Just as there are people who hear music in the sounds of everyday life, there are some who see art in ordinary creations. Works of art evoke emotions and can help us relate to each other and the world. Art is art, whether made by those formally trained in schools or by those trained by family tradition. Alexander Girard was entranced by the latter. He not only admired and collected folk art from around the world, he made an art out of displaying his collection. A designer by profession, Girard took collecting itself to new heights by ignoring the sharp distinctions between making art, collecting it, curating it and exhibiting it. In the process, he encourages us to move beyond thinking of the categories of fine art, folk art and craft. The result is embodied in the Girard Wing of the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) in Santa Fe—a legacy like no other.
Alexander Girard was born in New York City in 1907 and was raised in Florence, Italy. After studying at the Architectural Association of London and the Royal School of Architecture in Rome, he opened design offices in New York, Detroit and finally, in 1953, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Girard’s work included textile designs for Herman Miller, Inc. and innovative modern and formal designs and installations for John Deere, Braniff Airlines, La Fonda del Sol Restaurant in New York and Hemisfair in San Antonio. Girard also created museum exhibits, including some for the Walker Art Center, the Museum of Modern Art and, ultimately, a home for his own unparalleled folk art collection at in Santa Fe.
Girard often told friends that he had always loved nativities and collecting toys. Of course, most every kid loves toys, but Girard continued to love and collect them as he grew to gray but sparkling old age. And he gathered not only toys, but folk art of every kind, beginning with his return to New York as a young designer in the 1930s. He purchased carloads of colorful treasures in Mexico during his honeymoon in 1939 with his wife, Susan who had an eye equal to his for both the unusually beautiful and the beautifully usual.
Throughout his life, Girard sought out folk art from every culture on the globe. He was captivated by the diversity of styles and the capacity of each handmade piece to vibrate with universal human emotion: He saw the brotherhood of man in the work of the world’s folk artists. How did Girard decide what to buy for his growing collection? As he put it,
With me it was really pretty simple: love of the objects came first, and there was absolutely no other criterion for collecting. The collection grew with my maturing and it expanded with my awareness. It was international, it had differences, it was a spectrum of mankind, it was bewilderingly varied and astonishingly related. It offered connections which resulted in more profound understanding.
The Santa Fe home Girard bought and remodeled in 1953 was an ideal place for the family’s collection. Old, curved adobe walls met new, sharper modern lines in amazing harmony, and there was plenty of room for art. Painted and patterned hallways were lined with niches holding statues of saints, bright ceramic vessels and carvings of animals. A sleek and modern dining room table hung suspended from the ceiling. Georgia O’Keeffe sat there, as did Cochiti Pueblo potter Helen Cordero. Conversations were lively and the food was good. Colors were everywhere. In the studio, a separate building added to hold just a few more (thousand) objects, the walls were lined with handmade file boxes, each labeled in Girard’s own calligraphy. The boxes held vibrant ephemera, including matches from every restaurant on the globe the Girards had set foot in, plus cocktail napkins and stirrers, ticket stubs and currency—anything that had an iota of pleasing line or color to delight in, save and study.
Girard’s attention to detail was evident when he designed more than 17,000 items for Braniff Airlines—even the sugar packets. He brought a similar zeal to the “For Modern Living” show he curated at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which displayed an array of objects from dog leashes and sunglasses to glassware, silver and furniture. Girard wrote in the exhibit’s catalogue: “Here is a representative selection of articles gathered from all over the world. . . .[T]hey all share a common, unconscious pride.” Even that show couldn’t exhaust his energies; he went on to create a permanent exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art, participating in every detail of placement, color, texture and context. If he cared what every shred of his creation looked like, he felt sure others would, too.
Girard did not create MOIFA; that honor belongs to Florence Bartlett, who founded it in Santa Fe in 1953 by giving her extensive international collection to the public. She, too, believed that the inner unity of the world’s people came through in the art of handmade objects. “The art of the craftsman”, she wrote, “is a bond which unites the peoples of the world”, a statement that she had placed over the entry doors to MOIFA. Girard and his wife appreciated Bartlett’s vision and helped to build the museum to the respected institution it is today. In 1978, the Girards donated their collection of nearly 106,000 folk art pieces from more than a hundred countries. Over many months, Alexander designed and installed “Multiple Visions”, which opened in 1982. He personally placed every piece in a tapestry of bright and surprising colors, and created villages, scenes and celebrations so that each work, vignette and tableaux together illustrates the diversity that unites us.
“Multiple Visions” must be seen in person to be fully appreciated, and multiple visits help, too. Even frequent visitors see things they missed before. This is no ordinary art exhibit, but an exhibit where curation is also a form of art. The displays seem to inhabit more than three dimensions. Art is literally displayed from floor to ceiling and meandering paths rather than traditional aisles invite exploration. There are very low windows through which whole miniature villages await a visitor’s eye, and there are windows set high for tip-toe viewing so that, as in Alice in Wonderland, some things make you bigger and some make you small. There are folk art airplanes and kites suspended overhead from multicolored steel rafters. There is almost every imaginable sort of handmade object wherever one looks. Even the proverbial kitchen sink is thrown in (lots of them, actually, carefully fashioned in miniature). There are sailboats and markets, birthday parties and shrines, games and banners, trains and weavings—even heaven and hell, complete with angels and devils—all from cultures on every continent and from across most of the Seven Seas.
There are no labels in the exhibit. Girard wanted no words to identify and explain the artwork. He said of the exhibition:
Part of my passion has always been to see objects in context. I believe that if you put objects into a world which is ostensibly their own, the whole thing begins to breathe. It’s creating a slice of life in a way. Then the exhibit becomes alive.
He was right. Like walking through a new town, visitors get an overwhelming first impression and then settle into exploring, seeing patterns, finding familiar things, delighting in the new and the different. They backtrack, laugh out loud and ask fellow visitors whether they saw the trains or the boats or the doll’s birthday party. The exhibit generates a friendly social energy that is hard to explain. Indeed, the exhibit space becomes its own small village of temporary residents getting to know each other as they come and go.
Often visitors want to know more details to help them decipher what they are seeing: What was built when and by whom, why some of the flags are blue or some costumes plaid, and so on. For now, there is a guidebook, a small spiral-bound notebook with descriptions and places of origin. Soon, as part of the recent renovation of the Girard Wing to update the lighting, heating and humidity to more modern and greener standards, an electronic hand-held guide with multimedia information will be available to visitors. But I, for one, hope some wanderers will choose to experience “Multiple Visions” without this new tool, at least during their first time through. There are no definitions or boundaries in Alexander Girard’s special village, just clues to our common humanity waiting to be discovered again and again.