Robert Bishop (1938-1991) was not only an influential and innovative director of the American Folk Art Museum, serving from 1977 through 1991, but was involved in creative and academic pursuits throughout his life. Born in Readfield, Maine, Bishop moved to New York City in the 1950s to become a ballet dancer. He danced in Broadway shows, and the Metropolitan Opera, and was awarded a scholarship at the School of American Ballet, where he studied from 1958 to 1960. Around the same time, he also began focusing on art and antiques, a passion that he inherited from his grandmother, who worked with antiques in Maine. Eventually, Bishop owned or co-owned three antique stores, and was spending more time dealing antiques than dancing.
Through his friendship with Cyril Nelson, an editor at E. P. Dutton and fellow folk art enthusiast, Bishop began working as a photo researcher, working with Marsha Davidson on American Heritage’s three-volume history of American decorative arts. From there, Bishop moved on to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where he worked as the museum editor and assistant curator of American decorative arts. Bishop continued to work with E. P. Dutton, and in the next few years, published American Painted Furniture (1972), America’s Quilts and Coverlets (1972), designed by Bishop and written by Carleton L. Safford of the Ford Museum, Centuries and Styles of the American Chair, How to Know American Antique Furniture (both 1973), American Folk Sculpture (1974), New Discoveries in American Quilts (1975), A Gallery of Amish Quilts, and The American Clock (both 1976). Bishop received a PhD in American culture at the University of Michigan in 1975, where he also taught art history.
Bishop returned to New York to join the American Folk Art Museum as director in 1977, after the untimely death of Bruce Johnson. Still a small museum, leasing only a floor and half in a brownstone at 49 West 53rd Street, the American Folk Art Museum grew exponentially under Bishop’s leadership. The first exhibition under Bishop’s direction, Folk Art and Funk: Andy Warhol’s Folk Art World was a highly publicized success, and the first of many popular shows to come. Bishop pushed for the growth of the museum in many directions, including securing the purchase of multiple adjoining brownstones on West 53rd Street. Bishop also established the Folk Art Institute, a Graduate program at New York University in folk art studies, which was the first of its kind in the United States. Many other museum initiatives were established under Bishop’s direction, including the Great American Quilt Festival, growing the permanent collection significantly, publishing the Clarion as a 64-page quarterly rather than a short newsletter, traveling exhibitions internationally, and establishing a photo licensing and reproductions program. During this time, Bishop continued to publish books including Folk Painters of America (1979) and The Romance of Double Wedding Ring Quilts (1989). Bishop published twenty-three books in his lifetime.
Besides a passion for many different kinds of folk art, especially furniture, and quilts, Bishop also held a special interest in dogs. He owned and showed both Doberman pinschers and Manchester terriers, and incorporated his love for dogs into his work. His 1977 exhibition, The All-American Dog: Man’s Best Friend in Folk Art, was another incredibly popular show.
Bishop passed away from AIDS-related lymphoma in 1991. He was 53 years old.