Museum of New Mexico Media Center Press Release

A Gathering of Voices: Folk Art from the Judith Espinar and Tom Dillenberg Collection

Museum of International Folk Art

July 10, 2018


For the first time, visionary Judith Espinar, who was at the forefront of the modern folk art and handmade global craft movements, will share her extraordinary collection with the public in an exhibition at the world-renowned Museum of International Folk Art

December 16, 2018, to September 9, 2019

Santa Fe, New Mexico—The international folk art legacy of Judith Espinar, a pioneering collector, co-founder of the famed International Folk Art Market, artist advocate, and philanthropist who helped pave the way for the modern movements in folk art and the handmade, is the inspiration for a much anticipated Museum of International Folk Art exhibition capturing Espinar’s dynamic spirit in collecting and living with folk art.

A Gathering of Voices: Folk Art from the Judith Espinar and Tom Dillenberg Collection, on exhibit from December 16, 2018, to September 9, 2019, illuminates the diverse voices and living traditions of international cultures through the singular vision of a collector who has spent more than 50 years studying, supporting, and celebrating the art of the handmade.

For the first time, more than 200 select pieces from Espinar’s collection of thousands of global folk art works—including ceramics, woodcarvings, textiles, metalwork, and more—will be on exhibit in a unique installation that replicates object groupings and settings from her Santa Fe home, enabling viewers to experience the works as Espinar lives with them in her daily life. She collected many important pieces while living in New York and Santa Fe with her former husband and now respected friend Tom Dillenberg.

This cross-cultural gathering highlights some of Espinar’s most treasured objects and best-loved artists—from ceramists Claude Laniesse (France), Juan Almarza (Spain), Herón Martínez Mendoza (Mexico), and Beatrice Wood (U.S.) to Moroccan, Sicilian, and Peruvian pottery to Bolivian weavings, Ethiopian metalwork, and Mexican and New Mexican santos (saints). The spaces these works inhabit reflect Espinar’s personal passion for blending contemporary folk art and design while opening a window to deeper investigations of individual artists, their workshops, and the handmade traditions they keep alive.


Espinar will gift her vast collection to the museum, following in the footsteps of Bartlett and the Girards

The exhibition also celebrates Espinar’s promised gift of her vast collection to the Museum of International Folk Art. The gift places her among such notable collectors as museum founder Florence Dibell Bartlett, midcentury modernist Alexander Girard and wife Susan Girard, and former Neutrogena Corporation CEO Lloyd Cotsen, whose philanthropic gifts of folk art built the museum into the home of the world’s largest and most respected international folk art collection.

“We are honored to be the chosen venue for this rare, never-before-seen look into Judith Espinar’s distinguished life of collecting and living with folk art,” says Museum of International Folk Art Director Khristaan Villela. “We are equally honored to be the future home of her outstanding collection. Her central collecting focus on supporting living folk artists goes to the heart of our mission to illuminate human creativity and shape a more humane world through the traditional arts.”


Traveling the World, Espinar Believes Supporting Living Artists Keeps Culture and Tradition Alive

Since the mid-1960s, when Espinar first fell in love with a handmade clay casserole pot in a Mexican marketplace, she has been on the ground floor of a now burgeoning movement to support the distinctive beauty and history of handmade global craft traditions and their modern makers.

“When I saw that casserole pot, a fresh aesthetic spoke to me,” Espinar says. “I had just completed my first year of graduate work in design at Cornell University and thought myself a budding expert in the 20th-century Bauhaus modernist school, which blurred distinctions between fine art, craft, and design. Why, in all my years of schooling, had I never heard the words arte popular, or folk art?”

The accessibility and affordability of folk art (she paid less than $2 for the casserole pot) set Espinar on a journey into the heart of the folk art world. From the Peace Corps in Peru in 1963, where she participated in the first craft development project in the Andes, to consulting with Aid to Artisans, UNESCO, and other prestigious cultural and craft organizations to co-founding the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in 2004, she has spent decades honing her collector’s eye and elevating the work of folk artists in the public eye.

Espinar’s primary interest in folk art ceramics evolved during her 20-year career in the New York fashion industry, where she was the Editor of Vogue Patterns International and Director of the Evan Picone Design Studio. During work trips around the world, she took time to visit pottery centers to collect and learn more about distinct ceramic traditions from different cultures. Most important, she made efforts to meet living folk artists to buy and learn directly from them.

