By Mark St. John Erickson
9:53 AM EST, January 16, 2014
Williamsburg residents had plenty of reason to be curious when a pioneering folk art collection assembled by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller went on view inside the newly restored Ludwell Paradise House on Jan. 16, 1935.
Few people before her had viewed these quaint but seemingly everyday objects made by untrained painters, carvers and tradespeople as art. So like the far more urbane crowds that flocked to see two previous landmark displays in Newark and New York, the inhabitants of Williamsburg showed up to explore Mrs. Rockefeller's strange and decidedly adventurous passion in droves.
"Beginning today and continuing for several weeks, residents of this city will have the opportunity to see the Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. collection on folk art," the Williamsburg bureau of the Daily Press reported.
"(It) has attracted much attention in this country and abroad since it was first shown in New York two years ago."
A founder and passionate supporter of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Rockefeller became both well-known and widely influential for discovering and acquiring work by previously unrecognized contemporary artists.
Her interest in folk art was closely related, leading her to begin collecting primitive portraits, weather vanes and carved figures created by non-academic artists in 1928 -- long before many other people recognized their artistic merit.
Guided and assisted by New York gallery owner Edith Halpert -- who championed the art of the untrained as well as modernist painting -- Rockefeller spent nearly a decade assembling her ground-breaking collection.
Among the first works she acquired was the iconic early 19th-century portrait, "Baby in Red Chair," which has since become a flagship work for the Colonial Williamsburg museum named in her honor.
Two years after the seminal MOMA exhibit, which traveled to six museums across the country, Rockefeller agreed to loan about 250 objects from her collection to an exhibit in the newly restored Ludwell-Paradise House on Duke of Gloucester Street.
The show opened to local residents on Jan. 16, 1935 and immediately sparked what the Daily Press described as a "heavy response."
Some local viewers were puzzled -- just like they would be a few months later when Leslie Cheek, the founder of the College of William and Mary's pioneering new art department, furnished his 18th-century house off the Palace Green with decidedly untraditional Art Deco furniture.
But just as Mrs. Rockefeller's reassuring nod of approval calmed the town uproar over Cheek's progressive out-of-town tastes, it also paved the way for a wider public embrace of the unconventional but visually compelling folk art she loved.
"As a record of the social life of American people, it is quite as important as the most conspicuous achievements of the restoration of the ancient capital (of Williamsburg)," the Richmond News-Leader wrote.
So popular did the Ludwell-Paradise exhibit become that, in 1939, Rockefeller gave this part of her collection to the foundation.
Nine years after her death in 1948, her namesake museum opened as the first in the nation devoted solely to folk art.
Greatly expanded since that time, the collection moved to new quarters in 2007, when it opened adjacent to Colonial Williamsburg's DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum following a $6 million, 25,000 renovation.
"If you are the kind of person who likes museums, you're going to like what you see here," said Ronald Hurst, vice president for Colonial Williamsburg's collections and museums, describing the folk art collection's new showcase.
"This is something we've wanted to do for a long time."
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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