When John D. Rockefeller, Jr. established in 1957 the museum that bears his wife Abby’s name, he honored her and her leading role in the appreciation and study of American folk art. He may not have envisioned that the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum (AARFAM) would become the oldest, continuously operating institution in the United States dedicated solely to the collection, exhibition and preservation of American folk art. Nearly 60 years after the museum was founded with a core collection of 250 objects that Mrs. Rockefeller gave to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1939, the AARFAM, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, is home to nearly 7,000 objects dating from the 1720s to the present. Together these remarkable works represent the diverse cultural traditions and geographical regions of the United States. In 2017, to celebrate the museum’s diamond anniversary, a yearlong schedule of festivities is planned.
Special anniversary events begin with the museum’s loan exhibition to the annual Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, January 20-29. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum: Revolution & Evolution will feature a selection of some of the finest pieces in its collection including ceramics, sculpture, drawings, paintings, fraktur, furniture, weathervanes, utilitarian objects, needlework, quilts, toys and more. The exhibition will honor Mrs. Rockefeller, who was revolutionary in her time as one of the early woman collectors of folk art and whose collection is the nucleus of the museum’s American folk art collection. It will also salute the museum’s own evolution as its collection has continued to grow over the years and its programs have expanded. The Winter Antiques Show's 2017 loan exhibition is sponsored by Bessemer Trust.
“In the six decades since the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum opened its doors, our collection of American folk art has grown dramatically, providing a breadth and depth that was likely unimagined in 1957,” said Ronald L. Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation and museums. “The exhibitions and programs planned for 2017 will brilliantly showcase this stunning array of American art in ways that will delight museum goers and honor Mrs. Rockefeller’s pioneering vision.”
Anniversary celebrations will kick off at Colonial Williamsburg on May 6 with the opening day of We the People: American Folk Portraits, an exhibition which will feature approximately 50 folk portraits in the AARFAM collection reflecting the broad appeal of artwork and the creation of images of and for everyday people. We the People will also address common misconceptions about American folk portraits, such as that people aren’t smiling and are portrayed in the same or stock clothing or costumes; whether or not artists added heads after the rest of the portrait was painted, as well as why male subjects often are depicted with one hand in an opening in the subject’s waistcoat or vest. The exhibition will highlight new accessions to the collection, including John James Trumbull Arnold’s portrait of Mary Mattingly (Maryland, 1850), William Anderson Roberts’s portrait of the Russell Girls with Cat (North Carolina, 1868), Jefferson Gauntt’s portrait of the Jennison Family (New York, 1838), and Portrait of the Smith Family, attributed to Capt. James Smith (Virginia, 1807). Favorites from the collection will be on view as well, including Wilkinson Limner’s Portrait of Mrs. Seth Wilkinson (New York, 1827-30), Erastus Salisbury Field’s Bullard Family (Massachusetts, ca. 1835) and Jonathan Adams Bartlett’s Self Portrait (Maine, 1841) that will also be shown in the Winter Antiques show loan exhibition.
Special programs will be offered in honor of the anniversary as well. On Monday afternoons in May and early June, visitors can join Art Museums staff in “Folk Art Focus,” in which special objects in the collection, such as quilts, paintings, sculpture and pottery, will be discussed. On Saturday mornings in May and early June, visitors can explore 19th- and early 20th-century play things in the popular exhibition German Toys in America and then drop in and make a toy inspired by the antique toys on view. Art Museums programs are included in the price of admission. Also on Saturdays at nearby Bassett Hall, the Rockefellers’ home in Williamsburg, visitors can tour the house in a special program, “A Neighbor Stops By,” in which they will meet the 1934 mayor’s wife, Mrs. George P. Coleman, who became a close, personal friend of the Rockefellers during their restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. Admission to Bassett Hall is included in the Colonial Williamsburg and Art Museums admission pass.
Throughout the summer, family programs and tours will be offered several days a week. Mondays will feature “Colonial Williamsburg Collects,” a guided tour in which visitors will learn about how and why objects have been collected for the AARFAM over the years. Fridays will be “Folk Art Fridays,” in which visitors can drop in and create a piece of folk art inspired by the collection and reminiscent of crafts ranging from the 1830s to the 1950s to today. Saturdays at Bassett Hall will highlight “Abby’s Art at Bassett Hall,” in which guests can tour the house and then drop in at the cottage on the property to learn about theorems and make one of their own to take home. (Theorems were a favorite art form that Mrs. Rockefeller chose for her home in Williamsburg.)
On June 3, an anniversary community day will be held with special folk art tours and folk music performances throughout the museum. A special lecture with Ken Farmer, antiques appraiser, will be held at 5:30 p.m. in which he will discuss his experiences on PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow” as a folk art expert, how the popular television show got its start and what have been some of the highlights. Throughout the talk, Farmer will discuss what folk art is and how perceptions about it are changing as enthusiasts are collecting at every level.
America’s Folk Art is the third special exhibition planned for 2017 and is scheduled to open on July 1. Displaying a wide array of folk art from the AARFAM collection, the exhibition will serve as an informative introduction to this art form. More than 30 pieces of furniture, sculpture, paintings, weathervanes and ceramics will be included. Visitors will also have an opportunity to learn about Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, her collection and how it has grown to the world-class assemblage of present day. Among the highlights to be shown in America’s Folk Art are Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks (1830s), an early 20th-century decoy, a face-shaped jug (ca. 1850), a Pennsylvania painted chest (1769), a stone carved fox by Tim Lewis (Kentucky, 1993), a carved walking stick by Thomas Purkins (Virginia, 1847) and a weathervane shaped like Lady Liberty (1900-1910).
To conclude the anniversary year, a richly illustrated, hardcover book long awaited by museum-goers will be published by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The first book about the AARFAM collection in more than 25 years, it will feature 75 highlights including paintings, carvings, toys and needlework and will be published in November. Ronald L. Hurst will compile, edit and introduce the text with contributions from Colonial Williamsburg curators. The 160-page tome will be available for $24.95 in time for holiday gift-giving.
The holidays will also be celebrated at AARFAM with its annual folk art Christmas tree, which has been delighting guests for more than 50 years and is decorated with more than 1,500 handmade ornaments based on folk art in the museum’s collection. A commemoration of nearly 60 years of special holiday displays will also be highlighted.
For anyone who appreciates American folk art, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is the premiere venue for seeing the nation’s most vibrant and evolving collection. In 2017—its 60th anniversary year—there will be no better time to plan a visit.
About The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg include the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, with more than 7,000 folk art objects made during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum exhibits the best in British and American fine and decorative arts from 1670–1840. The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are located at the intersection of Francis and South Henry Streets in Williamsburg, Va., and are entered through the Public Hospital of 1773. Museum hours from March 18, 2016, to January 2, 2017: 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily. From January 2, 2017, through March 16, 2017: Sunday to Thursday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Friday to Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. After March 16, hours will be 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily.
About The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation preserves, restores and operates Virginia’s 18th-century capital of Williamsburg. Innovative and interactive experiences highlight the relevance of the American Revolution to contemporary life and the importance of an informed, active citizenry. The Colonial Williamsburg experience includes more than 500 restored or reconstructed original buildings, renowned museums of decorative arts and folk art, extensive educational outreach programs for students and teachers, lodging, culinary options from historic taverns to casual or elegant dining, the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club featuring 45 holes designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and his son Rees Jones, a full-service spa and fitness center managed by Trilogy Spa, pools, retail stores and gardens. Philanthropic support and revenue from admissions, products and hospitality operations sustain Colonial Williamsburg’s educational programs and preservation initiatives.
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Robyn Liverant Public Relations