Folk art fantastic: 15 terrific folk art museums

July 25, 2014


My first encounter with folk art was right in my backyard. There, staked in one of my mother's planters among some wildflowers, was a whirligig of a fisherman sporting a yellow rainjacket and hat and sitting in a blue boat. As the wind would pick up, the oars on either side of his body would spin uncontrollably. He never got very far in his journey, but to this day, he remains a joy to watch. My mother was born and raised in Halifax, and this souvenir from home allowed her to display in a fun and creative way a part of her.

And that is exactly what folk art is meant to do. "Folk art expresses cultural identity by conveying shared community values and aesthetics," according to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "Folk art reflects traditional art forms of diverse community groups – ethnic, tribal, religious, occupational, geographical, age- or gender-based – who identify with each other and society at large."

Works may be made of out wood, textiles, paper, clay or tin among other materials. They may at times seem naive, idiosyncratic or technically flawed, but folk art is created for the people, not the museums, usually in isolation and by untrained artisans.

Like the grandest works of art, folk art is bold, colourful and highly decorative (with perhaps the exception of religious pieces). Unlike more cosmopolitan works, however, folk art is usually utilitarian and functional (though some, like the whirligig, are purely whimsical), full of immediate meaning and closely related to home and work life, daily needs, festivals and even mythology.

The most common motifs involve animals, plants and geometric shapes, and distinct objects, patterns and scenes can be identified with certain locations and times, such as the Basque region's Azulejos painted tiles, Russia's Vyatka toys, Norway's Hardanger needlework, Ukraine's Easter eggs, Canada's ship carvings, the United States' Shaker furniture, Mexico's calaveras skeleton prints and Japan's mingei pottery.  

While the styles, techniques, materials and themes are as diverse at the countries and epochs themselves, one thing remains core to the folk art tradition: the creative spirit to connect values, cultures, society and the people in your own backyard.


Check out Anizet Designs' picks for wonderful folk art museums and exhibits:

North America

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
Atlantic Canada's ties to the sea shine in the permanent exhibit Buoys and Gulls that spotlights the ocean and shore.  

Canadian Museum of History
The virtual exhibit Heart and Soul: Quebec Folk Art takes you on a tour of both traditional and contemporary folk art, outlines artists worth knowing and provides a tribute to Nettie Covey Sharpe, who collected a wide range of Quebec and Canadian folk art.

Symbols in Canadian-German Folk Art is a fascinating look at Canadian-German folk art, which offers an in-depth discussion on the use of symbolism, including flowers, birds and stars, as well as wonderful furnishings, textiles and the like to support the information.

The Museum of International Folk Art
The special exhibit Wooden Menagerie: Made in New Mexico highlights the region's rich tradition of whimsical bird carvings.

Mingei International Museum
We're digging the Surf Craft exhibit, a brilliant look at the evolution of the functional surfboard.

The American Folk Art Museum
From early portraits to weathervanes to symbols of liberty, the collection is "an unabashed song of praise to the nation" that follows the evolution of the country through its art.

Museum de Arte Popular
On view in the Mexican museum are papier mache works, textiles, pottery, wordcarving and more, traditions that continue to be handed down generation after generation. For information in English, click here. In Mexico City, Mexico.


Tate Britain
The British museum is currently showing the first major exhibition of British Folk Art until August 31 and features quilts, ship figureheads, crockery, tin trays and other overlooked examples of British art. In London, England, then travels to Compton Verney for the fall.

National Folk Museum of Korea
Three permanent exhibits showcase the history of the people, how they earned their living and typical life events. Breathtaking is the open-air space with its jangseung spirit posts, carved wooden birds and stone "grandfathers." In Seoul, Korea.

Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, Algeria
A wonderful collection of jewelry, carpets, pottery,  musical instruments and more. In Algiers, Algeria.

The Museum of Greek Folk Art
Dating back to the 17th century, the collection includes every facet of Greek life, from traditional costumes and shadow theatres to weaving, embroidery, masquerades and pottery. In Athens, Greece.

Museum of Tyrolean Regional Heritage
Housed in a former Franciscan monastery, the collection includes old handicrafts, religious and secular folk art, metalwork, costumes and household items. In Innsbruck, Austria.

All-Russian Decorative Art Museum
With some 40,000 pieces in its collection dating to the 18th century, the museum displays items from Russia and the former Soviet Republics. Those pieces include famous matryoshka dolls, birch bark baskets, lacework and Dymkovo toys. In Moscow, Russia.

State Museum of Ukrainian Decorative Folk Art
The extensive collection dates back to the 15th century and features a range of Ukrainian and Soviet-era works, divided by weaving, embroidery, woodcarving, ceramics, clothing, glassware, porcelain and decorative painting. The web site is only in Ukrainian. For English information, click here. In Kiev, Ukraine.

Musée de Laduz
The items in this village museum were created and/or collected by Raymond Humbert. Divided into 11 collections – categorized by the type of art and the type of material, objects include child's play, maritime life, daily life and rites of passage. In Laduz, France.

Our thanks to:  

Museum of International Folk Art

Encyclopaedia Brittanica

The Canadian Encyclopedia

Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America

View some of our favourite folk art pieces on our Folk Art Fantastic Pinterest board.

Do you have a folk art favourite? Leave us a comment below telling us about it and why you like it!



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