UES109C.jpg (38042 bytes) New York Architecture Images-Upper East Side

American Folk Art Museum


Tod Williams Billie Tsien & Associates


East 53rd Street




Late Modern (International Style III)  


The façade of the 85-foot tall building is clad in sixty-three textured panels of a lustrous white bronze alloy known as Tombasil. The material—never before used architecturally—is faceted in three large planes that evoke the human hand and catch the light at different angles. A large skylight crowns a ceiling-to-floor open core, sending natural light through the entire height of the building.




Tombasil Panels on Facade

The American Folk Art Museum is the leading center for the study and enjoyment of American folk art, as well as the work of international self-taught artists. It is located at 45 West 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, in Midtown Manhattan (New York City, USA).

Museum History
The museum was founded on June 23, 1961, and opened its doors to the public for the first time on September 27, 1963, in the rented parlor floor of a townhouse at 49 West 53rd Street.[1] In 1979, the museum purchased two townhouses adjacent to 49 West 53rd Street. While plans for a development of these properties were being devised, the institution continued to present its exhibitions in the rented gallery until 1984, when it opened facilities in a former carriage house at 125 West 55th Street. That building, however, was razed just two years later, leaving the museum without galleries of its own for almost four years. During that time, the institution continued to organize a full schedule of exhibitions and educational programs, utilizing public spaces and corporate galleries, and offered an extensive traveling exhibition program to museums throughout the country. In 1989, exhibition facilities at 2 Lincoln Square, opposite Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, were opened.

Diversity in programming became a growing emphasis for the institution in the 1990s. Major presentations of African American and Latino artworks became a regular feature of the museum's exhibition schedule and permanent collection. In 1998, the formation of the Contemporary Center was announced, a division of the museum that is devoted entirely to the work of twentieth- and twenty-first-century self-taught artists, as well as non-American artworks in the tradition of European art brut. Within a short time, the Contemporary Center established a leadership role in this field. In 2001, the Center announced the acquisition of twenty-four works by Chicago artist Henry Darger, as well as a huge archival collection of Darger’s books, tracings, drawings, and source materials, which combined now form the basis of the Henry Darger Study Center.

As the collection and the reputation of the museum continued to mature, so did the effort to develop a permanent home. It was determined that the museum would erect a 30,000-square-foot, eight-level structure on the 45 and 47 West 53rd Street lots, to be designed by the internationally recognized firm of Tod Williams & Billie Tsien. This building was inaugurated on December 11, 2001.

During the more than four decades of growth and development, the museum has enlarged its mission and extended the purview of its interests. Known initially as the Museum of Early American Folk Arts and concerned principally with the vernacular arts of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, especially of the Atlantic Northeast, the institution adopted a simpler but more inclusive name in 1966: the Museum of American Folk Art. As an expression of a further extension of mission, the institution chose its current name, American Folk Art Museum, in 2001. Recognizing that American folk art could be fully understood only in an international context, the word American functions as an indication of the museum's location, emphasis, and principal patronage rather than as a limitation on the kinds of art it collects, interprets, or presents.

In 2007, it was among over 530 New York City arts and social service institutions to receive part of a $20 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation, which was made possible through a donation by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.[2]

Artworks and Exhibitions
The museum began to build a collection almost immediately after it was established. The now iconic Flag Gate (c. 1876) was its initial accession, in 1962, followed, a year later, by the Archangel Gabriel Weathervane (c. 1840) and the monumental St. Tammany Weathervane (c. 1890), now a centerpiece in the museum. The purchase, in 1979, of the famous Bird of Paradise Quilt Top (1858–1863) represented a turning point: The art of quiltmaking would become a major emphasis in the collection and public programs of the institution. Throughout the 1980s, the permanent collection continued to grow with major acquisitions of early American folk art, including Ammi Phillips’s masterpiece, Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog (1830–1835).

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, the institution was recognized for its lively exhibitions, many of which were pioneering in scope, including the wide-ranging and influential "Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists" in 1970, which explicitly took a broader view of the field than that originally articulated by the organization's founders. In this and other exhibitions, the museum argued against the notion that the creation of folk art was a thing of the past.

In anticipation of the completion of the new building in 2001, more than four hundred important works of early American folk art from the renowned collection of Ralph O. Esmerian were promised to the museum. These included a comprehensive collection of Pennsylvania German material, Shaker gift drawings, needlework samplers, and paintings by artists such as Edward Hicks and Sheldon Peck.

Recent exhibitions include:

"A Legacy in Quilts: Cyril Irwin Nelson's Final Gifts to the American Folk Art Museum" (2007–2008)
"Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel" (2007–2008)
"The Great Cover-up: American Rugs on Beds, Tables, and Floors" (2007)
"In the Atrium: Landscapes from the Collection" (2007)
"Martín Ramírez" (2007)
"A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr." (2006)
"Concrete Kingdom: Sculptures by Nek Chand" (2006)
“White on White (and a little gray)” (2006)
"Obsessive Drawing" (2005–2006)
"Surface Attraction: Painted Furniture from the Collection" (2005–2006)
"Ancestry and Innovation: African American Art from the Collection" (2005)
"Self and Subject" (2005)
"Blue" (2004–2005)
Upcoming exhibitions:

"Darger-ism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger" (2008)
"Asa Ames" (2008)

Building History

The striking building now housing the American Folk Art Museum allows the institution to display more than five hundred artworks from its collection of more than five thousand objects.

