On Wednesday the High Museum in Atlanta announced that it had hired Katherine Jentleson to be its next curator of folk and self-taught art, a position left vacant since Susan Crawley resigned in 2013. Jentleson, currently a PhD candidate in Duke University’s department of art, art history, and visual studies, will assume her new role on September 8. She will be one of only a select few curators at major US museums devoted to folk art — a preliminary search for similar positions turned up only one, Leslie Umberger at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in Washington, DC.
“Searching for any curator is very hard work because any curatorial area is rarefied, but folk and self-taught art is super rarefied because the academy is not churning out PhDs in this field,” David Brenneman, director of collections and exhibitions at the High, told Hyperallergic. “It’s not quite a one-in-a-million thing, but to be able to find a candidate who doesn’t quite have her PhD but is going to get it very soon in this field is really huge. The field is still very much in formation, so I really wanted to have someone who had thought very deeply about the origins of the concept of self-taught art in the United States, and someone who could really help the High to be a leader in forming the field of folk and self-taught and outsider art.”
Jentleson has worked at the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) in New York and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke. She’s also currently serving as a predoctoral fellow in American art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. In 2013 she received a prize from the Archives of American Art for her essay chronicling the journey taken by Holger Cahill, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s “folk art tracker,” around the southern US, which Jentleson dubbed “an early attempt to diversify the then emergent folk art canon.” Her PhD builds on that research, looking at the emergence of US folk art during the inter-war years, with a particular focus on the work of John Kane, Anna Mary Robertson Moses, and Horace Pippin, and how it was received between 1927 and 1943.
The High Museum’s collection of folk and self-taught art is among the richest in the country, with over 800 pieces and especially strong holdings of works by Nellie Mae Rowe, Howard Finster, and others. Though it has been one of the primary areas of focus for the institution for two decades already, folk art has gained a great deal more prominence in the art world and beyond over the last five years through things like the interest generated by the AFAM’s hardships, the prominent inclusion of many self-taught artists in the 2013 Venice Biennale, and the rise of the Outsider Art Fair.
“Those are all great things, they will have an impact, but I don’t think they’ve really affected the field dramatically yet,” Brenneman said. “I hope that they create a much more visible dialogue and I hope they stimulate scholarship and younger scholars getting into the field, but I haven’t seen any significant changes yet.”
In 1996, two years after the museum’s folk and self-taught art department was founded, it received a transformative gift of more than 140 works from the collection of T. Marshall Hahn. In 2014 the Atlanta collector Dan Boone and his late wife Merrie Boone gave $2.5 million to the institution to endow its folk art curator position, making Jentleson the first to hold the title of Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art.
“We want her to build the collection. She already has these great connections with these collectors, and I think that’s going to be one of her strengths,” Brenneman said. “The most successful curators, in terms of collections-building and exhibition-creation, are like pied pipers. I sense that quality in Katherine.”