The mainstream art community has increasingly validated art by self-taught creators. Museum exhibitions, acceptance into permanent museum collections, critical and scholarly essays in magazines and newspapers, symposia, and academic courses point to rising interest in this significant genre of American art.
In the last two decades, more than sixty art museums in the United States have added works by unschooled artists to their permanent collections. While it is the mission of most of these museums to showcase mainstream art and artists, they have taken an open-minded interest in the many paths that creativity may take. Works by Bill Traylor, Martin Ramirez, and Henry Darger have been recognized for the transcendent quality of their expression.
The Whitney Biennial has over the years occasionally included self-taught artists, such as Minnie Evans, Edgar Tolson, Bessie Harvey, and Thornton Dial. This recent phenomenon has earlier precedents. In 1937, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited twelve sculptures of William Edmondson, the first solo exhibition of an African American. MoMA acquired John Kane’s Self Portrait and nine works by Brooklyn slipper manufacturer Morris Hirshfield in the 1940s.
Modernist artists were often the ones to identify self-taught artists, and many became artist advocates. Over a period of three years from 1939 to 1942, Charles Shannon, a regional artist from Montgomery, Alabama, visited Bill Traylor and watched him work in his street studio. Chicago painter Jim Nutt discovered the art of Martin Ramirez when he was a graduate assistant at Sacramento State College, and around the same time, sculptor Michael Hall, on a graduate fellowship in Kentucky, discovered Edgar Tolson. Art historian Stefan Hirsh of Vanderbilt University discovered William Edmondson on a neighborhood walk and brought his art to the attention of curators at the Museum of Modern Art.
These notes are not meant to criticize the academy or the mainstream art community or those artists who are formally trained. It is a challenge only to those who set up rigid boundaries and do not allow for a fluid exchange. It is aimed at those in any infrastructure who feel threatened by alternate courses of artistic development.
— Lee Kogan, Director of the Folk Art Institute and Curator of Special Projects for the Contemporary Center, American Folk Art Museum