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    Cover photo: Hog Killing, by Earnest Patton.

    Morehead State University is apparently proposing to operate the Kentucky Folk Art Center with minimal staffing for at least a year, a decision that has infuriated some observers who call it short-sighted and has been applauded by others who say it provides time to find a way to save the only art museum in Eastern Kentucky’s 54 Appalachian counties.

    Barry Crume, co-chair of the Friends of the Kentucky Folk Art Center Board, said MSU’s decision puts the entire 1,400-piece collection in jeopardy. “This accomplishes nothing at all,” Crume said. “The (university) president has not put great thought into this. He needs to build a committee and assign them the job of finding the best location to protect the collection, make it grow and make it accessible to the public. Staying in Morehead with a skeleton staff is completely unacceptable.”

    Crume, who with his wife Laura has donated more than 40 pieces to the Folk Art Center, says he may work to remove his donations if plans aren’t changed. “I may go through great lengths to get the art we donated to another institution. If they’re not going to uphold the commitment of taking care of the art that I donated to them, it needs to be sent to an institution that will.”

    The Kentucky Folk Art Center’s future was put in jeopardy last year when the state withdrew its annual $200,000 allocation. Then this year, MSU dealt what looked like the killing blow when it eliminated its $100,000 commitment to the museum’s operating budget, leaving the Folk Art Center with nothing but gift shop revenues. The center immediately dropped from five employees to two, including director Matt Douglas Collinsworth. In June, both remaining employees were told their contracts would expire on October 30.

    The KFAC board has not had an opportunity to meet since MSU’s most recent proposal emerged. Crume’s co-chair, Josephine D’Amato Richardson, has a different view of MSU’s proposal. “Being the one person on the board from Eastern Kentucky, I’m pleased that it’s staying in Morehead right now,” she said. “I think it gives us as the board of the Kentucky Folk Art Center the opportunity to work with the president on a future plan for the collection that maintains the integrity and sense of purpose that it was created with.” Richardson lives in Whitesburg, the seat of Letcher County.

    “No one wants a business or an entity that’s drawing people to your town to go away,” Richardson said. “I think this allows us the opportunity to be really thoughtful about what happens and work with people who have a vested interest.”

    Crume said any planning process should include members of the Folk Art Center board — which the university has not included in discussions — as well as Folk Art Center director Matt Collinsworth, former curator and Morehead resident Adrian Swain, others with knowledge of museums and members of the university’s Board of Regents.

    The university has declined to comment on recent developments. But in proposing maintenance of the collection with a single employee in the coming year, the university apparently suspended conversations with Kentucky institutions that expressed an interest in taking on the folk art collection. The KMAC Museum in Louisville, founded as the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in 1981, has expressed a desire to house the collection in an expanded Louisville facility. “We want to preserve and to provide access to the collection,” KMAC executive director Aldy Milliken said before MSU decided to keep the collection in Morehead. “We want to show the collection. We want to provide research opportunities through the collection.”

    Berea College, with a long history in the preservation of Appalachian folk art and culture, has also expressed an interest in the collection. “Our primary interest is ensuring that the collection remains viable and available somewhere in Kentucky,” said Berea president Lyle D. Roelofs shortly after speaking to MSU officials. Representatives from the University of Kentucky Art Museum also met with MSU about the folk art collection, but UK officials were mum about the nature of their meeting and MSU has declined to comment.

    According to an email Collinsworth sent to his board, the proposal to continue the museum in Morehead would leave KFAC with a single contract employee — that is, the employee would be ineligible for benefits. The proposal followed a recent decision by the Morehead Tourism Bureau reversing its earlier vote by deciding to provide MSU with $25,000 toward the operation of the museum for a year. Tourism’s decision brought the total amount of community support for the museum’s operation to $75,000. The city of Morehead and Rowan County had already agreed to donate $25,000 each. The tourism group had initially rejected the proposed funding, saying the university lacked a plan to sustain the museum in the future. But at the tourism group’s most recent meeting, the three board members who had originally opposed the $25,000 commitment were absent. The remaining board members unanimously approved the funding with the proviso that MSU develop a plan for the museum’s future. Because of that proviso, the tourism body must approve any plan MSU proposes.

    In addition to $75,000 in community funding, the museum will receive $25,000 from the MSU Foundation, Collinsworth said. Museum gift shop revenues will also provide some funding, but Collinsworth said that still leaves the museum short roughly $30,000 in operating funds. Collinsworth said anyone who accepts the contract post included in the university’s plan might run into trouble: “What they’re wanting out of the position would be almost impossibly challenging to achieve: to be a full-time person at the front desk as well as doing museum work and trying to raise money and write grants.” It’s more than one person can do, he said. Although several people have speculated that MSU thought Collinsworth would jump at the offer for this post, he’s expressed no interest. “I haven’t seen a full position description. I’m engaged in a job search, and I remain engaged in a job search,” Collinsworth said late last week.

    Adrian Swain, the first and long-time curator of the Folk Art Center, said the university’s proposal is no more than “kicking the can down the road. It doesn’t really accomplish anything other than keep the doors open. In the process, everything suffers in terms of the museum.”

    As recently as two weeks ago, MSU had asked Collinsworth to draw up questions for a proposed RFP — a request for proposal — which would have been used to invite other museums to take on the Morehead folk art collection. Such a plan, Swain said, “would present the best opportunity to sustaining the museum collection, giving it continued life. I applaud local entities for wanting to keep it in Morehead, but if all you come up with is $100,000, that’s not enough to do anything. …What they’re offering is not a viable prescription for restoration.”

    Jenni Laidman's picture

    About Jenni Laidman

    I'm a freelance writer who specializes in science and medicine but is passionate about art. I'm a hell of a cook. I think of white wine as training wheels for people who will graduate to red. I love U of L women's basketball. The best bargain in town is the $3 admission to U of L volleyball. Really exciting stuff.

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