- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2007

WILLIAMSBURG — Colonial Williamsburg has moved its folk art museum, the first in the country, to a more prominent and roomier facility.

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum reopened earlier this year after a two-year, $6.1 million expansion project that gave it 11 galleries in 11,200 square feet of exhibition space.

The former location was about 400 square feet smaller and was divided into small, cut-up rooms that made it less flexible for exhibits. That Georgian Revival building now houses a spa.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a driving force in the founding of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was one of the first collectors of folk art. She began buying work from non-academically trained artists in the early 20th century, when folk art was considered beneath collectors’ notice, said Ronald L. Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s vice president for collections and museums.

She gave her 424-piece collection to Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s. Her husband, John D. Rockefeller Jr., was principal benefactor in the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, and his wife saw folk art “as a complement to what was going on here,” Mr. Hurst said.

Mrs. Rockefeller died in 1948, and her husband built the folk art museum to honor her. It opened in 1957 in what was then a state-of-the-art facility.

Five decades later, change was sorely needed.

The small rooms couldn’t accommodate large exhibits, and the fluorescent lighting made paintings look washed out. In addition, attendance had fallen because fewer people were willing to walk two blocks from Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, Mr. Hurst said.

The new museum was built in what had been a walled, outdoor garden adjoining the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of Colonial Williamsburg’s more popular offerings. The DeWitt museum is close to the Historic Area and to the downtown Williamsburg shopping district, Merchants Square.

A roof was added to the 12-foot-high brick wall, and internal structures were built atop existing foundations. The architectural shell was built 20 years earlier with the intention of someday converting it to museum space.

The new space has been painted with more vibrant colors, and better lighting makes the artwork glow. In a room featuring landscapes and cityscapes, louvers on the windows adjust automatically to retain the ambiance of natural light.

“Again and again, people have walked in, seen their old favorites and said, ‘Have you cleaned all the paintings?’ ” Mr. Hurst said. “The answer is ‘no.’ They are simply properly lighted now.”

The new space also has more room to show the museum’s collection, which has grown to roughly 5,000 objects, from the 18th century when Virginia was a British colony and from the 19th and 20th centuries. About 510 pieces are on display.

The exhibits offer a wide variety of the museum’s holdings, including silhouette portraits, quilts, sculptures, stoneware and musical instruments such as a carved combination of rhinoceros and hippo — “hippoceros” — with a phonograph embedded in its body.

A gallery of painted furniture shows how artisans made cheap materials such as pine and poplar look like more expensive wood, such as mahogany.

An exhibition on mourning art explores honoring deceased loved ones and heroes. It includes paintings, medals and quilts created to honor George Washington after his death in 1799 and memorial pictures done in needlework by schoolgirls.

One exhibition, “Down on the Farm,” is focused on children. It follows the story of Prince, a carved wooden dog, as he explores the countryside. The story is told in verse on book pages mounted at child level and is complimented by pieces such as wooden horses and weather-vane roosters.

The art in the children’s room is not “throwaway art,” Mr. Hurst said. It includes one of the most famous American folk art paintings, “Leedom Farm” by 19th-century artist Edward Hicks.

The biggest piece in the museum is an entire room saved from an 1830s North Carolina country house that was falling apart. The Carolina Room has decoratively painted walls, windows and doors, and amantelpiece.

When conservators began taking apart the room to move it to the new space, they discovered that most of the original paint — including a band of swags and tassels along the upper walls — had been covered by a restoration done in 1956.

They are now using surgical instruments to slowly restore the room to its original appearance, a process that could take five years.

Another gallery features portraits — oil and watercolor paintings, photographs and sculptures — from miniature to life-size. Most of the subjects are not famous.

Among the works dearest to Mr. Hurst is a full-length portrait of a resident of New York’s Hudson Valley named Deborah Glen, painted in oil in 1739, just before her marriage. The unknown artist captured an amazing level of detail, from the heavily patterned gown to the wreath symbolizing the young woman’s virtue.

“The staff all tease me because they know whenever there is a portraiture exhibit, they have to put Deborah in,” Mr. Hurst said. “Or I come in and say, ‘Where’s Deborah?’ ”

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