Bringing American folk art to the world

Robert Bishop is one of the most knowledgeable and influential experts on American folk art in the world today. He has found appreciative audiences for the work of skilled American hands in Europe and Japan as well as the United States.

As the energetic director of the Museum of American Folk Art, at 49 West 53rd Street in New York, Dr. Bishop is moving, at almost a running pace, on many fronts.

He is currently engaged in planning a new 23-story building that will replace the museum's present inadequate home in a small brownstone house, giving it more than 40,000 square feet of exhibition space at its future address next door to the Museum of Modern Art.

The new building will be spacious enough to allow five exhibitions to run concurrently at all times. The museum's permanent collection will occupy one gallery, and a major popular show another. A smaller special inhouse show will be featured in a third area, and the two remaining spaces will be used for exhibitions that are conceived, assembled, and installed by students in the master's program in American folk arts at New York University.

Dr. Bishop set up the master's program, which began last September, and teaches several of its courses, training new curators for the folk art field.

In his role as museum director Dr. Bishop has in the past few years built the museum's membership list up from 500 to 6,500 members, and the museum's regularly published Clarion magazine now goes to 14 countries.

"We have attempted through an aggressive publishing and exhibition program to bring American folk art to the entire world," Dr. Bishop explains. "We are very conscious of developing international appreciation." One traveling exhibition from the museum is being seen in Tokyo and Osaka this spring, where a television audience of 34 million viewers recently tuned in to a 15- minute segment on American weathervanes.

The museum is also now assembling another show to go to London, Paris, and Berlin in 1982. The exhibition will later be shown in Rotterdam, and then be divided into three shows to tour smaller museums in Holland, eventually to be reassembled in this country and shown at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York and at the Albany Institute in Albany, N.Y. There are now four gallaries that specialize in the sale of American quilts in Tokyo, Dr. Bishop says, and over 15 such shops in Paris.

Working with the Art-in-embassies loan progra, Dr. Bishop has just installed a large amount of folk art in the newly redone US Embassy in Paris, and in the redecorated diplomatic reception rooms in New York of the United States ambassador to the United Nations.

He is also developing a Museum of American Folk Art reproduction program, which will be launched at Bloomingdale's in 1982 and be available to stores nationally. Over 300 objects from the museum will be reproduced. Manufacturers in the program include the Lane Company for furniture and P. Kaufmann Inc. for fabrics.

When he isn't museum-directing, curating, teaching, lecturing at conferences, or breeding, judging, and showing prize Doberman pinschers, Dr. Bishop is busy writing catalogs, articles, and books. He is associate editor of Antique Monthly and The Gray Letter and has written 31 books on subjects that range from decorated furniture, American clocks, folk sculpture, quilts and coverlets, American chairs, and folk paintings. His most recent book: "A Gallery of American Weathervanes and Whirligigs," (New york: E.P. Dutton, $27.50; $16.50 paper).

He has three other book manuscripts in preparation, doing most of his research and writing in the library of his renovated 1850 townhouse in the heart of the picturesque downtown neighborhood known as Chelsea.

His furnishings, at the moment, consist of Shaker and American country furniture, a vast collection of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century American folk paintings, a decorative but not very utilitarian collection of American pewter, a fanciful whirligig which sits as sculpture in a front window, and assorted other specimens of what he calls "folk material."

In actual fact, Dr. Bishop says, he has always tended to collect and live with whatever particular period he was researching and writing about at the time. "I started with Empire," he remembers, "then moved through Pilgrim, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton, to my present American country pieces. I may go back to Empire when I redecorate."

Bob Bishop grew up in Readfield, Maine, where he says his grandmother "instigated" his love of antiques. He worked as a child in her antique shop, and at 13 launched his own venture called The Cobweb Antiques in his parents' barn. He arrived in New York several years later with "some weathervanes under my arm" that he figured he could sell if the big city proved too tough.

Ten years later, with his first few books on antiques behind him, he went to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., first as manager of publications and then as museum editor. While teaching art history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, he also took his doctorate degree in America culture, returning to New York in 1976 to accept his present position.

Over the past 20 years, Bob Bishop has watched folk art come into its own as a serious area of collecting. Many such traditional folk crafts as quilting, rug-hooking, potterymaking, woodcarving, blacksmithing, and making weathervanes have been revived during these decades, and the end is not in sight. Folk art, Bob Bishop says, Started with the Pilgrims in 1620 and never finishes.

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