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KMAC Redefines 'Craft' For A New Generation

The newly renovated Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft
The newly renovated Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft

According to Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft Curator Joey Yates, there are a few artforms most people think of when they hear the term “craft.”

“Fiberwork is something people think about,” Yates said. “Clay, probably the oldest, wood — and then more recently, glass.”

These are also the types of works that the museum has traditionally displayed. Started in 1981 as the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation, the original organization operated, in many ways, as a gallery or gift shop where people from the region could display and ultimately sell their creations.

But in 2001, the institution started a pretty big shift. It adopted the name Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, then ultimately redesigned its building on Main Street into a series of sleek exhibition and education spaces.

Now, museum officials are in the midst of having to educate the public on what exactly the “craft” part of the name means to them.

‘Craft’ As A Verb

Yates is in the midst of prepping KMAC’s third floor gallery for “Muses,” by Elsa Hansen Oldham, which opens Friday.

“They are embroidered works, usually small,” Yates said. “Sometimes the size of a record album.”

At first glance, Hansen Oldham’s cross-stitches fit KMAC’s old definition of craft — it’s textile work.

But on closer inspection, you realize they aren’t exactly traditional. There’s an entire piece of embroidered Daniel Day Lewises, for example — and most of her work refers to (and maybe pokes a little fun at) contemporary celebrity and pop culture.

But more than anything, Yates is interested in the artist’s process.

“Embroidery is time-intensive; it’s labor-intensive,” he said. “And that’s actually what draws her to the practice.”

And that curatorial focus on how the art is made underpins KMAC’s new image.

According to director Aldy Milliken, the museum focuses on “craft” as a verb.

“The contemporary art world has come back around to new materialism, or materials that explore labor, process,” Milliken said. “Then the content of that is derived out of materiality.”

And this focus on materials and creative process also allows the museum to stretch the bounds of the kinds of exhibits they program. For example, on KMAC’s second floor — one floor below Hansen Oldham’s work — is a solo exhibition by Jibade-Khalil Huffman.

His art also draws from pop culture, but uses more modern materials, like video and audio.

“It’s not a limited number of materials when we talk about craft,” Yates said. “Not just a few working methods of woodworking or metalwork or textiles. So that’s why the ‘art is the big idea, craft is the process’ works for us.”

KMAC As A Contemporary Art Museum

According to Milliken and Yates, there has been some pushback on the restructuring of the museum.

“Change is hard for a lot of people,” Milliken said. “There was, I think, a generational sort of pushback because we were changing the look, in a way. We were doing idea-specific exhibitions, especially when Joey came on board. But I think with every single person that pushed back there were four people like, ‘Wow, I want to be part of that.’”

And, Milliken said, those people recognize KMAC for what it is now.”

“In basic terms, we are a contemporary art museum,” he said.

But one that focuses on the craft that goes into making contemporary art.