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MFA hires curator of folk art, a first for the museum

Michael J. Bramwell will join the Museum of Fine Arts as its inaugural Joyce Linde Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art.Museum of Fine Arts

Michael J. Bramwell, an artist, scholar, and curator, will join the Museum of Fine Arts as the Joyce Linde Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art, a newly created position within the museum’s Art of the Americas department.

In his new role, part of a broader Folk Art Initiative, Bramwell will work with colleagues across the institution to develop exhibitions, displays, and public programming in an effort to boost the profile of the museum’s folk art collection, making it more relevant to today’s visitors. He begins on June 1.

“I’m honored to have the opportunity of working at a world-class museum like the Museum of Fine Arts,” Bramwell said in a statement to the Globe. “It is both a privilege and a blessing to have been selected as the inaugural Linde curator, which affords the opportunity to raise the national and international profile of folk and self-taught art, and also, the chance to escort fresh, diverse voices into high cultural zones.”

Bramwell currently serves as a visiting guest curator at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C. He has worked with the North Carolina Museum of Art, MoMA PS1, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among other institutions.

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In addition to his work as a visual artist, Bramwell is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where his scholarship focuses on the work of David Drake, an enslaved 19th-century potter from South Carolina who is also known as Dave the Potter.

“As a practicing artist and academically-trained art historian, Michael Bramwell brings a distinct perspective to folk and self-taught art,” said Art of the Americas chair Ethan Lasser. “His commitment to telling new stories and reaching beyond the canon promises to reenergize the display and interpretation of this material at the MFA.”

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The MFA’s folk art collection, widely defined, contains significant holdings of 18th- and 19th-century objects from the American Northeast, including quilts, furniture, paintings, and works on paper.

Nevertheless, folk art, some created by unidentified or enslaved individuals with scant biographical information, has often played a supporting role at museums like the MFA, where pride of place has traditionally been reserved for works by European and American artists.

The MFA’s new Folk Art Initiative — and Bramwell’s hire — is meant to help challenge that hierarchy, expanding the definition of art by elevating folk art to offer “greater inclusion of voices, narratives and histories.” The multi-year initiative has already resulted in one show, last year’s “Collecting Stories: The Invention of Folk Art.”

Similarly, the MFA has been working with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to present a traveling exhibition of work by Black potters from South Carolina. The show, which opens in Boston next year, includes a jug by Drake in the MFA’s collection and features a catalog essay coauthored by Bramwell and Lasser.


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him @malcolmgay.