The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (KMAC) set out in the 1980s to promote the Commonwealth’s artisans through a retail store. Thirty years later, the institution has grown up into a professional art museum, but until recently, its building was trapped in an uneasy pull between exhibition space and that original store.
“You’ve got this long shop and this really awkward exhibition space,” KMAC executive director and chief curator Aldy Milliken told AN. “You have a space that shows the exhibitions were not the most important part of the museum. It was obvious that the design meant retail.”
New York–based Christoff : Finio Architecture (C:Fa) is in the process of updating the museum’s home, a Civil War–era, cast-iron warehouse in Downtown Louisville. “They professionalized KMAC in a sense,” Milliken said. “The design was the missing link to what the 21st century museum could be.” The firm was chosen from a shortlist of ten local and national offices.
The 41-foot-wide ground floor was divided in half—one side containing the gift shop and the other the museum—each with its own entrance to the street. C:Fa will merge those spaces to open up the visitor experience.
The entry was consolidated to a single point where C:Fa inserted a ten-foot-long Cor-ten steel vestibule projecting into the lobby. “It’s an announcement of entry, you’re not just entering the museum,” Shane Neufeld, project manager at C:Fa said. “It’s more than just opening a door and you’re in the museum. It’s having a sustained threshold, a real experience leaving the city and entering the museum.”
On the ground floor, the architects opened up the plan, allowing visitors to see through to a garden in the back of the building. A new cafe and reception space, an educational MakerSpace, and a gift shop bring energy to the lobby.
Over the decades, the 20,000-square-foot museum had accumulated incremental layers from piecemeal renovations. “We wanted to clarify the building and bring it back to its bones. Create a modern, clean intervention that worked as a counterpoint to the building,” Neufeld said. “The building emphasizes craft itself—the way it’s constructed. We wanted to make that an accessible experience again—to allow people to see what the building was.”
Opposite the entry, a Cor-ten staircase is set six inches off a structural brick wall and winds up through the four-story building. “The idea was bringing activity and circulation to the street,” Neufeld said. “Letting people know that KMAC is a vertical experience and not just a first floor one. It’s an opportunity to create drama, inside and out.”
The second floor is pulled away from the stair, creating a double-height art wall for large-scale display and projection. In exhibition spaces, architects kept the design minimal, with a standardized color palette, industrial wood flooring, and sleek LED fixtures overhead. “We’re synchronizing the color of the structure because it’s all over the place,” Neufeld said. “We’re trying to create a level of cohesion with color.”
Construction is taking place now and the museum is planning a grand reopening spring 2016 with an exhibition entitled The Material Issue that explores the materiality of traditional craft.
“They’re going to create a space, and it’s our job to mess with it and perform in it as best we can,” Milliken said. “The museum can be a canvas—it’s not static. People need dynamism in a museum.”