ADA Award of Merit Recipient: American Folk Art Society

ADA Award od Merit Recipient: American Folk Art Society
ADA Focus: American Folk Art Society by Johanna McBrien
by Johanna McBrien

Charles Burden, founder of the Maine Maritime Museum, was one of two society members to organize the “Maine Folk Art Trail” in 2008. Photography by Ellen McDermott.
Charles Burden, founder of the Maine Maritime Museum, was one of two society members to organize the “Maine Folk Art Trail” in 2008. Photography by Ellen McDermott.

Scholars Leslie and Peter Warwick in front of one of their favorite objects, an overmantel by Winthrop Chandler (1747–1790).
Scholars Leslie and Peter Warwick in front of one of their favorite objects, an overmantel
by Winthrop Chandler (1747–1790).

What is the result of bringing together Americana collectors, stellar objects, educational programs, and funding for exhibitions and cultural institutions? The American Folk Art Society.

Collectors such as Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Electra Havemeyer Webb, and Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little had been acquiring examples of folk art since the early and mid-twentieth century. Even so, by the 1970s the appreciation of folk art was still in its infancy. It was at this time that a core group of collectors conceived the idea of creating an association devoted to raising awareness of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American folk art and to celebrating its diverse range of material.

In November 1978, Robert Bishop, Ralph Esmerian, Howard Feldman, Austin Fine, Joan and Victor Johnson, Harvey and Isobel Kahn, Helen and Steven Kellogg, Thomas Rizzo, and several others, founded the American Folk Art Society; the organization attained nonprofit status by 1980. Original membership was limited to twenty-five (plus spouses) and was, and remains, by invitation. Membership is currently limited to sixty (including spouses and partners), in addition to a small number of academics, museum professionals, and honorary and life members.

Long-time member Arthur Kern says, “It has been a pleasure for me to watch the organization, initially more of a social group, become one that has grown into seeing its primary concern be the advancement of the knowledge of American folk art. Our members, originally limited to the Northeast, now come from all over the country, and a number of our members have advanced from collecting to also writing articles and books on early American folk art.” Kern himself has contributed a number of articles to Antiques & Fine Art magazine, as have members Jeff Pressman, Charlie Burden (above), David Krashes, Suzanne and Michael Payne, and Leslie and Peter Warwick (see Spring 2012 issue). Several American Folk Art Society collectors have shared their homes in our Lifestyle feature, which aims to educate readers about objects and relays stories about the formation of collections. In addition, members loan their collections to exhibitions, sit on museum boards, lecture, act as guest curators, and some have launched public programs, most recently, the “Maine Folk Art Trail,” a 2008 project that promoted folk art collections within museums along the Maine coast, for which a major catalogue was also produced.

A recent group photo taken during one of the society’s trips Original and current members Victor and Joan Johnson.
A recent group photo taken during one of the society’s trips.

Original and current members Victor and Joan Johnson.

Members were asked to submit images of their favorite objects. The owner of this 4 x 2-inch carved plane describes it as “a tool, yet [a] work of art.” Photography courtesy David Wheatcroft.
Members were asked to submit images of their favorite objects. The owner of this 4 x 2-inch carved plane describes it as “a tool, yet [a] work of art.” Photography courtesy David Wheatcroft.

Girl in Blue with Apricot, ca. 1820, by an artist unknown, was on Suzanne and Michael Payne’s radar since they first saw it in an exhibition in the 1970s; she was what inspired their interest in collecting folk art. The couple was delighted to acquire the portrait years later
Girl in Blue with Apricot, ca. 1820, by an artist unknown, was on Suzanne and Michael Payne’s radar since they first saw it in an exhibition in the 1970s; she was what inspired their interest in collecting folk art. The couple was delighted to acquire the portrait years later.

All images courtesy AFAS members.

As part of its educational efforts, the society awards grants to museums and scholars for specific projects. Says dealer David Schorsch, “In the course of its history, the American Folk Art Society has supplied necessary funding and encouragement for any number of publications and corresponding exhibitions in this field.” These publications include A Deaf Artist In Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster Jr. by Harlan Lane (2006) and Revisiting Ammi Phillips: Fifty Years of American Portraiture by Stacy Hollander and Howard Fertig (1994). Individual members also contribute financial support for projects, above and beyond that of the society.

The society’s primary activities are its two annual trips to both public and private collections and to sites of historic interest. During these visits members and museum staff learn from one another by sharing their respective knowledge. These trips underscore a theme that runs through conversations with members—the camaraderie and friendships formed through the years are as much a part of membership in the society as appreciating the material. As one member notes, “The American Folk Art Society for me, and I’m sure for most of the members, has opened a new and exciting life, with friends now spread throughout the United States.”

Now entering its fourth decade, the society’s profile remains low-key. The ADA’s recognition of the organization will bring awareness of its activities to a broader audience, and, inevitably, a greater appreciation of its efforts. Responding to the news that the American Folk Art Society is this year’s recipient of the ADA Award of Merit, dealers Allan and Penny Katz had this to say, “We thank you all for what you have done to enhance our chosen field of endeavor and send you our heartiest congratulations!”

Responding to the news of the award, the society’s president Tracy Whitehead says, “The members of our society are honored to receive this prestigious award. We hope that by continuing to work together we can bring new collectors into the field, produce research that informs and illuminates this cultural heritage, and continue educational outreach so that all people know that American folk art is for everybody to learn from and enjoy.” Adds ADA President Judy Loto, “The ADA is so pleased to be honoring The American Folk Art Society with the Award of Merit this year. Our understanding of what defines American folk art would be very different today if it were not for their hard work and persistence in finding material, researching it, and making it more accessible.”


The ADA Award of Merit is voted on by the membership of the ADA (Antiques Dealers Association of America) and is presented to an individual or organization that has made a significant contribution to the field of American antiques. This year’s Award of Merit dinner was held at the Philadelphia Antiques Show, located at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 28, 2012. It featured cocktails and dinner followed by a variety of guest speakers and friends. The ADA Award of Merit is sponsored in part by Antiques & Fine Art Magazine, Antiques & The Arts Weekly, The Magazine Antiques, and Flather and Perkins Insurance. For additional information call the ADA at 203.364.9913, email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or send your request to Antiques Dealers’ Association of America, Inc., P.O. Box 529, Newtown, CT 06470-0529.

The ADA is a nonprofit trade association. Its major objective is to further professionalize the business of buying and selling antiques. Its membership is composed of antiques dealers who are dedicated to integrity, honesty, and ethical conduct in the antiques trade. All members are required to guarantee their merchandise in writing on a sales receipt that states approximate age, origin, condition, and any restoration of pieces sold.

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