Monday, January 12, 2009

What the Barley Fork Reaped…"Let’s Buy Thirteen"

By: Paul D'Ambrosio, Vice President & Chief Curator
When the New York State Historical Association Board Chairman and chief patron Stephen C. Clark hired Dr. Louis C. Jones in 1947 to lead the Association that he had brought to Cooperstown, the two of them made an unlikely team. Clark was a scion of the Singer Manufacturing Company fortune and a great collector of Post-Impressionist and Early Modern art, while Jones was an academic who was teaching English at the State College for Teachers in Albany. Jones initially did not want the job; his interests were local history and folklore. He was actually a member of a group that called itself The Society for Connoisseurship in Murder. It says a lot about Lou Jones’s personality that he was once quoted as saying “I personally like murders much better than riots. They have a kind of intimacy that the larger gatherings lack.”

Yet Jones and Clark made an effective team, with Clark providing resources and collections and Jones developing innovative educational programs and advocating for the folk arts on a national level.

Their foray into American folk art began shortly after Jones was hired, when he and his curator Janet MacFarlane were discussing a barley fork that was in The Farmers’ Museum collection. They both felt that the barley fork showed the creative side of rural folk, an appropriate adjunct to the story of folk life told at The Farmers’ Museum. It gave them the idea of mounting an exhibition of this and other hand tools that were noteworthy by virtue of their design.

Jones recalled that Mr. Clark was enthusiastic about their idea and showed an immediate understanding of what constituted American folk art. Before the tool exhibit could even be mounted, Clark asked Jones to meet him at the Riverdale estate of Elie Nadelman, the Polish-born modernist sculptor who had been collecting folk art since the 1920s. Nadelman had opened one of the first museums devoted to this material at his home. From a house overflowing with all kinds of folk art, Clark asked Jones to pick out twelve pieces for the museum. After reviewing Jones’ selections, Clark said “I agree with you on eleven of them; let’s buy thirteen.” Their choices, national in scope and of the highest quality, foresaw the future character of the NYSHA folk art collection now housed at the Fenimore Art Museum.

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