Taking a break from his duties at the gallery, Aarne talked to me about his beginnings as a collector and dealer and where he sees things going in the future.
Most people are born collectors. How did you start collecting?
Among my earliest memories is being on my hands and knees collecting rocks and fossils. I went on to study geology in college, and then art. Schools did not touch on folk art, tribal art or outsider art. These I discovered on my own going to antique shows and markets and found I could afford some decoys and folk carvings with my modest budget.
Was there a gradual shift from collector to dealer?
The shift happened when I brought my finds into my base making shop in NYC and visitors wanted to buy things.
What do you consider to be your biggest discovery?
At this time, I would say the body of drawings by Eugene Andolsek who was a clerical worker for the Rock Island Railroad most of his life. Almost every evening for 50 years he sat at his kitchen table and did amazing ink drawings of his inner visions .The luminous geometries relate to mandalas,kaleidescopes and psychedelic art yet he had no sense he was making art,or that others would be interested in his drawings. Some are now on view at the American Folk Art Museum and featured in an article in the magazine Raw Vision.
Any stories of the one that got away?
Most of my regrets are the ones that got away because of hesitation, lack of funds or thinking it would be there when I returned from where ever. I still think about a collection of 25 root and burl carvings by Moses Ogden who worked in western NY in the early 1900s. The carvings had been collected by an old time dealer who kept them in an attic as his family felt they were too spooky. When he died they were thrown out at the curb with the garbage.
A local antiques dealer found and rescued them and sold them around the state. I bought a root head with a bowler hat at a show that I liked from the group. My dealer friend found a life size root figure partly clothed and heard there were other carvings around. He became obsessed with finding and reassembling the carvings and he bought mine. Years later he offered me the collection of 25 pieces as his wife made him keep them in his attic and he felt they should be seen by the outside world. I was blown away by the carvings but couldn't get past the price and wasn't sure there would be buyers for these truly strange pieces. They were sold to someone with deep pockets and disappeared for many years. A picture postcard was found the following year showing the carver Moses Ogden selling root carvings at a county fair with a towns postmark. Further search revealed a history going back to the Civil War and a group of photos were found in a local library that showed his root covered house, furniture, and a yard full of gnarly figures and animals which he was trying to make into a tourist site of natural curiosities.
Years later, I was able to buy a few carvings and reconnect with them. My eyes and finances had changed and so had the tastes of my collectors, as they sold quickly. Every now and then another distinctive carving turns up unexpectedly.
Anything you wish you never sold?
I'm content to keep finding and enjoying but don't get attached. Part of what I do is find someone else who needs to own it . I do enjoy revisiting great objects or having them come back to me for awhile to find the next owner.
If money was no object, what’s the one piece that you would buy?
Money is not an object, its more like water that flows. I am content to handle many great objects from collectors, dealers, and museums with my mounting business without owning them. They nourish my soul. Things come to me in unexpected ways on a regular basis so I don't feel at a loss to find something missing.
You’ve traveled all over the United States looking for material. Do you see a regionalism to the type and quality of folk art across the United States?
There is probably the most material culture in the Northeast because of a longer period of settlement and larger population. Areas like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have strong traditions brought over from European immigrants as do many other regions of ethnic settlement that can influence the nature of the folk art. For some reason, the Midwest seems fertile for strange idiosyncratic works. The South has been an area for African American creativity, however the migration to the cities has made all parts of the country fertile ground for discovery.
Sometimes I feel like all the great stuff has already been found, but then every once in a while, something great will come up out of the blue. Do you see a winding down in terms of the quality of folk art that’s out there?
As long as I can remember in my 30 + years of looking there has been the dealers lament of how hard it is to find great things and "The good old days". I don't buy it.
There is a lot of great stuff waiting to be found and these days many earlier collectors are letting go of past finds. There are many more people looking and collecting than in the past. Most things go to private collectors rather than museums in folk art and material culture which means that they circulate back into the market in their own time so there is a flow of interest and opportunity.
How do you see the folk art collecting field evolving?
When I started the folk art market was almost entirely with the interest and value of early 19th century pieces. With the influence of Outsider art and Herbert Hemphill and others the blinders have come off in seeing the continuity and diversity of folk art to present times. Moving along in the 21st century, it is easier to look at the 20th century which is familiar yet surprisingly full of wonders as you all know. I have a personal interest in the art inspired by the space race and science fiction from grassroots obsessions with UFOs to imagining future worlds.
Any words of advice for young collectors?
Follow your passions and train your eye. Art is everywhere and there are so many great shows happening in all parts. The internet gives us access like never before.