New York City is home to many cultural institutions. But even in the crowded cultural landscape of the Big Apple, the American Folk Art Museum stands out, with its devotion to celebrating the creativity and individuality of self-taught artists.
Folk art, as its name suggests, is the art of the people. “There’s no really pat definition,” explained Anne-Imelda Radice ’69, who recently took over as the museum’s executive director. “It can be anything from a painting or a sculpture to an object of daily life that’s done by someone who’s not a trained artist, who didn’t go to school, who may be influenced by what he or she sees around them.”
Radice has spent the bulk of her three-decade career working in Washington, D.C., most recently as head of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, where she reported directly to President George W. Bush and then President Obama. Her deep appreciation for the value of art is fused with the no-nonsense pragmatism necessary to be effective on Capitol Hill. And she relishes a challenge.
“Everything I did in my career and will continue to do is geared toward bringing people in who are usually locked out, or who don’t know that they could be part of something very special and that they have the right to participate,” Radice said. “I’ve always liked what museums sometimes call ‘the general public.’”
The American Alliance of Museums’ president, Ford W. Bell, praised Radice as “a natural leader” when the American Folk Art Museum announced her appointment. “She is willing to make bold decisions and has a genuine passion for the arts,” he said. “I have no doubt we will be hearing about how the institution is flourishing under her tenure for years to come.”
Radice, who grew up in Buffalo, arrived at Wheaton planning to major in chemistry. But she soon found herself drawn to the art history department and its instructors, notably, the legendary longtime professor Mary Heuser.
“One of the things I always said about Wheaton is that it’s a place that lets you learn how to think,” she recalled. “I’m a big believer in liberal arts education. I think it’s a shame when people get so specialized so quickly and then they miss so much.”
Radice traces her love for folk art in part to the many Saturdays she spent as a Wheaton student visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “When you have the opportunity to go to school in New England and you make plans in New England, you’re exposed to a lot of traditional folk art,” she said.
Founded in 1961, the American Folk Art Museum spotlights the work of self-taught artists from the 18th century to the present, in forms ranging from painting and sculpture to everyday objects like quilts and weather vanes. The New York Times has lauded its holdings as an “unparalleled mixture of classic American folk art and 20th-century outsider geniuses.”
“Our collection is unique,” Radice said. “It’s a beloved institution in New York.” Since selling its headquarters to pay off its debts, the museum has operated out of a smaller facility across from Lincoln Center and a satellite space at the South Street Seaport Museum.
As executive director, Radice is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the museum, as well as the implementation of the board’s artistic vision. Her major goals going forward are to attract more visitors to the museum and to strengthen its relationship with frequent patrons.
“I’m literally the one with that sign on my desk that Harry Truman had,” she said. “The buck stops here.”
Photos by Gavin Ashworth