The façade of the 85-foot tall building is clad in sixty-three textured panels of a lustrous white bronze alloy known as Tombasil. The material—never before used architecturally—is faceted in three large planes that evoke the human hand and catch the light at different angles. A large skylight crowns a ceiling-to-floor open core, sending natural light through the entire height of the building.

Intimate areas, reflecting the domestic scale of much of the museum's collection, allow for a personalized art experience. Open galleries feature spaces for the display of larger, more dramatic works. A unique cantilevered concrete stairway connects all levels of the building. Additional types of staircases not only provide varied paths of circulation between floors but also give visitors different visual experiences.

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects have won numerous awards for the building—among others, an American Institute of Architects National Honor Award (in 2003); the World Architecture Awards for Best Building in the World, Best Public/Cultural Building in the World, and Best North American Building, as well as the New York City American Institute of Architects Design Award (all in 2003); and the Municipal Art Society New York City Masterwork Award (in 2001).

^ For more information about the history of the American Folk Art Museum, see Gerard C. Wertkin, "Foreword," in Stacy C. Hollander and Brooke Davis Anderson, American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (New York: American Folk Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001), pp. 10–13.
^ New York Times: City Groups Get Bloomberg Gift of $20 Million. Retrieved on September 3, 2007
^ See "A Selection of Awards," Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects official website.

Further Reading
Folk Art. Magazine published annually by the American Folk Art Museum.
Anderson, Brooke Davis. Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum. New York: American Folk Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.
Anderson, Brooke Davis. Martín Ramírez. Seattle: Marquand Books in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2007.
Hollander, Stacy C. American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum. New York: American Folk Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.
Hollander, Stacy C., and Brooke Davis Anderson. American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum. New York: American Folk Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.
Zimiles, Murray. Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel. With a foreword by Gerard C. Wertkin and an essay by Vivian B. Mann. Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press in association American Folk Art Museum, 2007.
American Folk Art Museum

Chartered as the Museum of Early American Folk Arts when it was founded 
in 1961, the Museum originally focused on the vernacular arts of 18th 
and 19th century America, especially of the northeast. The institution 
adopted a more inclusive name – Museum of American Folk Art – in 1966. 
Over the years, it established a national and international reputation 
as a leading cultural institution dedicated to the collection, 
exhibition, and study of traditional and contemporary American folk 
art. As the American Folk Art Museum, it will present exhibitions and 
programs that embrace an even wider range of folk art, both traditional 
and contemporary, from the U.S. and abroad. 

Name Change 

In anticipation of this major expansion and to underscore a spirit of 
dynamic growth, the Museum is changing its name to American Folk Art 
Museum. The new name emphasizes the American experience within a global 
mission. The American Folk Art Museum’s Inaugural Season of 
Exhibitions, launched with the opening of the new building, will 
illustrate the Museum’s commitment to an expanded range of interests 
from traditional folk art of the 18th and 19th centuries to the work of 
contemporary self-taught artists from the U.S. and abroad. 

“The name change marks the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in 
the 40-year history of this institution as we eagerly await the 
completion of the expansion,” said Gerard C. Wertkin, director of the 
American Folk Art Museum. “The new name makes a subtle but significant 
difference, reflecting our mission as America’s foremost institution 
dedicated to promoting the knowledge and appreciation of folk art from 
this country and abroad, past and present.” 

The American Folk Art Museum’s increasingly broadened outlook has been 
evident in a series of rotating exhibitions organized by the Museum 
over the past several years, including exhibitions on the folk art of 
Latin America, England, and Norway, among other countries and 
continents. The Museum is currently presenting the work of 20th century 
European and American self-taught artists who fit French artist Jean 
Dubuffet’s definition of art brut. A number of paintings by artists 
represented in the exhibition ABCD: A Collection of Art Brut have 
already entered the Museum’s permanent collection. 

At the Museum by Jason Wiggins 

The American Folk Art Museum is small and can be somewhat hard to find. 
The museum’s permanent exhibit has a diverse range of objects, quilts, 
hunting decoys, portraits, decorative pottery and boxes, weathervanes 
and religious objects, paintings and crucifixes; basically, artwork 
that you most likely won’t find in other museums of American art. 
There’s a lot of information explaining the history and importance of 
the work, but even if you stop to read everything, you won’t end up 
spending more than two hours here. The staff of the museum is 
friendlier than those of a lot of other museums, making it a pleasure 
to visit. 

