- Kentucky by Design: The Decorative Arts and American Culture
At the Frazier History Museum in downtown Louisville, the exhibition Kentucky by Designexamines the Commonwealth's contributions to the Index of American Design, one of several art-related projects carried out under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA), which famously created relief work of all kinds for Americans in need during the Great Depression. The Index project employed painters and graphic artists across the country to document, in the form of watercolor renderings, handcrafted American objects dating from the colonial era through the nineteenth century. Specifically, the objects chosen for documentation were ones deemed to possess uniquely American qualities—qualities reflecting the spirit of the nation itself. So constructed, the Index was intended not only to provide work for artists of the day, but also to produce both a historical record of the country's changing material culture and a creative resource for American artists of the future. Of more than 18,000 watercolors done for the nationwide Index, approximately 400, documenting some 200 objects, are from Kentucky. For this exhibition, the Frazier has brought together 85 of the Kentucky objects that were included in the Index and paired them with the renderings (many as facsimiles) in which they were documented. Remarkably, the exhibition is said to be the first ever to offer a side-by-side view of the objects and renderings from one state. The objects encompass the categories of folk, popular, and decorative arts, and are primarily everyday serviceable items such as furniture, quilts, and tools fashioned from a variety of basic materials such as wood, wool, iron, and clay.
Considerable research underlies the exhibition and deserves mention upfront. Most fundamental was the work of Allan Weiss, a local folk art collector who, while practicing law and raising a family, devoted decades to finding out which objects had been included in Kentucky's Index, of which no published record existed, and to discovering what had since become of them. He began by consulting the data sheets that had been completed for each object as part of the Index project. (Like the watercolors themselves, these have long been held in the archives of the National Gallery of Art.) Searching for any information they might contain about the objects' sources, he found that most had been in private collections at the time they were documented. From that point, he tracked the objects' post-W PA social lives via wills, probate inventories, and sales records until, eventually, he was able to determine current owners and locations for about 40 percent of the original 200 Kentucky Index objects. In 2012, Weiss offered his findings to the Frazier, which eagerly accepted them and committed to producing an exhibition and catalog. The book, Kentucky by Design, published in 2015 by the University Press of Kentucky, contains substantial essays by specialists Erika Doss, Jerrold Hirsch, and Jean M. Burks, and it was this scholarship that informed the Frazier staff's development of the exhibition's organization, themes, and interpretation.
The exhibition that results from this rich research is announced and previewed in an unusual and particularly effective way: by a striking tableau in the Frazier's large open lobby, at the base of its central stairwell. Since there are no galleries on this ground floor (all are on levels 2 and 3), the presence of the tableau stands [End Page 121]out immediately to visitors and signals a privileged status for its subject at the museum. Set in a roped-off space designed to suggest a home library or study, the arrangement features a tall, handsome historic wood cabinet facing a desk with a drawing board and paper, brushes, and watercolor tints spread out as if in use. The allusion to a likely, if imagined, Index moment interrupted and frozen in time serves efficiently, without use of a mannequin, to stimulate viewers' curiosity about the purpose of the activity being represented, even as it conveys the quiet, painstaking nature of the work.