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Arts Toolkit

Arts Toolkit: Visual

Kentuckians in Visual Arts

Folk Art Curator Adrian Swain
Morehead, Kentucky

Adrian Swain

Who Adrian Swain grew up in England and moved to the United States in 1971. His exposure to contemporary folk art began with a chance encounter with Kentucky woodcarver and folk artist Edgar Tolson in 1973. Soon afterward, Swain followed his interest to Rowan County and began working as a potter. He spent five years as an artist-in-residence, moving in 1977 to Morehead, where he ran a gallery for four years in the early 1980s. In addition to displaying his own work, he met many artists in the area who were looking for a place to exhibit their work and began to open his space to other folk artists. Morehead State University had also acquired a substantial collection of folk art and asked Swain to serve as a part-time curator of the collection. He helped develop the program into the Kentucky Folk Art Center, a museum and art center that houses a permanent collection and acquires and promotes rotating exhibitions of folk artists. Since coming to work at MSU in 1987, Swain has overseen the growth of the center’s permanent collection to more than 900 pieces and has produced numerous exhibits on-site as well as traveling exhibits for other cultural institutions. Swain has written extensively on Kentucky folk art and is a frequent guest writer for Arts Across Kentucky magazine.

Works from the Kentucky Folk Art Center are included on the Kentucky Virtual Art Museum CD-ROM.

What “Early on [at the Kentucky Folk Art Center] there was a very broad variety of work. I was taking care of every element of the collection, as well as the center’s development. I was also experimenting with methods of organization and management, since I began from scratch and with no staff. At first I cast a much wider net concerning the types of work to include in the collection. And while most curators focus on the exhibition of specific works for museum programming, I still manage the entire permanent collection, staying on top of this new field of folk art, which is constantly changing and developing. I recognize that my work has a very interpretive nature. By that I mean that I always try to present these elements of material culture in a way that might induce new thoughts and fresh insights rather than a completely predetermined set of meanings and ideas. I work directly with gallery layout, lighting, coordinating spatial arrangements, gallery upkeep—these factors directly affect the way a visitor sees and interprets the work at hand. I write profiles of artists and descriptions of artwork, and I focus on the accuracy and relevance of the text. These aspects of exhibition presentation are more like stage management. I try to set the stage for viewers to embark on their own journey of discovery, rather than guiding them in how to see and think about a piece. And I spend a lot of time collaborating with other artists, collectors of folk art, other curators, and funding partners.”

When “I usually work about eight to nine hours a day, but the times and days vary in pattern. Sometimes I work nights, sometimes weekends. My tasks vary from day to day as well, from painting walls to visiting artists and collectors to writing applications for grants to organizing new exhibitions.”

How “Some of the more routine tasks, while necessary, are the least interesting parts of the job—bookkeeping and writing grant applications, etc. The more left-brained tasks are numerous and varied and often frustrating. Though building exhibits and maintaining the center require this kind of work, it’s always combined with the more enjoyable aspects of aesthetic arrangement and interpretation. However, there is a nice balance between intuitive and intellectual demands.”

Why “It’s wonderful being able to get visitors to look at new art and to ask their own questions about it. We’re enabling people to get involved in their own aesthetic experiences. The only value in displaying someone’s art is if there’s some way to get an audience to recognize something universal in it that allows for an experiential connection. Too many people are stuck with an idea of how something ‘ought’ to be or look. They judge traditional technical skill above an appreciation of new perspectives and more casual techniques. Folk art, in the end, is art, plain and simple. My job involves all of the fundamental questions about what attention we should pay to art, such as ‘What is art?’ My work as a curator involves coaxing people to open their eyes to something they might otherwise overlook, or which they are as yet unexposed to, helping break down and challenge their assumptions. Extending this mission to children—making these aesthetic experiences accessible to young people while doing it in a responsible way—allows them to make up their own minds. That is essential. There are only a few ways to do it right and far too many ways to do it wrong.”

Getting There “A passion and fascination for the material is quite necessary. Training and degree programs only go so far. Without a real respect, reverence, or awe for what you are doing, then you’re just turning a sausage grinder. One must possess their own curiosity. You can’t teach someone to care about these things. Courses can teach method, techniques, resources; but without that soul element, it’s nothing. People come into this work from all over. The only real training comes from experience and seeing for themselves, from the ground up, behind the scenes. Volunteer in a local museum, art center, historical society, or historic home. While working with a group, you’ll learn just as much, if not more, than you ever will if you’re just looking at it from the outside. An effective museum staff has a collaborative institutional culture. Many staff members play a part, have a hand in, and take ‘ownership’ of each project. As a volunteer, you get to see all of the levels working to bring a show together: the artwork, the artist, the artist’s life, the artist’s connection to the gallery, the gallery setup, and so on. That’s how you’ll decide if this is the world for you. Summer internships can give you a great amount of guidance and an inside look. Then you’ll see that a museum is an interpretive forum where ideas are explored and conceptions are challenged. It should only give clues to someone’s own personal aesthetic experience. Otherwise a visitor can never learn from what’s hanging on the walls. And you must be able to step away from your own convictions and to keep an open mind. It’s all about the communication of ideas while you develop a real basis of trust—especially when you have to convince artists that you wish to record their work as opposed to misinterpret or rob them of it. A respect and appreciation for difference throughout the world is most necessary in the art world.”

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