The beauty of folk art is that it showcases artists who are not formally trained but instead create solely based on personal life experiences. At the American Folk Art Museum, exhibits and programming make this art attainable for all, from high school students to those experiencing Alzheimer’s and related dementias.
“There’s something special about folk art and self-taught artists, as the main thing that we’re bringing to people, because it’s encouraging, it’s inspiring,” said Elizabeth Gronke, an art therapist and access educator at the museum. “It doesn’t feel like this fine art that’s unattainable. People can look at the artwork and say, ‘someone like me made this.’”
Gronke leads the Folk Art Reflections program which is interactive and designed for people with a range of memory loss as well as their family members and caretakers. They partner with organizations including Sunnyside Community Services and Queens Community House.
Folk Art Reflections is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts. The museum announced last week that it is the recipient of a $100,000 grant to continue support for the program.
During the pandemic Gronke produced videos in English and Spanish to send to their community partners that highlighted artworks and encouraged discussion at home. When they can meet in person, she brings art projects and materials like quilts, which trigger a sensory reaction that can bring back memories to those living with memory loss. She recalls one man who was reminded of playing under a quilt stretcher frame as a child.
“It’s meant to be social — it’s meant to be lighthearted and hopefully those positive feelings and memories and even opinions can just spring up naturally,” said Gronke.
Socializing and fostering an appreciation for folk art is also encouraged through the Youth Art Connection program, which offers teens behind-the-scenes access to the museum’s exhibitions and collections. This summer’s class of 15 students includes 11 from Queens.
“We wanted to reach out to Queens students in particular as a way to engage the community around Long Island City,” said Natalie Beall, senior educator and manager of student engagement at the museum.
“The Queens community is one that’s important to us,” said Beall.
The museum’s Queens outpost in Long Island City is home to its administrative offices, collection storage, archives and libraries, which students have an opportunity to tour as part of the program. Its Self-Taught Genius Gallery has been closed since the pandemic began.
Ellison Daone is a student at Townsend Harris High School in Queens and she is part of the Youth Art Connection cohort this summer.
“I’ve been in other summer arts programs in the past, but none of those opportunities are comparable to this one,” said Daone in an email. “The learning experiences made possible through our access to exhibits and staff from the museum make YAC one of a kind.”
“Having started high school during the pandemic has been creatively isolating, and I haven’t had the chance to find a like-minded creative community. Being a part of this program, I can say that I have found a very close-knit and welcoming community,” said Daone.
Beall said that part of the goal of the Youth Art Connection program is for students to realize the different careers they could have in the arts.
They also offer a Museum Career Internship Program in partnership with LaGuardia Community College students who are interested in pursuing museum careers and it provides paid internships.
Daone believes that the relationships she has built through the Youth Art Connection program will endure.
“I know that the people I’ve met here will always be open to reconnecting or giving advice in the future,” she said.
To find out more information about programming and visiting the American Folk Art Museum, visit folkartmuseum.org.