Personality: Ann Oppenhimer

Spotlight on co-founder, executive director of Folk Art Society of America

10/5/2023, 6 p.m.
The Museum of International Folk Art describes the medium as art that is decorative or utilitarian, used every day or ...

The Museum of International Folk Art describes the medium as art that is decorative or utilitarian, used every day or reserved for high ceremonies, is handmade or includes handmade elements, as well as new, synthetic or recycled components.

Ann Oppenhimer describes folk art as “art made by self-taught, untrained individuals who have not studied art in school. The great debate about folk art is: whether it should be called Outsider Art, Visionary Art or Intuitive Art.”

And for nearly 40 years Mrs. Oppenhimer and her husband, Dr. William Oppenhimer, have championed folk art by promoting it to improve the lives of folk artists through exhibitions, writing and publishing the magazine, the Folk Art Messenger, and through national and global educational folk art conferences.

While the couple co-founded the Folk Art Society of America in 1987, Mrs. Oppenhimer, executive director of the organization, credits her husband as the “idea person” for the society, providing her advice and ideas that continually inspire her, she said.

When asked how she was introduced to folk art, Mrs. Oppenhimer recalled learning about Miles B. Carpenter, an elderly folk artist who lived in Waverly, Va.

A Sussex County peanut farmer who later operated a lumber business, Mr. Carpenter began carving figures in the 1960s. His watermelons, peanut men and whimsical monsters earned him a national reputation as a folk article.

“Two friends and I would go to visit him just to enjoy his company and see what he was working on,” she said. “We started buying the small birds and animals that he made. That’s how I began to collect folk art in the mid-1970s.”

Mr. Carpenter died in 1985 shortly before his 96th birthday. By then his work was widely known. The Miles B. Carpenter Museum is a Virginia Historic Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places held by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Folk Art Society of America designated the museum a national folk art site in May 2000, according to the museum’s website.

Meeting men and women such as Mr. Carpenter is one reason the Oppenhimers’ passion for folk art evolved.

“ My husband and I enjoy getting to know the artists, and most of the art in our collection was made by artists we know and regard as friends,” she said. “We started collecting folk art in the mid-seventies and have acquired quite a lot of it. We have donated art to Longwood University and other museums. Friendship with the artists is more important to us than the pieces of art.”

Over the past four de- cades, the Folk Art Society of America’s collection has been featured in more than 90 exhibitions. Mrs. Oppenhimer says her first curated exhibition remains her favorite show: The weeklong Howard Finster Folk Art Festival in 1984 at the University of Richmond.

During the exhibition, Mr. Finster was the Oppenhimers’ house guest and in his free time he entertained them by singing and playing his banjo, she recalled.

More recently, Mrs. Oppenhimer has won awards from the 2023 Virginia Professional Communicators and National Federation of Press Women’s Professional Communications contests. She also won three first place prizes and one second place award from the Virginia Professional Communicators contest for the Folk Art Society of America’s magazine, the Folk Art Messenger. This includes writing obituaries, editing the publication and public relations material. She also won prizes for the organization’s social media presence on Facebook.

Mrs. Oppenhimer currently is writing a book about her life experiences, which includes recording details about the folk artists she has met and befriended along the way.

Meet an advocate for the work of folk artists and this week’s Personality, Ann Oppenhimer:

Volunteer position: Executive director, Folk Art Society of America.

Occupation: Retired. Taught art history at the University of Richmond for 17 years.

Date and place of birth: November in North Tazewell.

Where I live now: Richmond.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in biology, UR; bachelor’s degree in medical technology, the Medical College of Virginia; master’s degree in art history and photography, Virginia Commonwealth University.

Family: Husband, Dr. William Mayo Oppenhimer; daughter, Mary Helen Frederick Willett; Daughter, Clair Frederick Hamner; son, Philip Frederick III.

The Folk Art Society of America is: A nonprofit organization for the study and promotion of folk art and artists.

When and why founded: Founded in 1987 in Richmond to promote folk art and folk artists from around the United States and the world, with an emphasis on the contemporary.

Mission: To promote the art and improve the lives of folk artists through exhibitions, through writing

and publication of the magazine, the Folk Art Messenger.

Why I collect folk art and am considered a leading collector: My husband and I enjoy getting to know the artists, and most of the art in our collection was made by artists we know and regard as friends.

My collection consists of: Paintings, sculpture and some pottery.

Where folk art collections, including mine, can be viewed in Richmond: We have an exhibition of 25 pieces from our collection at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture called “Visionary Virginians.” African-American folk art can be viewed at Virginia Union University’s Art Gallery.

Leading folk art museum/ gallery in the United States: The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., is the most important museum featuring folk art.

Virginia Union University and folk art: The art gallery contains a large selection of Thornton Dial’s work, which was donated by James and Barbara Sellman. Mr. Dial is probably the most important artist today. It also has a nice collection of African-American folk art and African art.

No. 1 goal or project of The Folk Art Society: To have folk art recognized as equal to mainstream contemporary artworks by museums, universities and the general public.

Strategy for achieving goals: Publishing articles in the Folk Art Messenger.

No. 1 challenge facing The Folk Art Society of America: Increasing membership.

Controversies and folk art collecting: Making sure that artists are not cheated by purchasers or dealers.

The Folk Art Society of America and its relationship to Black artists: Probably at least half or more artists are Black. We are friends with many Black artists, two of whom are members of the National Advisory Board of the Folk Art Society.

How The Folk Art Society of America ensures the artists have a voice and not just the collectors: We have published many articles about individual artists, and we encourage that their voices be heard in those articles.

The Folk Art Society of America and diversity: I do not care for the use of the term “diversity.” We have three Black members on our board, but not because they are Black. We have them because they are people who care about the artists and their art.

Richmond and folk art: The VMFA included folk art in its exhibitions of the “Souls Grown Deep” acquisition, “The Dirty South and Storied Strings.” The VMHC has included our folk art in its current exhibition, “Visionary Virginians”. The University of Richmond includes occasional pieces of folk art.

Upcoming events and details: The 34th Conference of the Folk Art Society will be in Richmond, Oct. 26- 29, 2023. The conference brochure containing the details and the schedule of the weekend is available on the FASA website:


What I have learned most from folk art artists: Love is the most important thing in the world.

How I start the day: By cooking breakfast for my husband – his favorite meal.

The three words that best describe me: I work hard.

If I had 10 extra minutes in the day: I would sleep.

Best late-night snack: Brownies and milk.

The music I listen to most is: Jazz and country.

Something I love to do that most people would never imagine: Watch for new birds at my bird feeder.

At the top of my “to-do” list: Finish getting everything lined up for the FASA conference in the next month.

The best thing my parents ever taught me: Never spend money that you don’t have.

The person who influenced me the most: My husband, who still influences me.

Book that influenced me the most: “Souls Grown Deep, Vols. 1 and 2,” by William Arnett.

What I’m reading now: “Scholarship Boy” by Larry Palmer. I enjoy autobiographies most of all, and Larry so beautifully tells the story of his family and his experiences growing up and going to prep school.

Next goal: To finish the book I am writing about my life and the folk artists I have known personally.