About the New Building 

The new building will quadruple the Museum’s gallery space for the 
display of its expanded permanent collection and special exhibitions, 
provide educational facilities, and consolidate the staff offices. Tod 
Williams Billie Tsien and Associates’ first major public project in New 
York City, the new facility will fulfill the Museum’s long-term goal of 
establishing a permanent home for the study and appreciation of 
American folk art and allow the Museum to display a substantial number 
of artworks from its collection of 4,000 objects. It will also be home 
to the Museum’s Contemporary Center, dedicated to the study and 
appreciation of the work of contemporary self-taught artists. The 
Museum will continue operating its current gallery space, the Eva and 
Morris Feld Gallery at Lincoln Square, as a branch museum, ensuring a 
significant presence in two of New York’s most important cultural 
districts—the Lincoln Center area and midtown Manhattan, near the 
Museum of Modern Art, the American Craft Museum, and the Museum of 
Television & Radio. 

Clad in sixty-three lightly textured tombasil panels, a white bronze 
alloy, the eight-level, 85-feet tall structure will be capped by a 
skylight above a grand interior stair connecting the third and the 
fourth floor, with dramatic cut-throughs at each floor to allow natural 
light to filter into the galleries and through to the lower levels. The 
lustrous, sculptural facade is the product of a manual fabrication 
process evocative of the hands-oriented approach characteristic of folk 
art—its panels are cast by pouring molten metal directly into gated 
forms on the concrete floor of the foundry. The faceted panels, which 
appear stonelike and metallic at the same time, will create different 
visual effects catching the light of the sun as it rises and sets, east 
and west along 53rd Street. The galleries on the four top floors of the 
building will vary in scale from intimate spaces to open areas to allow 
for a personalized art experience and the display of larger works. Art 
will also be integrated into public spaces, such as the lobby, 
stairwells, and hallways, utilizing a system of niches throughout the 
building that offers interaction with a changing group of folk art 
objects beyond the gallery setting. Visitors will be able to move 
between building levels by using three different staircases – a layout 
that encourages multiple paths of circulation and gives the visitor the 
feeling of an architectural journey. Adding a sense of warmth to the 
building, the gallery floors will be made of wood set into concrete. 
Seven of the eight levels of the new building will be entirely 
dedicated to public space. The mezzanine level will house a small 
coffee bar overlooking a two-story atrium and offering views of 53rd 
Street. At the entrance level will be the Museum Shop, with access 
during non-Museum hours via a separate exit to the street. The museum 
offices, reference library, and educational areas, including an 
auditorium and classrooms, will be located on two levels below ground. 

The $34.5 million Capital Campaign to fund the expansion project and 
boost the Museum’s endowment has been spearheaded by Ralph Esmerian, 
Chairman of the Board, and Lucy Cullman Danziger, Campaign Chair and 
Board Executive Vice-President, under the presidency of John Wilkerson. 
To date, the Museum has successfully raised $31 million from private, 
public, and foundation sources, including $2.5 million appropriated by 
The City of New York and $500,000 by the State of New York in support 
of the new building. 

Museum History

After many years of planning, the museum is opening a magnificent new 
building at 45 West 53rd Street in Manhattan; at the same time, the 
organization is seeing the most significant additions to its permanent 
collection in the forty years since its founding. As a result, it 
seemed appropriate for me to take a broad, backward look at the 
institution as it embraces the long-awaited realization of the very 
goals that sparked its establishment. I do not intend this essay to be 
a history of the museum, but rather a review of some of the highlights 
of a fascinating forty-year story of commitment and courage. Founding 
Trustee Adele Earnest contributed her “History of the Museum, 
1961-1978” to the midsummer 1978 issue of The Clarion (now Folk Art 
magazine). In the winter 1989 issue, Alice J. Hoffman—now the museum’s 
director of licensing—published her comprehensive study, “The History 
of the Museum of American Folk Art: An Illustrated Timeline.” Both of 
these resources remain valuable introductions to the museum, and I am 
happy to acknowledge my reliance upon them in the preparation of this 

The First Decade, 1961-1971

The museum’s first decade was a time of multiple beginnings, as its 
founders—Adele Earnest, Cordelia Hamilton, Herbert W. Hemphill Jr., 
Joseph B. Martinson, Marian Willard Johnson, and Arthur M. 
Bullowa—sought to give shape and structure to a shared vision. For 
them, folk art was a vital element in American cultural history, and it 
warranted the establishment of an institution in the city of New York 
devoted to its collection, exhibition, and interpretation.

When the Board of Regents of the New York State Education Department 
granted a provisional charter on June 23, 1961, the prospects for 
acquiring a home or a collection for the Museum of Early American Folk 
Arts, as the new organization was initially called, were uncertain at 
best. The choice of New York City, then acknowledged as the art capital 
of the world, was significant in itself. The very idea that folk art 
could be studied and appreciated as art, rather than as material 
culture or historical or ethnographic artifact, was a by-product of the 
growth of modernism as a movement in the history of American culture.

The museum began to build a collection almost immediately after it was 
established. Hemphill presented the now famous Flag Gate (c. 1876) as a 
gift in 1962. The museum’s initial accession, this piece remains among 
the most celebrated works of art in the permanent collection. Adele 
Earnest contributed the Archangel Gabriel weathervane (c. 1840) the 
following year. Featured as the cover image on the catalog of the 
institution’s first exhibition, which was on view in the gallery of the 
Time and Life Building in October and November of 1962, the weathervane 
served as a well-loved symbol of the museum for many years.

