The museum’s collection was launched in 1962 with the gift of a unique utilitarian sculpture made in upstate New York. Over the years, the Flag Gate has become both an icon of American folk art and an emblem of the diversity and depth of folk art expression. Since that initial acquisition, the museum’s collection has grown rich in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artworks from the Empire State in a variety of forms and mediums and made by a variety of artists.
This lively sampling of artworks from the collection speaks to the complex history of the state of New York. By the eighteenth century, New York’s fertile lands and prime geographic situation on the eastern seaboard were attracting migrating families from Massachusetts and other parts of New England who were seeking new opportunities, as well as significant immigrant populations such as the Germanic Palatines. Its favored location encouraged the state's development as a major hub for markets both inland and abroad, while New York City, once the seat of government, became the financial heart of the nation. The energy of New York’s bustling harbors and the collateral activities are reflected in artworks from early manufactories in the city itself to the burgeoning pioneer communities of the western frontiers of the state. Not surprisingly, the Hudson River figures prominently as a visual theme. Quilts and coverlets attest to the state's preeminence as a center of textile trade and production and the sophistication of the individual makers. A rare, early stoneware punch bowl derives its elegant form and decoration from imported Continental pottery. Urban show figures in wood lightheartedly satirize popular characters and trends, but the subtext hints at the encroachment of industrialization and the erosion of traditional life. Carousel animals made by immigrant carvers and intended for installation in public amusement parks illustrate the new prerogative of leisure time for all classes and the need for safe venues to escape the increasingly crowded city.
New York has always been a study of contrasts. Throughout its history, the state has thrived on forces balanced between the pragmatic and idealistic, the insular and cosmopolitan, between old ways and progressive ideas. This creative tension has vitalized the city and the state, and it is this vigorous and energetic spirit that is captured so beautifully in this folk art sampler.