The Kentucky Museum at Western Kentucky University will continue to catalog and digitize its Folk Art collection with support from a $77,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.
The grant will provide funding for the third year (2022-23) of the project, extending the Curator of Folk Art position and providing funding for year two of a Folk Studies graduate assistantship focused on collaboratively cataloging and digitizing the Folk Art collection into the Museum’s PastPerfect and KenCat databases. This grant supplements an earlier $155,000 grant, bringing the total support from the Henry Luce Foundation to $232,000 over three years.
Over the past six months, the previous grant funding has allowed Jackson Medel, Curator of Folk Art, to create or edit, prepare and publish 163 object records to KenCat, the Museum’s online collections portal. Notably, Medel has researched, catalogued and is finishing digitization of the Handmade Harvest collection, which includes both utilitarian objects like tobacco knives and hand-carved dough bowls, as well as purely decorative objects like carved bases and duck decoys.
“This variety of style and intent is one of the hallmarks of folk art,” said Medel. “Lace tablecloths made from bleached tobacco twine, brushes carved from the roots of palmetto trees, high-quality treenware, hand-sewn dolls, dozens of carved wooden toy figures—all of these demonstrate the ingenuity and skill of the makers, the necessity and the ethics of making good use of the materials around them.”
The Kentucky Museum’s Folk Art collection includes approximately 750 works from the 1780s to the present, representing a broad range of Kentucky artistic and craft traditions. The collection includes more than 300 quilt and quilt-related textiles associated with Kentuckians, comprising one of the largest institutional quilt collections in the Commonwealth. Additionally, the Folk Art collection includes white oak baskets, tobacco crafts, masks from the Global South and works by notable Kentucky Folk artists Helen LaFrance Orr (1919-2020), Unto Jarvi (1908-1991), Chester Cornett (1913-1981), Willie Massey (1910-1990) and Marvin Finn (1913-2007).
The project recently secured an intern for the summer 2021 term who will provide invaluable assistance in quilt documentation, the next phase of the project. Medel and the intern will prepare the quilt and quilt-related textiles for assessment by Laurel McKay Horton, a nationally recognized quilt scholar and guest curator of the Museum’s upcoming Whitework: Women Stitching Identity exhibition.
Horton will visit the Museum during the 2021-22 academic year and work remotely to research and assess the historical significance of each individual quilt or textile. Medel and a WKU Folk Studies graduate assistant will work alongside Horton to complete photography, provenance and maker research and digitalization of both the objects and Horton’s findings into KenCat. At present, the majority of the collection is not digitized, thus the 2021-22 work is integral to both understanding the collection and making it more widely accessible to WKU faculty, students, independent researchers and the general public.
“The Kentucky Museum is grateful for this Luce Foundation award to broaden our Folk Art collection cataloging and digitization work,” shared Brent Bjorkman, Director of the Kentucky Museum. “This dedicated funding will allow us to continue our preservation work and allow us to further interpret and share this treasured collection with our friends throughout the Commonwealth and around the world.”
Through this project, the Museum is gaining critical knowledge to inform future exhibitions and programs, as well as furthering strategic goals related to collection development. It will also make the collection available online, 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year, thus promoting the collection’s use in scholarship, exhibition and educational programs.
About the Henry Luce Foundation: The Henry Luce Foundation seeks to enrich public discourse by promoting innovative scholarship, cultivating new leaders and fostering international understanding. The Foundation advances its mission through grantmaking and leadership programs in the fields of Asia, higher education, religion and theology, art and public policy. Established in 1936 by Henry R. Luce, the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Time, Inc., the Foundation’s earliest work honored his parents, who were missionary educators in China. Today, the Foundation’s programs reflect the value Mr. Luce placed on learning, leadership and long-term commitment in philanthropy.
About the Kentucky Museum: Founded in 1939, the Kentucky Museum is a teaching institution with premier cultural collections that complement, support and challenge the academic experiences of WKU students, faculty and staff. It also provides a gathering place for our campus and community to come to know and celebrate who they are as individuals and as Kentuckians in the 21st century. The Museum serves Kentuckians and visitors from around the world through exhibitions, school and public programs, publications and collections research. As a history and cultural museum concerned with meanings, narratives and associations, its collections offer multiple opportunities to explore and interpret history and culture as well as discover how Kentuckians have shaped and been shaped by local, state, regional, national and global influences over the last two-and-a-half centuries.