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The World's Biggest Folk Art Collection Just Got Bigger

By Brendan Doherty

AUGUST 31, 1998:  Build it and they will come, goes the saying. But this time, it was built so that these can come--"these" being the Lloyd Cotsen-Neutrogena Corporation collection of folk art, some 2,500 objects given jointly by the two parties. The exhibit of the new acquisition, Extraordinary in the Ordinary, begins this weekend, curated by Cotsen himself and Mary Hunt Kahlenberg.

The collection, estimated to be worth millions, was so significant that the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe built an 8,775-square-foot display space. Cotsen, former CEO for the Neutrogena Corporation, a skin products manufacturer, collected the works over three decades of world travel.

"The scope of these works is totally international," says Kahlenberg. "There are few corners of the world that he didn't touch. Most of the objects are collected from outside Europe, but he did it with special consideration not to categorize any of the materials in any way."

Cotsen's insistence that the items not be categorized, Kahlenberg says, is one of the reasons that the entire collection will reside with the Museum of International Folk Art, already the world's largest such collection. To break up the massive grouping and donate it to several museums would have meant that some control over how it was displayed would have been lost.

"The collection had so much to say that for it to go to lots of institutions, it would never be shared with a wider audience who could make connections through these pieces," says Kahlenberg.

In keeping with the emphasis on the collections' connections, a nondate-, nonmap-specific exhibit style was chosen. According to Kahlenberg, the pieces are displayed according to a Japanese principle of "conceal, reveal." Age, location and type are not grouped together, but cross- contextual similarities are enhanced, showing ultimately pan-human ideas.

"The exhibition is intent on showing how similar ideas for designs show up throughout the world, and then how each has a different solution," says Kahlenberg. "For example, there are Navajo transition rugs from 1890 in the first room with stick-like figures, and right next to it is a raffia that is almost the identical figure in three dimensions from halfway across the world. ... Most of these (pieces) aren't typical examples. ... They were chosen for their aesthetics and from a deeper sense of what was great."

Among the collection's highlights are ancient Coptic Egyptian textiles, Hispanic carvings, Pueblo ceramics, Navajo weavings, Japanese folk clothing, textiles from the Kuba peoples of Africa, Pennsylvania Amish quilts and weavings from ancient Andean cultures.

The whole intent of the exhibit, Kahlenberg concludes, is to provide an intimate, personal view of these diverse works. "It's really about discovering," she says. "You don't have to come away with any in-depth ideas. You can just enjoy."

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