Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Business of Art at the American Folk Art Museum, Part 1

Sign for Kieselbach's Paint Store c. 1898
A visit to the Whitney Museum of Art is always at the top of my list of things to do in New York. And fear not, there will be coverage here of this year's Biennial. But the intimate American Folk Art Museum is also one of my favorite museums to explore. The Business of Folk Art exhibit reminded me why.

The exhibit is divided into two parts -- the art of business and the business of art. The first focuses on the businesses that utilized art in their marketing, like Kieselbach's paint store in Brooklyn. When this sign was in use at the turn of the 19th century, our faithful companion carried a can of paint in his mouth. All the better to help his master in case a quick touch up was needed. While the connection between the sign and the business isn't wholly intuitive, I immediately gravitated to Rover when I walked into the exhibit. And isn't that what a shopkeeper wants from his advertising?

Bicycle Racer c. 1900
I was also quite curious to find out what this fabulous cyclist was advertising. The original Madison Square Garden was built in 1879 as a multipurpose venue. One event held there was the Six Day Bicycle Race, a crazy endurance contest first popularized in 1891. Spectators had the opportunity to watch riders compete for 144 consecutive hours. (They could take breaks, of course, but it was to their competitive detriment to do so.) Then a single rider event, the longer the event went on, the more exhausted and delusional the cyclists became -- and the larger the crowds grew. The payoff for the winner was a cool $5,000. (Click here to read more about these races.)

Herman Raub Engaged in Weighing Gold
 at The Manhattan Bank in NY (1805)
New York has always been the finance center of the United States, so it came as no surprise to find a painting depicting the importance of this industry to the city. But there's always something to learn. Did you know the generic term for the financial industry as "Wall Street" came from an actual wall across the edge of Niew Amsterdam? The purpose of the wall was to protect the Dutch settlement against invasion by English colonists. Eventually, the English prevailed and "de Waal Straat" became "Wall Street."

In this painting, Mr. Raub is counting gold at The Manhattan Bank of New York, founded by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, among others. (Cue music.)  Over time The Manhattan Bank became The Chase Manhattan Bank and, eventually, JPMorgan Chase, an institution nearly every financial services lawyer worked for at some point during her career, including me. The writing in this painting is a poem -- written in both English and German -- attesting to Mr. Raub's honesty and faithfulness. Nonetheless, he looks a little shifty to me.

Knickerbocker Stage Line Omnibus, New York City (c. 1850)
The exhibit also acquainted me with the genesis of the term "Knickerbocker," a name I've always associated with the New York Knicks. (Word has it they're still a team, but you wouldn't know it from their playoff history the last 20 years.)

The moniker was originally used to refer to Dutch Americans living in New York. Eventually the word's usage expanded to describe all NY State residents. In this painting, the name has been utilized by the Knickerbocker Stage Line, a service providing transportation between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

For the literature buffs out there, the fictional character of Knickerbocker made his first appearance in Washington Irving's "The History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty." Irving later reprised the character in his "Rip Van Winkle."

In Part 2 of this post, I'll share some of the works from the Business of Art section of the exhibit. Stay tuned!

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