Meet your neighbors... Alan and Trudy Goldberg, collectors of Mexican folk art
NEW CANAAN — Trudy Goldberg stood on a recent Friday in the office of her New Canaan home, scrutinizing a series of brightly colored objects of varying sizes and shapes that occupied the shelves before her.
She would point to an object, reminisce about the way in which she and her husband, Alan, had acquired it, and then begin anew with the origin story of an adjacent piece, commenting on a favorite feature or laughing at a peculiarity in its design.
At one point she asked Alan, who was standing nearby, somewhat wistfully, “Are we keeping any of this?”
“Everything is going,” Alan replied. “Enjoy it while you can.”
The objects — displayed, not only in the office, but in six other rooms in the Goldbergs’ home — are part of an important collection of 750 pieces of Mexican folk art, amassed piece by piece over more than fifty years of travel to the Central American country’s remote villages and bustling cities, seaside towns and mountain-top settlements.
In the coming weeks, all except for roughly 30 pieces, will be individually packed, loaded onto climate-controlled trucks, and driven away from their longtime New Canaan home bound for San Francisco, where they’ll become part of the collection of the Mexican Museum.
It’s an odd moment for the Goldbergs, whose life, since their first trip to Mexico in 1962, has been enlivened by folk art, and, in more recent years, by the pursuit of these rare pieces and an affinity for those who make them.
“People wonder, what does folk art mean?” said Alan, an architect who originally came to New Canaan with his wife in 1966 to work with Eliot Noyes, a member of the Harvard Five. “The simple explanation is, it’s something you learn sitting at the knee of your mother or father. It’s passed on by generation. There’s no formal training and they use simple materials.”
Those materials vary depending on what is available in a given state or village, including palm leaves, paper and copal wood — a tree native to Central America. According to Alan, household items like hairpins and combs are used to add intricate details while paints are made from ground-up flowers.
“What we’ve wound up with is a very comprehensive collection of 87 different artists — known artists and many unknown — from nine states and 26 villages. Works of clay, tin, wood, corn husk, whatever they have,” Alan said. “And we have stories with almost every piece.”
Indeed, as they toured the galleries of the mid-century modern home that Alan designed in 1977, the Goldbergs stopped often before a given piece to relate vivid anecdotes about who made it and in what conditions, and when and how it came into their possession. The forms of the sculptures, the etchings in the wood, the textures and expressions in each of the faces of the figures — all seemed to trigger a memory.
In many cases, their descriptions evoked the rural villages and cluttered homes where artists — many of whom the Goldbergs have grown to know well — engage in the creative process, unfazed by chickens roaming or children playing nearby.
One, Josefina Aguilar, a favorite of the Goldbergs and perhaps the foremost living Mexican folk artist, has lost her vision, though she still sculpts by touch, and is suffering from complications from diabetes. In order to assure that she received proper treatment, the Goldbergs helped to raise money to get Aguilar a lifetime supply of diabetes medication.
“The people couldn’t be nicer, when you consider all they go through. Their government gives them nothing,” said Alan. “It’s a hard life.”
At the time of their first trip to Mexico, the Goldbergs had no intentions of beginning a collection, though Alan’s interest had been piqued prior to the trip by a visit to La Fonda del Sol, a restaurant in New York City’s Time & Life Building — part of Rockefeller Center — that had been decorated with folk art by the designer Alexander Girard.
“As an architect I thought, ‘God, this is wonderful.’ It kind of humanizes modern architecture, which some people think is sterile. It becomes a good foil to it,” Alan said.
That first trip to Mexico in 1962, which Trudy said she was not at all eager to go on at the time, proved to be a life-changing experience.
“We were taken with folk art the first time,” said Trudy, a professor emeritus of social policy at Adelphi University.
Still, the Goldbergs didn’t return to Mexico until the late 1960s and their third trip took place almost a decade after that.With each subsequent journey across the border, however, their passion for the art grew until, by the 1990s, it was a yearly endeavor.
Though the Goldbergs generally bought pre-existing pieces directly from the artists — picking them out and then arranging for them to be shipped to New Canaan — they also began to commission new works, sometimes via email, which added a level of uncertainty to the transaction.
Between the visits to Mexico and emailed commissions, their collection began to feature ever more prominently in their Laurel Road house.
Naturally, there are drawbacks to having such an extensive and fragile collection, the Goldbergs explained, pointing out pieces broken in shipping or at the hands of their two sons.
“Our kids broke everything,” Trudy said, laughing. Entertaining guests, too, was made more stressful in a house full or rare art. Luckily, the Goldbergs found expert restorers, whose skills have kept the collection pristine.
In recent years, the Goldbergs began to feel that the collection was starting to take over their home. They decided to donate it to a museum, where many people could see and enjoy the art they had assembled.
Not all of the institutions under consideration met the Goldbergs’ standards.
The couple wanted their collection to be viewed as a whole. “We wanted people to experience it as a genre and say, ‘Oh boy, look what Mexican folk art is like,’” Trudy said. Many museums would have used individual pieces of the collection thematically and not displayed them as a unit.
Ultimately, a decision was made after more than two years of searching when Sari Bermudez, a former Mexican culture minister and current leader of the Mexican Museum’s curatorial team, visited and fell in love with the collection.
Andrew M. Kluger, chairman of the board of the museum, whose permanent home in the Yerba Buena Gardens Art District is set to open in 2019, recently described the Goldbergs’ gift as “a magnificent collection,” noting the New Canaan collectors’ “love and passion” for the artists and their work, as well as the extensive documentation they have put together.
It’s a happy arrangement for the Goldbergs, too.
“Timing is everything in life and this museum was really expanding,” Trudy said. “They are really interested in promoting Mexican culture. Our collection meshes very nicely with what they have.”
And though the Goldbergs will miss their Mexican folk art, in a way it’s a return to synergistic form for both the art that will remain and the house that Alan built.
“As Alan says, it’s a wonderful contrast,” said Trudy. “It’s gotten out of hand, but when you see it afterward with just a few pieces, then you’ll see the minimalism is maintained.”