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Visual Arts                   

Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery is looking backward -- and forward

By DIANE HEILENMAN The Courier-Journal
From May 16, 1999

Gallery founder Mary Shands
Gallery founder Mary Shands holds a carved pair by Donny Tolson of Compton, Ky. The Uncle Sam figure is by Edgar Tolson, Donny's father.

At 15, the Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery is a senior member of Louisville's gallery scene.

But the way the gallery calculates it, it is 15 years and growing.

The gallery -- and the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation that runs it -- have all the exuberance of an adolescent.

"We just have so much energy," said Marlene Grissom, chairwoman of the board of directors. "It's a great board."

And there are great plans afoot as the gallery looks backward and forward on the occasion of its 15th birthday.

Two exhibitions -- "Fifteen Years on Main Street" and "Kentucky's Best: New Works by Old Friends" -- highlight the gallery's pioneering presence in what has become a booming national market for crafts.

Behind the celebratory exhibits is a slate of ambitious goals that include forming a museum of folk art and contemporary crafts in Louisville -- preferably on Main Street -- and finding a new headquarters to house the museum, an expanded gallery, retail shop and programs.

That means at least twice the space, maybe three times the 10,000 square feet in use now, said gallery curator Brion Clinkingbeard.

The current space includes the original space the foundation occupied in the Byck Gallery, a former contemporary art gallery that Grissom ran at 609 W. Main St. The gallery and gift shop at street level make the place look deceptively large.

Actually, "We're packed in here," said Clinkingbeard, pointing out that the foundation offices are crammed into the lower levels of three buildings. "We could do better with more space."

Doing better may include larger workshops for the public, expanded retail service -- perhaps including food, more services for children and a lecture series. It might also include "incubator studio space," a concept that gallery founder Mary Shands endorses.

The museum would be a major project.

Linvel Barker's 'Cat'
Linvel Barker's "Cat"
Photo by Geoff Carr

"I just think it would be fabulous to have this because there really isn't anything in this area (like it) and with the convention center (nearing completion of an expansion), I think Louisville is going to be even a bigger tourist town than it is," said Grissom, who works with the Waterfront Development Corp.

"It's a big step," she said, "but we feel we're ready for it and we've had enough interest in it, we feel it would be an enhancement, a great enhancement (to the city)."

Grissom said the gallery and foundation also are finalizing a national search for an executive director to replace Rita Steinberg, a 14-year veteran who moved to Indianapolis in 1998 after helping steer the gallery to national prominence. A successor is expected to be appointed this summer, about the same time Grissom hopes the foundation can announce its decision on a new space.

Such ambitions are only suitable for one of the nation's leaders in the crafts market.

It all started in 1980 on the campaign trail of John Y. Brown Jr., who was making a bid for the Kentucky Governor's Mansion with his then-wife, Phyllis George Brown. She fell in love with Kentucky crafts, beginning a significant quilt collection of her own and meeting hundreds of artisans.

As first lady of Kentucky, the former Miss America and TV personality began promoting crafts, giving them as gifts of state and selling items right out of the offices of the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation she and Shands set up in 1981 to handle such funds.

A willow bark basket by Jennifer Heller
A willow bark basket by Jennifer Heller

Shands recalled that she stayed home and took care of the business while Phyllis George Brown took the craft show on the road, making successful pitches to retail giants in New York and Japan.

While head of the board of the state's arts commission, Shands and her husband, Alfred, traveled to a few crafts fairs, including one in Berea. There they found "Coyote Gets Lost" by Wayne Ferguson of Louisville, whose pointedly whimsical works inspired the Shandses to begin collecting crafts -- and now contemporary art -- on a large scale.

Until she discovered Ferguson's work, Shands said she had found most craft shows a little "junky" and uninteresting.

In Kentucky, the crafts boom was under way, a corollary to the boom in folk art fueled by scholars and collectors in the Lexington area.

For the Louisville group, an unprecedented mix of education and retail went hand in hand from the beginning.

In 1984, the foundation opened the Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery and gift shop in response to a questionnaire sent to craftspeople, who said they wanted a place to show and sell their items.

In 1989, "Kentucky Crafts: Handmade and Heartfelt" by Phyllis George Brown was published with a list of artisans compiled by the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation. In 1991, the gallery issued its first mail-order catalog.

In 1996, the gallery joined forces with the Speed Art Museum and the Louisville Visual Art Association to open a gallery and gift shop in downtown Louisville. They called TriArt Gallery a "new model for visual arts retailing and promotion" and use the proceeds for the partners' educational programs.

'Fifteen Years' and 'Kentucky's Best' exhibitions

"Fifteen Years on Main Street" is a homecoming of sorts, selected by gallery curator Brion Clinkingbeard as a retrospective of the best from past exhibitions.

But the exhibition is more than a sampler of the gallery's past. It is a timeline of the current and seemingly endless fever for crafts, a national movement that in many ways began in Kentucky through the works of artists like these.

Many are major players of our times, although at the time of the original exhibits, they were often emerging talents.

The older works on view include fiber art by Arturo Alonzo Sandoval of Lexington and Jane Burch Cochran of Rabbit Hash; timepieces by Tom Butsch of Louisville and Paul Sasso of Almo; glass by Stephen Powell of Danville and Fred DiFrenzi and Ron King, both of Louisville; ceramics by Wayne Ferguson and Sara Frederick, both of Louisville; and folk art by such now-celebrated artists as Marvin Finn of Louisville and Donny Tolson of Compton.

The exhibition, which continues through July 10, 1999 in the Mary and Alfred Shands Gallery, is sponsored by Aegon.

"Kentucky's Best: New Works by Old Friends" complements the "Fifteen Years" retrospective with new works by the same artists. It continues through July 3 in the Downstairs Gallery and is sponsored by Libby and Dan Parkinson and Vivianne and Charles Lake.

The Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery at 609 W. Main St., Louisville, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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