During its first decade, other gifts also came to the museum, along 
with one major purchase: the monumental, 9-foot-tall St. Tammany 
weathervane (c. 1880), perhaps the country’s largest. With a handful of 
exceptions, the institution’s earliest acquisitions were 
three-dimensional objects. The museum soon established a reputation for 
the visual strength and aesthetic importance of sculpture in its 
permanent collection, a reputation that was enhanced in 1969 by 
Alastair B. Martin’s gift of 140 outstanding wildfowl decoys. Its other 
holdings were, relatively speaking, minor.

The museum opened its galleries to the public for the first time on 
September 27, 1963, in the rented parlor floor of a town house at 49 
West 53rd Street. George Montgomery, who had organized traveling 
exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art, was appointed the museum’s 
first director in 1963, a post he held only until 1964. For the most 
part, the institution’s approach to the collection and exhibition of 
American folk art was grounded in the fine arts, following—but 
extending—the model of curator Holger Cahill, whose groundbreaking 
exhibitions at the Newark Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in the 
1920s and 1930s helped establish the field. The exhibition program of 
the first decade was ambitious. Although the museum’s emphasis, as 
might be expected, was on the nineteenth century and the Northeast, the 
institution staked out a national and even international purview for 
itself almost from the beginning.

Although it consistently received excellent reviews for its 
exhibitions, many of which were truly pioneering in scope, subject 
matter, and scholarship, the institution’s goal of financial stability 
remained elusive. Even so, the museum continued to present provocative 
and engaging exhibitions.

The new museum established a reputation for its innovative programming 
and fidelity to mission. Its success in fulfilling its objectives was 
recognized by the Board of Regents in 1966, when it awarded a permanent 
charter to the institution under the name Museum of American Folk Art. 
Nevertheless, the decade ended in doubt and even despair. Due to 
financial difficulties, the Board of Trustees considered closing the 
institution’s doors forever in 1971.

The Second Decade, 1971-1981

If there were few reasons to celebrate the beginning of the museum’s 
second decade, there were at least several reasons for encouragement. A 
grant from the National Endowment for the Arts funded a series of 
exhibitions that helped sustain the museum’s reputation as an innovator 
and drew more visitors than any of the exhibitions held during the 
institution’s first decade. The museum also received a grant from the 
New York State Council on the Arts; this funded the planning and 
organization of a series of Bicentennial exhibitions on the folk arts 
of New York State.

Wallace E. Whipple, director from 1971 to 1972, explained that the many 
encouraging developments masked a more serious reality, and the 
financial strain on the institution was intense. Consideration was 
given to the sale of the museum’s collection at auction. This was a 
controversial proposal; ultimately, the museum retained ownership of 
the most important works of art in its collection. The brief but 
brilliant directorship of Bruce Johnson (1975-1976) helped bring a 
renewed sense of purpose to the organization. Shows presented during 
his tenure broke all attendance records. The museum also produced a 
series of illustrated catalogs and books during this period. The 
momentum that Johnson inspired continued beyond his tragic death in a 
motorcycle accident at the age of twenty-seven.

One of the museum’s new trustees of that time was Ralph Esmerian, a 
young collector whose name appears in museum records for the first time 
in 1973. Esmerian entered an uncertain institutional environment with 
the conviction that the institution not only would survive but, if 
properly nurtured, would build a national center in New York for the 
study and appreciation of American folk art. He served as treasurer 
until 1977, as president from 1977 to 1999; since 1999, he has served 
as chairman.

In 1977, the museum’s Board of Trustees appointed Robert Bishop 
director. Bishop was a talented promoter who took a broad, inclusive 
view of folk art. A prodigious author in the fields of the American 
folk and decorative arts, Bishop placed great emphasis on the museum’s 
publication program. The summer 1977 issue of The Clarion was no longer 
a newsletter; in addition to providing a glimpse of the museum and its 
programming, it featured topical essays on a variety of aspects of 
American folk art. It would soon be recognized as an important resource 
for the study of the subject and help boost membership in the museum.

In order to encourage gifts to the museum, Bishop set an example by 
promising works of art from his own collection. In 1978, one year after 
he arrived at the museum, Bishop boldly published “A Guide to the 
Permanent Collection” in the midsummer issue of The Clarion. Many of 
the objects illustrated in the article were his own promised gifts; 
others were the gifts or promised gifts of his friends and associates, 
including Trustee Cyril I. Nelson. For the first time since its 
founding, the museum now held a collection of quilts and other 
textiles, and this collection would soon become one of its greatest 
strengths. Also, the collection now included paintings and sculpture by 
twentieth-century self-taught artists. Another successful initiative of 
Bishop’s early years was the establishment of the museum’s volunteer 
docent program in 1978. Lucy Cullman Danziger, now executive vice 
president of the museum’s Board of Trustees and chair of its Capital 
Campaign, initially served as a founding docent and as docent co-chair.

