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    Aldy Milliken, executive director of the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (KMAC), calls Pablo Picasso “the first international rock star.” He credits the artist’s eminence in part to the increasing ubiquity of global media and other mechanisms of modernism churning in Picasso’s heyday. Under Milliken’s leadership, the museum will host an exhibition of Picasso’s work created from 1931-1956 that has never been shown in the U.S. before, titled From Antibes to Louisville, Dec. 14-March 22. The name references the museum in Antibes, France, where the work is usually displayed, a space that served as Picasso’s studio for a time in 1946.

    Louisville’s KMAC Museum, founded in 1981, 100 years after Picasso’s birth (and eight after his death), originally went by the name Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation. The organization has quickly evolved from a gallery promoting local artists and artisans through retail sales to an accredited museum of contemporary art, showcasing artists with and without ties to Kentucky. The museum’s evolving approach to “craft” — the materials, labor and processes that artists employ to bring their ideas to fruition — became the nucleus of its growth. Before Milliken joined the staff in 2012, the museum looked at craft from a historical perspective, treating it as a noun. He sees it as a verb. “We want our audiences to understand the big ideas behind art creation, and one way of doing that is understanding how artists make that work,” Milliken says. “Everyone wants to know how the sausage is being made. That is a way in which we understand their thinking — their process. Every show that we do has these nuggets of information.”

    He references a 2015 KMAC show titled “Food Shelter Clothing,” wherein artist Lee Mingwei’s The Mending Project installation situated an artist before hundreds of wall-mounted spools of thread, sewing and mending articles of clothing brought in by museum visitors. The dual performance installation, with mended clothing joining the artist’s material (the thread) on display, illustrates the museum’s official tagline: “Art is the Big Idea. Craft is the Process.”

    KMAC still touts its support of local artists, though its overall focus is not regional. “We contextualize Kentucky in an international conversation of contemporary art,” Milliken says. This fall, the museum hosted its first triennial exhibition, showcasing the work of 20 jury-selected artists with Kentucky roots who “reflect the creativity of Kentucky at this moment,” Milliken says. The criteria for inclusion in the museum in general, however, is less local and more temporal. Most of the artists who work with KMAC are still living, Milliken says, or they exert a considerable influence on the contemporary art world. “We’re not trying to tell the story of art history,” he adds.

    So where does Picasso fit into this? Picasso is a good candidate for something other than “household name” designation. He’s also a contender for what we in 2019 refer to as “cancelation.” With her 2018 Netflix special, Nanette, comedian Hannah Gadsby achieved viral fame, in part for her historically informed and scathing takedown of the artist, a known misogynist and womanizer. Gadsby later compared Picasso to Donald Trump, citing the “cult of the celebrity” as the fuel behind both men’s despicable sexual politics. Trump’s celebrity inspired the line, “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” while Picasso’s afforded him a string of romantic and artistic muses, two of whom committed suicide after he discarded them. One mistress was only 17 years old to Picasso’s 45, the most prominent animus behind Gadsby’s comedy of opprobrium.

    And it’s not just Picasso’s personal life that invites scrutiny, if you ask most art critics with contemporary sensibilities, but his art itself. Picasso’s approach to African sculpture has been called appropriative, even colonialist, and the nude women of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon writhe beneath the male gaze.

    An easy conclusion, given both our culture’s preponderance for separating the art from the artist and KMAC’s teasing apart of art and craft, is that the work on display in From Antibes to Louisville is meant to be viewed without this context. Many of the pieces on display will be references to larger works, studies or sketches that came first, a nod to Picasso’s process and to KMAC’s mission to avoid making a value judgment between art and craft. But that conclusion isn’t quite right. “The artist is always the most important element,” Milliken says. “You can’t have art without an artist.” He emphasizes the way artists are able to tap into and share elements of humanity that others might overlook, giving viewers a new perspective.​

    Milliken favors reinterpreting an artist’s work with the benefit of historical context, rather than separating the art from the artist (or knee-jerk cancelation), and this is exactly what KMAC’s exhibition will attempt to do. Running concurrently with Antibes will be an exhibition called Heavy Lifting, by contemporary artist Summer Wheat, whose work is formally within Picasso’s wheelhouse — flat picture planes, playing with depth of field — tracing a lineage of Big Ideas about humanity from Picasso’s lens to Wheat’s feminist interpretation of the same forms. KMAC curator Joey Yates devised the exhibition as a foil to Picasso’s work, to remind visitors of the museum’s contemporary art focus and recontextualize Picasso’s artistic language for a modern audience.

    KMAC is also harnessing some of the artist’s influence and preternatural confidence, using the show to boost their other artists’ cachet and reinforce their own messaging around art and craft. “(Picasso) basically said, ‘Everything is art if I define it as art.’ That’s empowering for artists. We want our artists to also declare that whatever they make is art,” Milliken says. “We want to broaden your understanding of what you might think art is, and we want to value all the work that artists do. And it’s easier with Picasso because Picasso is a really established name.”

    Yates adds, “We want to put (our artists) in a bigger context. That’s what Picasso allows us to do.”

    Though From Antibes to Louisville presented some logistical challenges for KMAC — increased security and insurance, loftier fundraising efforts, meeting the demands of an estate — it’s largely business as usual for KMAC staff, who don’t see the Picasso exhibition as a departure from their brand. “We’ve shipped bigger work overseas before,” Yates says. “These types of things are not new to us.”

    Both Milliken and Yates say KMAC staff is already thinking about possibilities for parlaying their post-Picasso momentum into bigger and better things. “We want people to rethink what it means to be in Louisville, Kentucky,” Milliken says. “We think of this place as the center of the art world. Because we can make it that way.”

    This originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo courtesy of KMAC Museum, kmacmuseum.org

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