Herbert W. Hemphill Jr.


altered the course of the folk art field when he began championing the work of twentieth-century folk artists in 1968. Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Hemphillacquired an early appreciation of America’s popular culture in this resort town where his father was a prominent businessman. His love of Southern culture owed muchto his mother’s prestigious ancestry in Georgia, while her love of shopping and collecting was an equally important formative influence, as Hemphill began collectingAmericana even as a child.After briefly studying theater, poetry, and painting in Paris and at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, Hemphill moved to New York City in 1949with hopes of developing a career as an artist. His forte, however, quickly proved to be collecting—first African sculpture, then modern European and American art,and, ultimately, folk art. Inspired by pioneering collectors such as Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874–1948) and Jean Lipman (1909–1998), Hemphill focused on earlyAmerican weathervanes, portraits, watercolors, and furniture during the early 1950s. In 1956 he purchased a pair of non-traditional cigar store Indians from Sotheby’sauction of Rudolph Haffenreffer’s collection of American trade signs. This acquisition was the first public indication of the unusual and under-appreciated works that hewould become known for championing, so much so that his detractors and admirers alike often identified such art as “Hemphill things.”Hemphill was one of six private collectors and dealers who founded the Museum of Early American Folk Art (now the American Folk Art Museum) in New York in1961. A year later he co-organized the museum’s inaugural exhibition, at the Time and Life Exhibit Center under the auspices of
magazine, and he also donated thefirst object to enter the museum’s collection:
Flag Gate,
by an unidentified artist, c. 1876.In 1964 Hemphill became the museum’s first full-time curator. Over the next decade he developed an exhibition program of innovative topics and memorable installations, among which “Twentieth-Century Folk Art” (1970), “Macramé” (1971), “Tattoo” (1971), and“Occult” (1973) are widely considered the epitome of his curatorial career.Hemphill’s perception of folk art’s possibilities changed dramatically in 1968, when artists and folk art collectors Michael (1941–) and Julie Hall (1943–) introducedhim to the Kentucky woodcarver Edgar Tolson (1904–1984). Spurred by what he frequently described as an epiphany, Hemphill began canvassing the country insearch of living folk artists. Although he remained interested in nineteenth-century folk art, his collection became decidedly contemporary, national, and ethnicallydiverse as he acquired paintings, sculptures, drawings, and other objects made by folk artists active in almost all of the fifty states. His exhibition, “Twentieth-CenturyFolk Art” (1970), and book,
Twentieth-Century Folk Art and Artists,
co-authored with Julia Weissman in 1974, inspired several generations of collectors, dealers,curators, and critics to follow and expand upon his pioneering example.Hemphill’s lasting impact as a collector, curator, and author has been felt in so many ways that
magazine honored him as “Mr. American Folk Art” in1982. Between 1973 and 1990, twenty-five American museums featured selections from his collection of some three thousand works, and in 1976 the AmericanBicentennial Commission circulated his collection in Japan. He was an active trustee emeritus and member of the Collections Committee at the American Folk ArtMuseum, and he regularly donated works to museums nationwide. Although trained as a painter, Hemphill showed a decided preference for sculpture, whichculminated in the historic exhibition “Folk Sculpture USA,” a two-hundred-year survey that he organized for the Brooklyn Museum in 1976. He also served as aconsultant to a wide variety of exhibitions, most notably another Bicentennial project, “Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art (1770–1976).” In 1989 he became a foundingmember of the national advisory board of the Folk Art Society of America, and continued to serve in that capacity until his death. The society granted Hemphill its firstannual Award of Distinction in 1990; the award described him as “the man who preserves the lone and forgotten,” a phrase that appears in his iconic portrait painted by a friend, Georgia folk artist Howard Finster.Between 1986 and 1998 the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired more than six hundred nine-teenth- and twentieth-century works from Hemphill’scollection, to assert folk art’s significance in the nation’s visual history. The Smithsonian Institution awarded Hemphill its James Smithson Society Founder medal in1987 for his gift to the nation, and in 1990 the Smithsonian American Art Museum celebrated this major acquisition with the exhibition and publication,
Made with Passion: The Hemphill Folk Art Collection
See also

American Folk Art Museum; Furniture, Painted and Decorated; Hall, Michael and Julie;

Jean Lipman; Abby Aldrich Rockefeller; Sculpture,Folk; Smithsonian American Art Museum; Tattoo; Edgar Tolson; Trade Signs;

Dudar, Helen. “Mr. American Folk Art.”
vol. 210 (June 1982): 70–78.Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe. “The Hemphill Folk Art Collection.”
vol. 138 (October 1990): 798–807. ——.
Made with Passion: The Hemphill Folk Art Collection.
Washington, D.C., 1990.Hemphill, Herbert W. Jr., and Julia Weissman.
Twentieth-Century Folk Art and Artists.
New York, 1974.Milwaukee Art Museum, with contributions by Russell Bowman, Michael Hall, and Donald Kuspit.
American Folk Art: The Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. Collection.
Milwaukee, Wisc., 1981