In 1979, several trustees came together to purchase the famous Bird of 
Paradise Quilt Top (c. 1860) for the museum. Another major acquisition 
was David Pottinger’s gift in late 1980 of his comprehensive collection 
of midwestern Amish quilts. During the same year, the Museum received 
Effie Thixton Arthur’s bequest of her large collection of chalkware 
figures. Most celebrated of the accessions during this period was a 
highly significant promised gift, the collection of figural sculpture 
assembled over many years by Dorothea and Leo Rabkin. Although it still 
had a long way to go, the museum was clearly building a permanent 
collection of true substance and depth.

Because of the inadequate size and facilities of its rented gallery, 
the museum sought to move into a home of its own almost from its 
earliest days as an institution. In 1979—through an introduction from 
Maureen Taylor, a trustee of the museum, and her husband, Richard, a 
former trustee, and the interest of Blanchette Rockefeller—the museum 
was able to purchase from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund two adjoining 
town houses at 45-47 West 53rd Street, formerly a residence for 
actresses called the Rehearsal Club. This purchase would prove to be 
one of the single most significant events in the history of the 

Although the buildings were in poor condition and thus could not be 
used, they provided the basis for future development. Through the 
generosity of Ralph Esmerian, the principal contributor of funds toward 
this purchase, and other thoughtful members of the Board, the museum 
could now look forward to a home of its own. If the second decade began 
in doubt and uncertainty, it ended on a very high note, indeed.

The Third Decade, 1981-1991

When I joined the staff of the museum as assistant director in late 
1980, it became clear that the building project was the principal order 
of the day. The museum began to devise plans for development on West 
53rd Street—an effort that dominated its third decade. These plans were 
complicated by a series of zoning, tenant, and legal issues that 
absorbed the time and attention of the museum’s board and 
administration. To be sure, the museum continued to organize a full and 
varied schedule of exhibitions and educational programs. In 1981 the 
museum established a graduate program in folk art studies in 
conjunction with New York University, the first of its kind in the 
nation. The Folk Art Institute, an accredited program leading to a 
certificate in folk art studies, was initiated in 1985. The decade also 
witnessed impressive growth in the permanent collection, but the 
development of the museum’s future home took precedence over everything 

The museum presented its exhibitions at 49 West 53rd Street until 1984, 
when it opened handsome new facilities nearby in a former jazz museum 
and Rockefeller carriage house at 125 West 55th Street. This was a 
temporary move, an optimistic response to affirmative developments in 
the building program, intended in part to permit the properties on 53rd 
Street to be prepared for demolition. Under the terms of the lease 
covering the 55th Street galleries, the museum was required to vacate 
in 1986 (the building was subsequently razed).

Without galleries of its own for almost four years, the institution 
organized a remarkable series of exhibitions and educational programs 
by utilizing public spaces and corporate galleries and forming 
partnerships with other museums. In addition, the museum strengthened 
and extended its traveling exhibition program to institutions 
throughout the country. As of the end of the museum’s fourth decade, 
its exhibitions have been presented in no fewer than 150 museums and 
other venues in the United States and abroad, representing both a major 
public service and a professional affirmation of the merit of the 
museum’s programming.

While negotiations on the future of the museum’s properties on 53rd 
Street continued, the museum undertook the creation of branch 
exhibition facilities at Two Lincoln Square in Manhattan, on the ground 
floor of a multi-use building opposite Lincoln Center for the 
Performing Arts. Occupied under a tripartite agreement with the owner 
of the premises and the City of New York, this former “public arcade” 
provided more expansive exhibition space than either of the 
institution’s prior galleries. It opened to great fanfare in 1989. 
Named for the renovation’s principal contributor and her late husband, 
the Eva and Morris Feld Gallery at Lincoln Square has supported a 
broad-based public program since it was opened twelve years ago.

Back in 1980, Bishop and I began a series of talks with Jean and Howard 
Lipman for the purchase of their collection of American folk art. As a 
result, the museum accessioned thirty-nine key works and sold the 
remainder at auction to fund the purchase. Among other significant 
accessions during the museum’s third decade, Elizabeth Ross Johnson 
contributed a group of twentieth-century paintings and sculpture in 
1985. The same year, Animal Carnival, Inc., through Trustee Elizabeth 
Wecter, transferred a collection of animal sculptures. Martin and Enid 
Packer’s collection of tenth-anniversary tin arrived in 1988, and in 
1989 Margot Paul Ernst gave her woven coverlet collection in memory of 
Susan B. Ernst. That same year, an encyclopedic gathering of painted 
tinware and other objects, the gift of the Historical Society of Early 
American Decoration, also came to the institution.

The expected development of a multi-use building on six lots—upon which 
so much energy was expended during the decade—did not occur. The 
project had to be scuttled. That fact, and Robert Bishop’s increasingly 
serious illness, cast a shadow over the end of the museum’s third 
decade. The museum’s thirtieth anniversary passed with little notice.

The Fourth Decade, 1991-2001

Robert Bishop died on September 22, 1991, and was deeply mourned by a 
wide circle of friends and professional associates. After serving as 
acting director during Bishop’s illness, I was appointed director of 
the museum in December of that year. My goals as director included a 
renewed focus on the building program, greater diversity in exhibitions 
and collections, more sustained use of the permanent collection, and a 
concentration on new scholarship. The board, the staff, and I entered a 
period of long-range planning and self-study to help prepare for the 
realization of these objectives.

