The museum’s first decade was a time of multiple beginnings, as its founders—Arthur M. Bullowa, Adele Earnest, Cordelia Hamilton, Herbert W. Hemphill Jr., Marian Willard Johnson, and Joseph B. Martinson—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. Bert 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.
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.
Joseph B. Martinson (President); Marian Willard Johnson (Vice-President); Arthur M. Bullowa (Legal Counsel and Treasurer); Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr.; Cordelia Hamilton; Adele Earnest
George Montgomery (1963-1964)
Mary Black (1964-1970)