Robert Bishop


, director of New York’s American Folk Art Museum from 1977 to 1991, was the author or co-author of more than twenty-five books on the American folk anddecorative arts. An innovator and tastemaker, Bishop was the moving spirit behind the founding, in 1981, of New York University’s Graduate Program in Folk ArtStudies, for which he taught for almost two decades. As an educator, author, and museum director, he exerted a far-reaching influence on the development of the fieldof American folk art.Bishop was born in Readfield, Maine, where he first developed an appreciation for antiques, but moved to New York in the early 1950s to pursue a career in danceand theater. He performed as a dancer in Broadway musicals and with the Metropolitan Opera Company, and from 1958 to 1960 attended classes at the School of American Ballet. To help support himself he sold antiques. By 1961, however, this spare time pursuit had become his principal vocational focus, and he left the theater to concentrate on his interest in American antiques.In the late 1960s Bishop served as picture editor for the three-volume
American Heritage History of American Antiques
by Marshall B.Davidson, published in1968. This led to assignments in book design and publishing. He designed the influential
Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists
(1974) by HerbertW.Hemphill Jr. and Julia Weissman, and was appointed museum editor of the Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan. He also served thatinstitution as a curator of American decorative arts. In 1975, Bishop earned a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Michigan; the university published hisdissertation,
The Borden Limner and His Contemporaries,
the following year.Within months of returning to New York to assume the directorship of the American Folk Art Museum (then the Museum of American Folk Art) in 1977, Bishophad set a new course for the institution.
The Clarion,
which had been an irregularly published members’ newsletter, became a full-fledged quarterly magazine (later known as
Folk Art
) as well as a clearinghouse for information about the field. Through his initiative, the museum’s collection was expanded, its membershipdramatically increased, and its exhibitions presented to audiences throughout the United States. Widely acknowledged as a visionary leader, Bishop is credited withanimating the institution’s programming, developing important new earned-revenue programs, and transforming the American Folk Art Museum from a small walk-upgallery, known principally to enthusiasts, to a museum with a national reputation for innovation.Bishop’s books cover virtually every aspect of the field of American folk art. Among them are
American Painted and Decorated Furniture
(1972), with DeanFales;
America’s Quilts and Coverlets
(1972), with Carleton Safford;
American Folk Sculpture
Folk Painters of America
(1979), with Patricia Coblentz;and
A Gallery of American Weathervanes and Whirligigs
(1981), with Patricia Coblentz.
See also
American Folk Art Museum; Earl Cunningham; Herbert W.Hemphill Jr
Nelson, Cyril I. “Bob Bishop: A Life in American Folk Art.”
Folk Art,
vol. 18 (spring 1993): 35–39.Wertkin, Gerard C. “Dr. Robert Bishop (1938–1991): A Personal Memoir,”
The Clarion,
vol. 16 (winter 1991–92): 35–40