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Smithsonian expands its folk art holdings with donation of 93 works

The gift comes from the son of the late Margaret Robson, the American patron and advocate for self-taught artists

by Gabriella Angeleti  |  13 December 2016
The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC has acquired 93 works of art by 48 self-taught artists from the collection of the late Margaret Robson. Robson began collecting the work of self-taught artists in the 1980s, when “few grasped the inherent value of work that was often made amid challenging circumstances and by those who lacked the agency of the mainstream art world”, says Leslie Umberger, the curator of folk and self-taught art at the museum, in a press release.  

Among the works acquired are a carved limestone sculpture, Untitled (Bird Bath with Figures) (around 1932-1940) by William Edmondson, who was the first African American artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1937. The collection also includes untitled and undated drawings by the deaf artist James Castle, who created work with scavenged materials and often made with a mixture of soot and his own saliva. Other artists represented are Howard Finster, Ulysses Davis, Bessie Harvey, Thornton Dial and Judith Scott, as well as lesser-known self-taught artists such as Leroy Person, who created vibrant abstract sculptures carved from wood.

  • The collection also includes lesser-known self-taught artists such as Leroy Person, who created vibrant abstract sculptures carved from wood
  • Among the works acquired are a carved limestone sculpture, Untitled (Bird Bath with Figures) (around 1932-1940) by William Edmondson, who was the first African American artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1937
Given to the museum by Robson’s son, the gift is the museum’s largest acquisition of folk art in 20 years and is another recent effort it has made to highlight the genre. Earlier this year, the museum reorganised its permanent collection to include galleries dedicated to showing self-taught artists, and coordinated related public programmes.

A survey of work by the slave-born artist Bill Traylor in 2018 will feature five paintings from the recent acquisition. In the future, the museum plans to organise an exhibition and publication dedicated to the Robson collection.


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