: a moving reminder that Bartlett’s mission to celebrate the common bond between artisans is well alive.