Christine Kuan interviews Maria Ann Conelli, Executive Director of the American Folk Art Museum


CK: What’s special about the American Folk Art Museum?

MAC: The American Folk Art Museum is the only museum in the United States dedicated to traditional folk art as well as creative expressions of contemporary self-taught artists; it is home to one of the world’s premier collections dating from the eighteenth century to the present.

Henry Darger, Child-Headed Whiplash-Tail Blengins, Blengiglom-enean Island

CK: Many more people are interested in folk art today, why do you think that is?

MAC: I think that folk art and the art of the self-taught have an inherent accessibility people can relate to. What is amazing is that the art is made by individuals with no formal artistic or academic training who nevertheless have the need to articulate their passion to create. The result is these astounding works that speak to a broad and varied audience.

Artist unidentified, Witch on a Broomstick Whirligig

CK: What’s your favorite work in the collection?

MAC: That’s like asking a parent which child is her favorite.

CK: Why did the Museum decide to make digital images of the collection available in the Artstor Digital Library?

MAC: A large part of the museum’s focus is on education. We take great pride in our educational website,, through which teachers have access to museum-generated lesson plans for grades K through 12. One of the exciting aspects about our collaboration with Artstor is that it allows us to reach a collegiate audience in ways that were not available to us before. It also allows us to share very high-resolution image files of thousands of objects in the museum’s collection that offer important details, such as stitching in textiles and signatures on paintings—details that are crucial to the study and preservation of folk art for generations to come. Providing high-resolution images to teachers, scholars, and students is extremely important to us—we want the works in our collection to be shared with as large an audience as possible.

Ammi Phillips, Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog

CK: How is your museum taking advantage of digital technologies?

MAC: We are using the Internet more and more to reach a larger audience and stay in touch with those who may not be able to actually visit the museum. Digital photography, because of its ease of use, makes it possible for us to share the collection with people around the globe, and social media outlets allow us to offer behind-the-scenes looks at the museum. Through the museum’s main and educational websites, as well as Facebook and Twitter, we are able to engage audiences around the world by sharing archival and installation information that we were not able to provide in the past.

Artist unidentified, Chevron Doll Quilt

CK: What’s the biggest challenge facing American museums [or your museum] today?

MAC: I think all museums are grappling with how to attract and engage a younger audience. We have a teen docent program that we’re all really proud of—our museum educators teach high school students how to serve as gallery guides to their peers. It’s a huge time commitment for the students and our educators, but I think it’s valuable for the participants to develop not just visual literacy but also writing, speaking, and critical thinking skills. The museum’s online presence can be a great introduction to the art, especially for younger audiences—but I think they know that the “real thing” is so much more interesting.