The decision by the Museum of Modern Art to demolish the former site of the American Folk Art Museum — a contemporary architectural masterpiece — at first feels disloyal to the repurposing spirit of the very outsider art the building was erected to honor.
But to focus solely on the fate of the building, however creative its design, overshadows the true heart and soul of any museum: the work that once was housed inside.
I became fascinated with folk art as I wrote a middle-grade novel, “The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky,” a story that follows fifth-grader Auggie’s journey to save her blighted neighborhood from demolition. She and her Grampa Gus, a trash hauler, use broken appliances and junked cars to “beautify” their home, turning it into a regular folk art environment.
Many folk artists reinvent utilitarian objects — even buildings — into art. John Milkovisch said of his Beer Can House, “Some people say this is sculpture, but I didn’t go to no expensive school to get these crazy notions.” It’s hard to argue now against his house being a lively example of outsider art. Rightfully, efforts are underway to preserve the home.
Similar efforts are being made to preserve the Watts Towers in California and the Orange Show in Texas, folk art environments considered examples of handmade architecture. And, it is encouraging that MoMA has said it plans to preserve the principal panels that comprise the American Folk Art Museum’s facade.
One has to remember that the folk art environments are themselves works of art created solely in the name of self-expression.
The former Folk Art Museum building, meanwhile, is a beautiful frame meant to highlight the artistic work within. It will be sad to lose such a striking building; enthusiasts of modern architecture will be justified in mourning its loss. But buildings — even beautiful ones — come and go.
The soul of the Folk Art Museum — paintings and sculptures created by untrained visionaries — is still intact. The museum itself thrives, now in another location near Lincoln Center, and we still have access to outsider art — a form of art that constantly challenges our preconceived notions of beauty.