The museum’s story
Opened in 1953 in the Santa Fe foothills, the world’s largest folk art collection will radically expand your notions of what belongs in a museum: ceramics, jewelry, masks, puppets, quilts, dolls, textiles and more. It all began with the tireless efforts of Chicago heiress Florence Dibell Bartlett (1881–1954), a daughter of a hardware wholesaler — he originated the True Value label — whose interests skewed decidedly more highbrow than hammers and nails.
Bartlett first started visiting New Mexico in the 1920s, and began amassing a collection of folk art that would eventually include more than 2,500 pieces from 30-plus countries. She later commissioned architect John Gaw Meem, known for popularizing the “Santa Fe style,” to create a building for her collection, a gift to the people of New Mexico.
Philanthropy, it turns out, ran in the family. Her sister, Maie Bartlett Heard, cofounded Phoenix’s Heard Museum, which is dedicated to Native American art, while her brother, Frederic Clay Bartlett, donated his unparalleled collection of modern masterpieces — including Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte — to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Bartlett’s mission, however, was more far-reaching and progressive than simply showing off the considerable collection she had acquired from around the globe. “The art of the craftsman,” she once said, “is a bond between the peoples of the world.” After two devastating world wars had accentuated the differences between cultures, she hoped to instead highlight our commonalities. She was especially enamored of handmade goods, which stood in stark contrast to the 20th century’s turn toward impersonal industrialization. As you wander through the galleries, it’s impossible not to be a bit moved. It doesn’t matter whether they’re from Peru or Poland, Tibet or Tanzania, craftspeople will still make ceremonial items to commune with their deities, memorials to honor their dead and toys to entertain their kids.
Inside the museum
Over the years, MOIFA has grown considerably. Joining the original Bartlett Wing, which now features rotating gallery spaces, is the Hispanic Heritage Wing (currently home to an exhibition on New Mexico’s Hispano folk music that includes handmade instruments and costumes) and the textile-filled Neutrogena Wing, where the namesake collection includes Indonesian ceremonial cloths, Bolivian feathered costumes and Japanese kimonos. But the museum undoubtedly shines brightest in the Girard Wing, with Multiple Visions: A Common Bond, an ongoing exhibition that opened in 1982.
In a unique twist, the collection’s donor, midcentury modernist designer and architect Alexander Girard (who also went by the nickname “Sandro”), designed his own exhibition, and its curation is groundbreakingly immersive. Rather than sticking objects in rows behind glass, Girard created whimsical vignettes, cramming figurines, miniatures and toys from around the world into detailed scenes of bullfights, christenings, feasts, markets, weddings and even gatherings of angels and demons, with none of the displays segregated by region of origin.
The massive wing features 10,000 pieces of folk art — only about 10 percent of the total Alexander and Susan Girard Collection — with the artwork intentionally left unlabeled; the idea is to simply allow this colorful jumble of cross-cultural art to wash over you.
“The can’t-miss item in our collection is actually 10,000 can’t-miss items,” says Villela. “The pieces come at you from all directions — don’t forget to look up!” (Of course, if you’re dying to know more about all those unlabeled objects, you can pick up a printed gallery guide or a multimedia iPod tour.)
After you spend a few hours burying deeper and deeper into every corner of Multiple Visions, Villela hopes you will take the elevator (aka “Vehicle to the Vault”) down to an overlooked hidden gem: Lloyd’s Treasure Chest, named after late art collector and former Neutrogena CEO Lloyd Cotsen, who donated many pieces to the museum. “In addition to changing exhibitions, there’s a display on ‘What Is Folk Art?’ ” says Villela. “I think many of us think we know what folk art is — maybe quilts or duck decoys — but what do other people around the world make?” The open-storage vault includes such works as a wedding rickshaw from Bangladesh, mechanical toy robots from Japan and a popular fabric sculpture by American artist Mary Bowman depicting an anthropomorphic cow and coyote holding hands on a couch.
If you don’t mind crowds, you might want to visit during the annual International Folk Art Market, held the second weekend of July on the plaza outside. Founded to create economic opportunities for folk artists from around the globe, the market welcomes about 160 sellers from more than 50 countries, including Guatemalan beadwork embroiderers, Indonesian tapestry weavers and Ukrainian icon painters. Sure, you can pick up countless gifts on an around-the-world shopping spree, but the festival offers something more meaningful: a stirring reminder that Bartlett’s mission of celebrating the common bond among craftspeople is alive and well.