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).
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 , 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.
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:
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 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).
The building is adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art.