Here's the Trust Bringing "Outsider" American Art Into the Mainstream

Detail from the liner notes of The Anthology of American Folk Music via Wikimedia CommonsLast month, after the the Walton Family Foundation gave the National Gallery of Art $10 million in honor of American art scholar John Wilmerding, we asked, "What's Behind Their Big (and Possibly Portentous) Arts Give?"

The key word here is "portentous," implying that the Walton Foundation may make similar gifts celebrating artists whose work dovetails nicely with their celebration of American art.

But what if the gift was portentous in a different way? That is, what if Walton points to a future where foundations increasingly frame their gifts through a specific artist's legacy, rather than simply cutting a check? It certainly makes for powerful branding.

Well, recent evidence suggests this theory has legs. A few weeks after the Walton's John Wilmerding-specific gift we learned that the nephew of renowned author Willa Cather has bequeathed $5.8 million to support leading Cather initiatives at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

And now comes word of another gift whereby an individual's commitment to American "outsider" art is the central focus. 

The Smithsonian's Archives of American Art (the Archives) has acquired the impressive archive of late philanthropist, artist, collector, and art dealer James R. "Jimmy" Hedges III (1942‒2014) and the records from his Rising Fawn Folk Art Gallery. 

Donated by Hedges' son James R. Hedges IV on behalf of the Hedges Descendants Trust, the collection documents more than 400 "outsider"—or self-taught—artists he championed, including numerous photographs of the artists, their work, and their homes and studios.

In a way, Hedges reminds us of a visual arts version of Harry Smith.

Smith, as you may recall, was the experimental filmmaker that compiled the music from his personal collection of 78 rpm records. The resulting album, 1952's the Anthology of American Folk Music, is the holy grail of American folk music. But Smith was more than a mere curator. He was a kind of anthropologist, seeking out unknown recordings by mythical musicians from places like Appalachia, New Orleans, and the South.

Hedges had a similar passion for seeking out under-the-radar artists.

Director of the Archives Kate Haw said, "It is extremely rare to find such a wealth of material on a field whose artists traditionally have not kept extensive documentation of their own work and lives and were far removed from the mainstream art market." Indeed, this collection represents the largest collection on outsider art in the Archives' holdings, and the visual record that Hedges created of artists, their homes and work spaces, and their artwork is especially valuable.

We also think it's pretty cool that the archives of one of the nation's foremost curators of "outsider art" now rests safely not at some super-experimental gallery in the basement of a laundromat (not that there's anything wrong with that), but at the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art.

In fact, according to the Smithsonian, the arrival of Hedges' papers coincides with the planning of a "major exhibition about the relationship between mainstream and self-taught artists in 20th- and 21st-century America" at the National Gallery of Art."