Over the course of the first thirty years of its history, the museum’s 
programming was remarkably diverse—indeed, by its very nature the folk 
art field is multicultural—but diversity became even more of an 
emphasis in the 1990s. Major presentations of works by African American 
and Latino artists became a regular feature of the museum’s exhibition 
schedule and permanent collection. In 1991, a grant from the National 
Endowment for the Arts funded the purchase of an important collection 
of contemporary African American quilts.

In 1993 the museum rededicated the south wing of the Eva and Morris 
Feld Gallery at Lincoln Square as the Daniel Cowin Permanent Collection 
Gallery, so named in memory of a deeply respected trustee. In 1998 I 
announced the formation of The Contemporary Center, a division of the 
institution devoted entirely to the collection and exhibition of the 
paintings, sculpture, and installations of twentieth- and now 
twenty-first century self-taught artists. Its establishment prompted 
the gifts to the museum of important works by twentieth-century 
self-taught artists from M. Anne Hill and Edward Vermont Blanchard, Sam 
and Betsey Farber, and David Davies. In 2001, The Contemporary Center 
announced the acquisition, by purchase and by gift, of twenty-four 
works by the great Chicago artist Henry Darger, as well as a huge 
archive of Darger’s manuscript books, tracings, drawings, and source 

Although the Eva and Morris Feld Gallery greatly improved its capacity 
to serve the public in the 1990s, the museum persisted in its efforts 
to create a permanent home and determined to develop a new building on 
the lots at 45 and 47 West 53rd Street. The museum’s trustees 
commissioned the internationally recognized architectural team of Tod 
Williams Billie Tsien and Associates to design a 30,000-square-foot 
structure on the two lots, and they announced the commencement of a 
$34.5 million Capital Campaign to underwrite the costs of construction 
and the establishment of an endowment.

Known initially as the Museum of Early American Folk Arts, the 
institution adopted a more inclusive name in 1966; as the Museum of 
American Folk Art, it established a reputation for examining virtually 
every aspect of the folk arts in America. The museum has now chosen its 
new name, the American Folk Art Museum, as an expression of a further 
extension of mission.

In anticipation of the opening of the museum’s new home, many 
thoughtful donors have given or promised highly important objects in 
virtually every medium for the permanent collection. Indeed, the growth 
of the permanent collection has been a striking feature of the 1990s. 
The most significant gift comprises more than four hundred works of art 
representing the heart of Ralph Esmerian’s folk art collection.

Founding trustee Adele Earnest struck a millennial note seventeen years 
ago in the concluding paragraph of her book Folk Art in America. 
Although she herself did not live to see the realization of her dream, 
she fully anticipated its fulfillment. “When I climb the hill near my 
home in Stony Point,” she wrote, “I will look straight down the Hudson 
River, thirty miles to New York City where our [museum] shall stand. On 
that triumphant day, our Angel Gabriel will blow his horn, loud and 
clear, in honor of all who have served our cause, and especially for 
those who have served and passed through the pearly gates. Blow! 
Gabriel! Blow!”

Excerpts from an essay published in Folk Art (summer 2001, vol. 26, no. 
2), the museum’s quarterly magazine.


The American Folk Art Museum is pleased to announce that its building 
at 45 West 53 Street, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, 
continues to receive awards for its magnificent design. Most recent 
honors include the American Institute of Architects National Honor 
Award and the NYACE Engineering Excellence Award, both of which were 
received in 2003. The American Folk Art Museum was awarded the 
prestigious Arup World Architecture Award, a top international prize, 
for "Best New Building in the World for 2001." The Museum was chosen 
among 300 international projects completed during 2001. Entries came 
from 45 countries, and included a wide range of types and sizes of 
buildings–from some of the world’s best-known architectural firms to 
small one-person practices. New York City-based architects Tod Williams 
and Billie Tsien joyously accepted the $30,000 award for their design 
at a ceremony in Berlin on Friday evening, July 26, 2002.

The American Folk Art Museum also won the award for "Best North 
American Building" and "Best Cultural Building in the World." The 
Awards are organized by World Architecture Magazine and were judged by 
a panel of leading architectural experts, drawn from all around the 
world. “All of us at the museum are delighted that Tod Williams and 
Billie Tsien have received this important professional recognition for 
a design that captures the very essence of creativity which forms the 
core of the museum’s mission,” said Gerard C. Wertkin, director of the 
American Folk Art Museum. “Their magnificent new building provides a 
perfect setting for the museum to present the great works of art that 
comprise our collection.”

The American Folk Art Museum opened December 11, 2001 to great critical 
and public acclaim. Coinciding with the three-month anniversary of the 
terror attacks on the World Trade Center, the unveiling of the new 
building represented progress, growth, and renewal during a city-wide 
effort to revitalize New York’s cultural, social and economic life. It 
is the first new art museum built from the ground up since the Whitney 
Museum of American Art opened in 1966. “This may not be a big 
building—by American standards—but it is a magnificent one. The design 
is a very interesting response to New York, where building are usually 
so glassy. Here there is a real weightiness; it suggests a different 
take on contemporary architecture,” noted Naomi Stungo, the editor of 
World Architecture magazine who presented the award.

