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Q&A: Peoria Riverfront Museum exhibition showcases folk art from across the country

Zac Zetterberg, curator of Art and the Center for American Decoys, and Bill Conger, curator of Collection and Exhibitions, from the Peoria Riverfront Museum.
Camryn Cutinello
Zac Zetterberg, curator of Art and the Center for American Decoys, and Bill Conger, curator of Collection and Exhibitions, from the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

Showcasing quilts, paintings and hand carved sculptures, the FOLK exhibition at the Peoria Riverfront Museum represents a little bit of American History.

The items are on loan from the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, which features some of the best known works from folk artists across the country. The loan will last two years and the pieces are being displayed with works from local folk artists.

WCBU'S Camryn Cutinello spoke with the Peoria Riverfront Museum's Bill Conger, curator of Collection and Exhibitions, and Zac Zetterberg, curator of Art and the Center for American Decoys, about the pieces on display.

Conger says it all started when the two traveled to New York to meet with the American Folk Art Museum.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

How did the Peoria Riverfront Museum get this exhibition?

Bill Conger: We learned that [the American Folk Art Museum] was working with a foundation that we work with Art Bridges, which is based in Bentonville, Arkansas. It's connected to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art founded by Alice Walton. And this foundation allows for smaller museums, like our size, to borrow and make all sorts of amazing curatorial possibilities happen. So they really enable amazing work to come to central Illinois.

What mediums, what formats are these pieces in?

Zac Zetterberg: They have a vast collection of many things. So that's what you'll see in the show. There's everything from paintings, hand-carved sculptures, to whirligigs, weather vans. Traditionally, folk art was sort of utilitarian objects, like things used for everyday use, such as, like a quilt was used to keep yourself warm. But people embellish them, made them their own. So these are objects that were made by ordinary people in extraordinary ways. And we have 20 pieces from the American Folk Art Museum right now.

And then you kind of went in a little bit with one of my questions with just the importance of these partnerships with other museums.

Conger: Well, invaluable, really. Those type of partnerships, and certainly these that are founded by Art Bridges are allowing us to access collections and really the talent of the most important museums in the country. This brings the breadth of what the Peoria Riverfront Museum can achieve, you know, alive tenfold. We're able to present items that you would have to go to New York City to see.

Where else do these pieces originate from?

Zetterberg: All over the country. So we have a great weather vane from New Jersey, and then we partnered with the Historical Society in Quincy. And so we have a great weather vane from just right here in Illinois. There's works from Louisiana. Clementine Hunter was from Louisiana. Purvis Young was from Miami, some things from New York. We have some things from Illinois on display.

Conger: The great Reverend Howard Finster is represented in this show as well and he's [from] Georgia.

Zetterberg: Carousel animals. A camel and a zebra from, would have been one of the makers, actually the maker of the camel I believe, made the first carousel for Coney Island. So pioneers of the what we now know as the amusement park industry, really.

Do you each have a favorite piece in the collection?

Zetterberg: I do. There's a there's a really beautiful bird tree that was made in Pennsylvania. It's like a Pennsylvania-German. The maker is unknown. But it's really kind of small in scale. It's charming. It's got these little birds that are on springs. So if like the wind were to pass over the birds would sort of jiggle on the tree. Just beautifully simply, simply made but is actually pretty complex.

Cogner: Yeah, probably the largest of the seven paintings that we have representing Purvis Young. Zach mentioned earlier from Miami, a more contemporary folk artist. He's not with us now. But when he began, he was incarcerated, and found art books and started falling into this world of art. And completely emboldened by a situation, he had nothing to lose. So when he was released, he committed the rest of his life to painting and just creating and presenting these things in an alleyway in Miami, which was seen by an overpass from millions of people every day. These are tens of thousands of paintings that were inevitably purchased by the Rubells, major art collectors who walked into his studio and said, 'we can't buy one, I think we'll take the whole thing.' Ended up being 60,000 works of art from paper to canvas to wood, and we have a very large painting by him. That's so exciting. It rivals any contemporary painting made today.

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Camryn Cutinello is a reporter at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@ilstu.edu.