As the American Folk Art Museum tries to find its footing in the new year, back in its smaller Lincoln Square headquarters, it opens two new exhibitions Jan. 24. “Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed” highlights the Boston portrait artist (1806-1873), and “Women’s Studies” features images of the fairer sex by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Paul D. Humphrey, Nellie Mae Rowe, and Inez Nathaniel Walker.
Meanwhile, the museum also awaits news about a pending settlement that may result in its having to let go of more than 200 artworks that were promised gifts to its collection. News of the settlement was first reported last month in the Wall Street Journal.
New York jewelry dealer Ralph Esmerian promised the artworks to the museum, but had also offered them as collateral on some $210 million in loans taken to purchase Madison Avenue jeweler Fred Leighton. Esmerian was sentenced in 2011 to six years in prison and a $20 million fine after a conviction on wire fraud and other charges. Esmerian is a longtime supporter of the museum, having donated 65 works in the past, and formerly served as chairman of its board.
On the upside, an agreement between Esmerian and the museum that is pending court approval may allow the museum to keep the 53 most valuable of the promised 263 items, including Situation of America, an anonymous oil-on-panel painting from 1848. The rest will be sold at auction.
“In all probability, whatever the numbers, this is the most significant gift ever given to the museum,” New York dealer Frank Maresca told A.i.A. “Esmerian has impeccable taste, and everything promised was of masterpiece quality.”
“Since so much of the Esmerian gift was already on view, this will change what we think of the museum,” Elizabeth Pochoda, editor of The Magazine Antiques told A.i.A. “But folk art, and the museum, are moving in new directions. This may encourage the museum to move beyond traditional ideas of folk art.”
“After all,” Pochoda added, “some of the most interesting exhibitions the museum has mounted have had nothing to do with the Esmerian collection.” (The Magazine Antiques is also published by Brant Publications, which publishes A.i.A.)
PHOTO: Anonymous, Situation of America, 1848, oil on wood panel, 34 by 57 inches. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York. Promised gift of Ralph Esmerian.