About the Building

The 30,000 square foot building is clad in sixty-three lightly textured 
tombasil panels (a white bronze alloy). An eight-level, 85-foot tall 
structure, it is capped by a skylight above a grand interior stair 
connecting the third and the fourth floors, with dramatic cut-throughs 
at each floor to allow natural light to filter into the galleries and 
through to the lower levels. The lustrous, sculptural facade is the 
product of a manual fabrication process evocative of the hands-oriented 
approach characteristic of folk art – its panels are cast by pouring 
molten metal directly into gated forms on the concrete floor of the 
foundry. The faceted panels, which appear stonelike and metallic at the 
same time, create different visual effects catching the light of the 
sun as it rises and sets, east and west along 53rd Street. The 
galleries on the four top floors of the building vary in scale from 
intimate spaces to allow for a personalized art experience to open 
areas for the display of larger works. Art is also integrated into 
public spaces, such as the lobby, stairwells, and hallways, utilizing a 
system of niches throughout the building that offers interaction with a 
changing group of folk art objects beyond the gallery setting. Visitors 
are able to move between building levels by using three different 
staircases – a layout that encourages multiple paths of circulation and 
gives the visitor the feeling of an architectural journey. Adding a 
sense of warmth to the building, the gallery floors are made of wood 
set into concrete. Seven of the eight levels of the new building are 
entirely dedicated to public space. The mezzanine level houses a café 
overlooking a two-story atrium and offering views of 53rd Street. At 
the entrance level is the Museum Shop, with access during non-museum 
hours via a separate exit to the street. The museum offices, reference 
library, rare book room, and educational areas, including the 
auditorium and classrooms, are located on two levels below ground. 

In the words of architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the following 
statement documents what it takes to “build a museum” from vision to 

This new eight-level building devotes the four upper floors to gallery 
space for permanent and temporary exhibitions. A skylight above a grand 
interior stair allows natural light to filter into the galleries and to 
the lower levels through openings at each floor. As a result, dramatic 
interior spaces are animated by a wash of light, enhancing the 
experience of the visitor.

Art has been built into the structure and circulation paths of the 
building using a series of niches that offer informal interaction with 
a changing selection of folk art. The experience of the museum visitor 
is conceived as a personal journey composed of surprise encounters with 
both new and familiar objects through the use of diverse paths. The 
museum’s collections and exhibitions are presented through traditional 
and non-traditional display spaces, creating a memorable environment 
for frequent as well as first-time visitors.

At the mezzanine level, a small café overlooking 53rd Street provides a 
dramatic view of the two-story atrium. The building extends two levels 
underground; one floor holds the new auditorium and classroom 
facilities, while the lowest level houses administrative offices and 
the library. At the street level is a new museum store accessible 
during non-museum hours via a separate entrance.

This forty-foot-wide building is surrounded on the front and back sides 
by sites owned by the Museum of Modern Art. The facade of the American 
Folk Art Museum is designed to make a strong but quiet statement of 
independence. It is sculptural in form, recalling an abstracted open 
hand that folds slightly inward to create a faceted plane. Metal panels 
of tombasil, a form of white bronze, clad the building. Spaces between 
each panel reveal the darkened wall of the weather barrier behind. 
These panels catch the glow of the morning and early evening sun as it 
rises and sets, east and west along 53rd Street.

Facade Panels

When first asked what the facade of the museum might be, our rather 
facetious response was that it might be made of old bubble gum. The 
second impulse was to consider tilt-up concrete panels cast on the 
vacant lot next door to our site. One could imagine the layers of urban 
archeology that could be uncovered and incorporated into the facade of 
the building. Obviously, both these ideas were not realistic, but they 
revealed our desire to clad the building in a material that was both 
common and amazing, and that would show a connection with the handmade 
quality of folk art. We wanted the building to reflect the direct 
connection between heart and hand.


We decided to look for a material that had a warmer color. Tombasil is 
a commercially produced white bronze alloy used for boat propellers, 
fire hose nozzles, and grave markers (hence its name). It has a warm 
yet silvery quality that we liked. We were interested in the direct 
fabrication technique; one that revealed how the panels were made. 
Samples were made at first by pouring the material directly onto the 
concrete floor of the foundry. We also tried pouring tombasil onto 
steel plates for a smoother finish. Although the results were 
interesting, they were also uncontrollable. The intense heat of the 
molten metal caused water entrapped in the concrete to explode; the 
results were interesting pockmarks but dangerous working conditions. 
The heat also caused the steel plates to warp and buckle. Working with 
the Tallix foundry in Beacon, New York, we eventually developed a more 
controlled situation using sand molds taken from concrete and steel.

Resin fiberglass 

We previously used fiberglass in an installation of screens that we had 
designed. We very much liked the translucency and its “low tech” 
quality. Originally, we wanted to use a screen wall of fiberglass to 
shield the primary staircase. The screen would create silhouettes of 
people walking up and down the stairs. We wanted the screen to be blue. 
However, since it was a permanent part of the building, the fiberglass 
needed to be fireproofed, a process that would have produced a murky 
brown tone. The samples show how the color changed as we worked with 
the fabricator to produce what eventually became the blue-green panels.

