Founder, Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft
Phyllis George was the belle of the ball at this year’s Bourbon Ball, a yearly Louisville, Kentucky event that raises funds to benefit the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. George founded the cultural jewel in 1980 as the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation with the help of Mary Norton Shands, a scion of one of South’s most influential families.
As the foundation grew, it evolved into KMAC, moving to the historic West Main Street district of Louisville in 1984 to become the anchor for the city’s burgeoning Museum Row. On the ball’s 25th anniversary in August, the citizenry of Louisville thanked George for her enthusiasm and longtime role as cultural ambassador.
George’s name brings up many associations: her 1971 Miss America crown, her work as an NFL color commentator, her persona as an entrepreneur and pitch woman, and her role as first lady of Kentucky in the ’80s during her marriage to former Governor John Y. Brown, Jr. But less coverage has been devoted to her flair for philanthropy and culture.
She first discovered Kentucky’s rich trove of American-made crafts when she accompanied her then-husband during his campaign for governor. As they crisscrossed the state, the Texas-born George marveled at the many artisans she met.
“I became addicted to handmade things,” she says, and she sought to increase the public’s awareness of crafts: Jane Burch Cochran’s patchwork quilts, Marvin Finn’s hand-carved and painted animals, Leona Waddell’s fiber-woven baskets, Tim Hall’s carved wood ducks, Warren May’s dulcimers, Fong Choo’s
ceramic teapots, and Rude Osolnik’s wood-turned bowls.
Responding to George’s enthusiasm, in 1980 Bloomingdale’s opened a very successful in-store boutique offering Kentucky’s crafts. Other major department stores soon followed.
“Phyllis rallied people around her with her enthusiasm toward this new group of artists,” remembers Brion Clinkingbeard, deputy director and curator of KMAC. “People have stayed active and supportive [since the beginning].”
The museum’s mission is very different from traditional museums in that it walks the line between museum and commercial gallery. In the early days, exhibitions primarily involved traditional crafts. Artists’ work was chosen to fit a particular theme or to spotlight certain types of materials being used. More recently, the museum has expanded its role to include local and international artists working as painters, printmakers or photographers. “I turned craftspeople into celebrities,” George says with great relish. “I gave them a whole new world.” Maybe it’s time for Kentucky’s former first lady to be declared a national treasure.
Photo Courtesy of the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft.