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    Cover photo: Untitiled (Horse), by Minnie Adkins, as seen in the Smithsonian American Art Museum

    Folk artist Minnie Adkins has a question for Gov. Matt Bevin.

    “I’d ask him, Why don’t he care for the arts of Kentucky and appreciate what’s going on in Kentucky? He sent some young boys to my house to do a video — have you seen it? — so I thought he appreciated the arts so much when he done that. But I guess he didn’t.” 

    The 84-year-old is one of Kentucky’s best known folk artists, largely due to the efforts of the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead, where many of her works are displayed. She has an international reputation, with a carving in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And she is among many in the folk art world troubled by the imperiled condition of the one-of-a-kind museum in Morehead.

    The state will stop funding the museum on July 1, leaving it with no budget. The university eliminated its museum allocation in 2016, although it continues to pay upkeep on the First Street museum building.

    “It’s really, really a disappointment,” Adkins said. “People come from far and near that go to the Kentucky Folk Art Center. I hope and pray they never lose that collection.”

    Gov. Matt Bevin’s communication office did not acknowledge several emails asking for a comment on the fate of the Kentucky Folk Art Center.

    The museum changed the lives of artists like Adkins and her late husband, Garland Adkins. “Some people wouldn’t be here today if wasn’t for the Folk Art Center. It has helped me most of all,” Adkins said.

    But donors and artists aren’t sure what will happen to the works they gave to the museum or to the work the museum purchased from them. Of the 1,407 pieces in the collection, 810 are donated, Museum Director Matt Douglas Collinsworth said. Some of those pieces represent the creative peak of an artist’s output.

    “There are 60 to 70 masterpiece-level pieces,” Collinsworth said. “It’s heartbreaking thinking about those getting buried somewhere.”

    Collinsworth says it feels like the museum is on the verge of breaking its promises to artists and donors. “I have made a lot of commitments to donors; I’ve made a lot of commitments to artists. I’m sick about that. When we acquire work from the artists for this collection, that’s often a huge deal for the artists. They’re sending it to this museum so it can be cared for and displayed for the public. We’re acquiring the piece to preserve it and present it for all time.

    “There’s a serious commitment I feel ethically goes along with that,” he said.

    Barry Crume, co-chair of the museum advisory board, has donated several pieces to the museum. “This is for the public; this is not to be stuffed away in some administration building in a university,” he said. Drastically reducing public access to the museum, or allowing the collection to go into storage — part of one proposal by MSU President John “Jay” Morgan — would be “a complete violation of the founding principles of why the Folk Art Center was created,” Crume said.

    “The public owns that collection; it needs to be accessible to the public,” Crume said. He said the current situation may force him to reconsider his plan to donate 300 pieces of “very significant Kentucky folk art” to the Morehead museum upon his death.

    President Morgan has mentioned several options for the collection’s future, including putting it in the MSU art gallery, where pieces would occasionally be rotated on display between student art shows and visiting artwork. He also suggested the artworks could be used as decoration around campus — a plan that has met sharp criticism. But his main hope is to keep the museum open on a limited basis with the help of the community. He has asked the city of Morehead, Rowan County and the Morehead Tourism Commission to each donate $25,000 to the folk art center. But the proposal reportedly faces opposition from members of the tourism board, who want Morgan to disclose how much the university intends to kick in — information Morgan says he can’t provide until he knows if the others will commit to the donation.

    Even if Morgan can overcome objections from community groups for a one-year reprieve, several museum advocates say the result would turn the museum into a “roadside attraction.” Instead of a curated museum with five staff members, annual shows that travel nationally, scholarly research about the art and artists and full-color exhibition catalogs featuring the museum’s research, the facility would have a single employee to keep its doors open.

    Collinsworth said that would quickly erode the museum’s value to visitors. “That four-and-a-half star rating on Trip Advisor that I’ve cultivated so carefully over the past couple of years, it will take six months for that to disappear,” he said. Some 12,000-15,000 people visit the facility annually. If each spends an average of $50, that represents a $1.3-$1.5 million boon to the local economy, he said. That’s not an outlandish estimate, said advisory board member Robert Allen from North Carolina, especially when you consider the people who come to the museum’s annual Day in the Country event, where they can buy art directly from artists. “We know people from throughout the country who would fly in [for Day in the Country] and rent a car and go over there and stay at the local hotels and spend between a dollar and ten thousand dollars on art — it just depends how deep their pockets are.” The event was canceled this year due to the museum’s financial problems and subsequent short staffing.

    “It’s tragic. It’s absolutely tragic,” said Richard Mook of Lexington, a former museum advisory board member. “We have a collection that is priceless, historically, to the citizens of Kentucky. It’s also viewed as a very important collection nationally and internationally. It belongs to the state of Kentucky and the citizens of Kentucky,” Mook said. “It’s not just a roadside attraction, but a real scholarly resource.”

    But there is more than artwork and public access at stake. The museum has an archive with thousands of documents and photographs and what’s considered one of the finest folk art libraries anywhere. It’s used regularly by scholars. “I’ve had an artist from London [England] in several times over the past couple weeks doing research,” Collinsworth said in a June 15 email.

    The museum’s loss represents another blow to a region of the state that’s borne more than its share already, said Collinsworth, who grew up at the head of a hollow on the Magoffin/Morgan county line. “It’s indicative of where things are in rural America right now,” he said.  “What’s going to happen to places like Eastern Kentucky? ... It makes me greatly worried about what’s going to happen to this region 20 years down the road as you continue to see assets drained.”

    Folk artist Adkins agrees: “Eastern Kentucky would lose an awful lot.”  

    Jenni Laidman's picture

    About Jenni Laidman

    I'm a freelance writer who specializes in science and medicine but is passionate about art. I'm a hell of a cook. I think of white wine as training wheels for people who will graduate to red. I love U of L women's basketball. The best bargain in town is the $3 admission to U of L volleyball. Really exciting stuff.

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