Pietra Piesentina

This stone comes from a small quarry north of Venice. The stone occurs 
as large boulders that are dug out of the earth and cut into more 
standard rectangular blocks. In northern Italy pietra piesentina is 
used for paving as well as for exteriors and interiors. In the museum, 
it is used on the floors and walls of the lower, ground, and mezzanine 
levels in a flamed or roughened finish. The stone’s warm gray tone 
complements the concrete used throughout the building and creates a 
contrast to the cool blue-green tone of the fiberglass.

Douglas Fir

The materials of the museum are a balance of warm and cool. To counter 
the coolness of the concrete and glass, many elements throughout the 
museum are made of Douglas fir, which has a warm reddish hue. Solid, 
full-length fir planks are set into terrazzo ground concrete in the 
gallery spaces. Solid wood rails run along the glass handrails. This 
same wood is also used in a woven manner as a balustrade wall 
separating the café (on the mezzanine level) from the ground level of 
the museum. It also appears as a series of fins along the wall of the 

Laminated Insulated Glass

An extremely clear glass, Starfire, manufactured by Pittsburgh Plate 
Glass, was chosen for the windows. Glass usually has a green tint to 
it, which causes both light entering the building and views out of the 
building to have a greenish quality. To keep views of the city true to 
their color, this special transparent glass was used.


The concrete throughout the museum has been finished using different 
techniques; although the material stays the same, it varies in color 
and finish. The slabs throughout the building are terrazzo ground to 
produce a smooth finish that reveals the stone aggregate. The 
poured–in–place concrete walls are bush hammered. This technique 
involves using a jackhammer over the surface, which creates a rough but 
controlled texture.

Cold Rolled Steel

The handrails along the main stair, which runs from the top to the 
bottom of the gallery spaces, are fabricated from blued cold rolled 
steel. We chose the steel because it is both humble and elegant.

Terne-Coated Stainless Steel

The exterior of the north facade of the building is finished with thin 
sheets of steel. They are used in an overlapping manner, rather like 
enlarged shingles, to create both depth and texture.

Heath Tile Terra Cotta Hand-Glazed Tile 

The Heath Company started as an art ceramics studio in Sausalito, 
California, fifty years ago. The entry and the interior walls of the 
bathrooms are finished using their white tile. Each tile is hand 
glazed, which causes variations in the final color.


Benches in the gallery and tables in the library are custom made by 
cabinetmaker Steven Lino from cherry wood. Cherry is similar in color 
to the Douglas fir, but it is a deeper red and a harder wood. 


The work of Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates bridges different 
worlds - across theory and practice; across architecture and the fine 
arts. Williams had a seasoned foundation in the practice of 
architecture with over six years as an associate in the office of 
Richard Meier before starting his own practice in 1974. Tsien brings to 
architecture a background in the Fine Arts and a keen interest in 
crossing disciplinary boundaries.

Both architects maintain active teaching careers parallel to their 
practice. Tsien has taught at Parsons School of Design, SCI-ARC, 
Harvard, Yale, and UT Austin. Williams has taught at the Cooper Union, 
SCI-ARC, Harvard, Yale, and UT Austin and held the Thomas Jefferson 
chair at the University of Virginia in 1990. They shared the Jane and 
Bruce Graham chair at Penn in 1998. Billie Tsien is on the boards of 
the Architectural League, the Public Art Fund, and is a vice president 
of the Municipal Art Society in New York City. Tod Williams is on the 
advisory board of the School of Architecture at Princeton.
Among several awards the American Folk Art Museum was selected "Best New Building in the World for 2001" and in October, 2002 the building was awarded the prestigious Brendan Gill Prize by the Municipal Art Society of New York.

Area: 30,000 square feet
Completed: 2002

Client: The American Folk Art Museum (  )
Architects: Tod Williams Billie Tsien, Architects

Project Architect: Matthew Baird
Project Team:
Phillip Ryan
Jennifer Turner
Nina Hollein
Vivian Wang
Hana Kassem
Kyra Clarkson
Andy Kim
William Vincent
Leslie Hanson

Associate Architect: Helfand Myerberg Guggenheimer Architects
Project Team:
Peter Guggenheimer
Jennifer Tulley
Jonathan Reo

Director: Gerard C. Wertkin
Deputy Director: Riccardo Salmona

Project Manager: Seamus Henchy & Associates
Seamus Henchy
Chris Norfleet
Kristen Solury

General Contractor: Pavarini Construction
Acoustical Consultant: Acoustic Dimensions
Structural Engineers: Severud Associates
Mechanical Engineers: Ambrosino, DePinto & Schmeider
Curtainwall Consultant: Gregory Romine
Lighting Design: Renfro Design Group
Exhibition Design: Ralph Appelbaum and Associates
Graphic Design: Pentagram
Bronze Panel Foundry Tallix
Concrete Consultant: Reginald Hough FAIA

With thanks to for construction notes. Full article at;