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American Art Museum Acquires Major Collection of Self-Taught Artists


James Castle, “Untitled,” found paper, color of unknown origin, and soot. (Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Margaret Z. Robson Collection)

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has received a gift of 93 works of art from the collection of Margaret Z. Robson that  includes important paintings, drawings and sculptures by 48 major self-taught artists, including James Castle, Ulysses Davis, Thornton Dial Sr., William Edmondson, Howard Finster, Bessie Harvey, Judith Scott, Bill Traylor and others.

The Robson gift comprises the largest acquisition of self-taught artworks in 20 years and signals the museum’s deep and lasting commitment to this area of artistic production. The museum’s acquisition of the collection, given by Magaret Z. Robson’s son, Douglas O. Robson, was approved by the SAAM Board of Commissioners at its November meeting.


Ulysses Davis, Untitled, 1942, painted and carved wood. (Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Margaret Z. Robson Collection)

“We are truly honored to be entrusted with the stewardship of this work,” Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art, says. “The Robson collection has enormous range. It includes major works, such as William Edmondson’s ‘Untitled (Birdbath)’ and Bill Traylor’s ‘Untitled (Seated Woman).’ A 1942 relief carving by Ulysses Davis is a key example of the early work of a master wood carver who would become known for his presidential busts and wild beasts.

“The collection also includes exceptional works by lesser-known artists such as Albert “Kid” Mertz, whose painted stack of 1,265 railroad spikes was part of his vivid painted environment, and Leroy Person, who carved patterns into the window sills and doors of his North Carolina home before creating a large body of similarly incised abstract woodcarvings.”


William Edmondson, Untitled (Bird Bath with Figures), about 1932-1940. Carved Limestone. (Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Margaret Z. Robson Collection)

Robson began collecting the work of folk and self-taught artists in the 1980s and became a highly respected collector and advocate. The artworks she selected reveal her personal point of view and preference for works that exemplify a particular culture, time and place.

“Margaret Robson was a thoughtful woman, with a keen eye and a unique personal vision,” Umberger says. “She began collecting at a time when few grasped the inherent value of art that was often made amid challenging circumstances and by those who lacked the agency of the mainstream art world. The collection speaks of empowerment and a ‘can-do’ spirit, and it will be cherished and shared here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.”


Sister Gertrude Morgan, Fan, about 1970, paint and ink on card. (Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Margaret Z. Robson Collection)

Currently, four works from the Robson collection—hanging mixed-media assemblages by Emery Blagdon—are on view in the museum’s first-floor galleries. Other pieces from the collection will debut in 2017. Five Bill Traylor paintings from the gift will be included in the 2018 retrospective “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor” that Umberger is organizing. The museum will produce an exhibition and book dedicated to the Robson collection in its entirety at a future date.


Leroy Person, “Untitled,” about 1975, polychrome carved wood and metal. (Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Margaret Z. Robson Collection)

The Smithsonian American Art Museum was among the first major museums to collect works by self-taught artists and to advocate for a diverse populist voice within the context of what is traditionally considered great art.