Craft is in--but that doesn't mean painted chickens.
Change can be good. A case in point is the recent hire at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. In January, Aldy Milliken arrived from Sweden to Louisville for his new position of executive director and chief curator and immediately went to work exploring different ways of looking at art and craft.
Milliken’s previous experience owning an art gallery means he’s comfortable in the contemporary art-world setting, but a museum dedicated to what has been better known for displaying regional folk art is a different matter. Before he even arrived at his new position, he had the façade of the KMAC building painted a slate gray and the doors an alarming street-cone orange to alert the public that transformation was underway.
Through the years, KMAC seemed to struggle with staying relevant and having issues of an outdated website, poor marketing, ho-hum exhibits and that certain 21c Museum Hotel just a stones throw away, it was easy to overlook KMAC’s presence. The museum does stand out as a space to explore the cultural heritage of Kentucky and the world at large by preserving and promoting objects of craft. “Kentucky is an interesting place for a curator to engage in a discussion that questions what is arts and crafts. Traditional craft workers are still held in high esteem in the region but for the most part have yet to formulate themselves in an international context,” Milliken wrote on the museum's blog.
For Milliken’s first exhibit as chief curator, Into the Mix, which ran Feburary through April 2012, he pushed the craft envelope and called in Brooklyn urban artist Sofia Maldonado to create graffiti installations on the museums’ front windows. So, if the brightly painted doors weren’t enough to get your attention, the baby blue painted panes filled with clouds and bold black lines should make you stop and give a second look. “[Maldonado’s] work is also a form of performance or ‘artist as laborer working in Kentucky’ that is specifically relevant in a process oriented craft context that defines the museum’s mission,” Milliken wrote to further explain just how exactly this makes sense for this type of museum.
Sofia Maldonado's graffiti work
Milliken is an American who has been seasoned by his more than 15 years of living overseas, running his own gallery and representing an artist in 1999 at the Venice Biennale. His interest in Louisville was brought about when he was introduced to then U.S. Ambassador to Sweden Matthew Barzun and wife Brooke, which Milliken says was his “introduction to people from Kentucky.” Milliken says, “What’s great about them [the Barzun’s] is that they believe in ideas, they believe in content.” The Barzun’s then introduced Milliken to other art champions from Louisville, and through those connections he came to hear about the mission of KMAC and the vacant executive director position. After contemplating the everyday struggle of gallery life combined with wanting to move his family back stateside, he applied for the position. KMAC’s board interviewed several qualified candidates, but ultimately decided to hire Milliken.
If anything else, Milliken is adaptable and the differences between being a curator of an art gallery and a curator of an art museum are varied, but he welcomes the challenges that this position brings. “Working with a board is a fantastic challenge and the financial aspects have a different rhythm. I’m having to speak a lot on my vision for the museum and asking people to believe in it,” he said.
When asked what he hopes to bring to KMAC, Milliken said, “I want to build a relevant museum for the region that discusses issues of identity and that can be local, national and international identity. I don’t believe that this should just be a Kentucky museum. I think we’re going to learn more about ourselves as Kentuckians if we started showing works from other parts of the country and other parts of the world. When we bring people and artworks here, we position Kentucky in the world and this is good for local artists."
"For instance, Rebekka Seigel , who is a textile artist, has had a bunch of shows here and she is an incredibly skilled craftsperson. I feel like she’s never really gotten the support or has been challenged fully. She’s been in quilt shows around the country, but I think her works can compare to some of the works of the great contemporary artists. If we bring in pieces from Cindy Sherman and put them alongside Rebekka Seigel’s work people will begin looking at her work as well as other people’s work within the region. My job is to inspire artists in the community."
Rebekka Seigel, "Prepubescent Pool Party"
Milliken hopes that he is part of the process of change that the city of Louisville is currently experiencing and as an outsider looking in he adds, “I don’t believe in the phrase ‘Keep Louisville Weird.’ Let’s not hold it back from anything. Let’s just go forward and make stuff happen. There is something happening in Louisville and I’m here because there are possibilities here that I probably wouldn’t have had at other places. Louisville is a good place, and I want to keep on pushing and exploring what’s happening here.”
Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft ’s current exhibit, 50 Years of Studio Glass , is on view until July 1. On Friday, June 1, Canadian/American glass artist Laura Donefer will lead a glass demonstration at Flame Run in the Glassworks building, 815 W. Market Street, from 1 to 3 p.m. At 7 p.m. that evening, she will give a gallery talk at KMAC. The event is free and open to the public.