Only in New York

A new look at American folk art places the Big Apple at the core of production.

“Contrary to popular belief, [folk art] was not just a rural genre,” says Elizabeth V. Warren ’72. “In fact, many of the objects that have been associated with the ‘country’ were made in the five boroughs of New York.”

Proving the point is Warren’s latest curatorial effort: Made in New York City: The Business of Folk Art, at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue features works of self-taught artists and highlights the history of New York City as a financial and commercial capital from the  18th into the 20th century.

“From its earliest days as a Dutch colony, New York was intended to operate as a commercial center,” says Warren. “It grew from trading furs and sending the profits back to the Netherlands into a mercantile center that, by the time of the Revolutionary War, was self-sufficient enough to produce many of the objects of daily life  that once had to be imported.”

“The Business of Art,” one section of Warren’s two-part exhibition, celebrates those quotidian objects—the products and signage made by local artists, artisans, and manufacturers. In its other section, called “The Art of Business,” Warren has brought together portraits of New York’s strivers—merchants, entrepreneurs, small businessmen—as well as landscapes and seascapes of the growing city. 


Made in New York City: The Business of Folk Art is on view at the American Folk Art Museum in Lincoln Square until July 28, 2019. The catalogue is available at shop.folkartmuseum.org.

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Above: Optician’s Trade Sign, E. G. Washburne & Co., 1915-1925. By the early 20th century, E. G. Washburne & Co. was well established as a manufacturer of optical and jewelers’ signs. Traditional hanging signs were
made of wood and were double-sided, and this sign continues that tradition—but now in zinc and copper. Plus, it was electrified—a fact that confirms its earliest date at around 1915. 

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Above: Portrait of Peter Williams, artist unidentified, c. 1810–1815. Born a slave on Beekman Street and sold to a tobacco merchant, Peter Williams became an expert cigar maker. A Methodist active in the movement to found the African American Methodist church, he was purchased for 40 pounds by the Wesley Chapel on John Street in 1778. In 1796, he purchased his and his wife’s freedom and later opened a successful tobacco store on Liberty Street.