“I’ve always trusted myself to buy what I loved,” she says. “As I got to know more artists, I found myself falling in love with the individuals behind these beautiful objects. That human connection deepened my passion for the work.”

In the early 1990s, inspired in part by a visit to the Museum of International Folk Art, Espinar and Dillenberg relocated to Santa Fe to embark on her dream of sharing her love of folk art with others. From 1990 to 2007, along with her sister, Linda Champlin, she operated the Clay Angel, a store specializing in international ceramics that also highlighted local folk art traditions, including contemporary New Mexican santos.

Today, Espinar’s desire is to expand the global market for all genres of traditional folk art and give voice to master folk artists in a setting where their work is valued. She continues to be deeply committed to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, which she cofounded and which is celebrating its 16th year in 2019. The world-famous market has hosted more than 1,000 master folk artists from 100 countries, becoming the largest international folk art gathering in the world and generating over $30 million in vital income for folk artists worldwide.


A Gathering of Voices brings Espinar’s collection and expertise together in their fullest expression—the joy of loving and living with folk art

The exhibition installation directly reflects Espinar’s creative inspiration as she incorporates her folk art treasures into the social and architectural spaces that define her home. Her thoughtful process of setting a scene, a mood, or a table is represented throughout the exhibition with a series of vignettes, photographs, and videos that reconstruct those spaces. Rather than a static installation, the display embraces a living process of design inspired by the cultural contrasts and connections among different artists and cultures whose works reflect shared imagery, color, pattern, and form.

One vignette, for example, shows how Espinar transformed a trunk under a window into an altar. Originally envisioning a space where the scale and detail of her favorite Mexican clay candelabras would frame an extraordinary 19th-century Mexican Madonna, Espinar expanded the gathering to include ceramic works by 20th-century American ceramist Beatrice Wood. Their stunning metallic glazes and articulated surfaces and forms reach back hundreds of years to connect Wood’s modern artistry to other choice works that Espinar rotates on her altar.

“Other objects on the trunk change with new acquisitions or new thoughts,” Espinar says. “I like to inspire an ongoing conversation among the items in the group.”

Another vignette highlights the conversation between select objects set upon a living-room hearth—a Mexican shrine, wood and clay saints, metal candle sconces, and a dominance of crosses—that reflect Espinar’s attraction to spiritual environments. “The Ladies,” a grouping of hand-built beauties from Italy, Sicily, France, and Peru, represent a vanishing ceramic tradition of hand-built figurative work: the art of sculpting the feminine. Meanwhile, Espinar’s ever-changing “Plate Wall” features the array of color, imagery, and design achieved by artists within the borders of a single plate, imparting a lesson that folk art is an exercise in imagination and fun.


A video installation and dining table celebrate Espinar’s creativity and trust in collecting the things that bring us joy

A Gathering of Voices culminates at the ultimate place to gather and converse—the dining table. In Espinar’s “Tablescape,” place settings combining Spanish and Mexican ceramics highlight lively green brushstroke, vibrant glazes, and applied floral borders set upon a simpler embroidered Italian linen cutwork cloth. Checked napkins, a three-tiered French candelabra, and figurative Spanish chickens bring a final playful note. “I want people to see this table and be inspired to set a table that is filled with things they think are beautiful,” said Espinar. “Not what I think is beautiful or an interior designer feels is beautiful.”

Here Espinar uses the act of setting a table as a metaphor for convening the objects and the people we love around a shared ideal of creativity and trust in collecting the things that bring us joy.

“My table is almost never about the food. It’s about connecting the personalities of my guests to the contrasting patterns and diverse craft identities of my folk art,” Espinar says. “Ultimately, folk art connects us to each other and to ourselves.”

A Gathering of Voices: Folk Art from the Judith Espinar and Tom Dillenberg Collection is on view December 16, 2018, to September 9, 2019, at the Museum of International Folk Art, 706 Camino Lejo, on Museum Hill in Santa Fe.

For more details, interview requests, and photographs, contact Clare Hertel at Clare Hertel Communications at 505-474-6783 or





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