The Kentuck Art Center, an exhibit, educational, and event space, and the Kentuck Festival of the Arts, an annual juried festival of folk/visionary/outsider and contemporary art and of fine and traditional crafts, are based in Northport, Tuscaloosa County. The facilities and events are overseen by the Kentuck Museum Association Inc., a nonprofit organization with the three-part mission of perpetuating the arts, providing support for local artists, and promoting the arts in the local community. The association has a small year-round professional staff and produces the festival in conjunction with a volunteer 24-member Festival Steering Committee and hundreds of volunteers. The name "Kentuck" derives from the original name of the city of Northport, thought to refer to the large stands of cane in the area when it was first settled in 1813.
The Kentuck Festival of the Arts, held on the third weekend of October each year in Kentuck Park, was founded in 1971 as the Northport Heritage Festival to celebrate the centennial of the incorporation of the City of Northport. The original festival received such enthusiastic support in the community that a group of people, including folklorist Georgine Clarke, local preservationist Marvin Harper, postmaster Ellis Teer, and landowner Lewis Fitts, formed an association to develop an annual event. Renamed the Kentuck Festival of the Arts, the event soon achieved national recognition as folk art gained widespread popularity during the 1970s. Some of the leading Alabama figures in the genre showed at Kentuck, often at the urging of Georgine Clarke. They include Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Ruby Williams, Woodie Long, Bernice Sims, Mose Tolliver, Yvonne Wells, Charlie Lucas, and Lonnie Holley.
The campus of the Kentuck Art Center is a collection of buildings located on the northeast portion of the intersection of Main Avenue and Fifth Street in historic downtown Northport. Kentuck's galleries, gallery shop, and studios surround the Courtyard of Wonders, a shaded greenspace that displays folk-art sculptures by regional artists Larry Godwin, Butch House, Sam McMillian, and Steve Davis and mosaics by Rhys Greene and Linda Muñoz. The Main Avenue Building (formerly referred to as the Museum) houses Kentuck's offices and gallery shop, in which work by artists from around the state, region, and country is sold on consignment, and a gallery space that presents a new show each month. The center also provides rental studio space for independent local artists, artisans, and crafters; visitors can often watch artists at work in their studios. The Clay Place is home to the Kentuck Clay Co-op, a group of hobbyist potters of all skill levels who pay a monthly fee for access to workspace, wheels, and other tools, and to participate in group firings of their work. The space also serves as a lab for a University of Alabama anthropology class focusing on pottery manufacture; Fire Horse Pottery, a clay studio; the Forge and adjacent display building, home to artist Steve Davis's Sunheart Metal Works; and the Stephens Gallery, the studio of painter Lackey Stephens that is housed in an old filling station.
The newest addition to the Kentuck campus is the Georgine Clarke Building, originally built as the Northport Post Office, which houses Kentuck's permanent collection. The collection includes works by Alabama and regional folk artists and traditional craftspeople as well as a collection of quilts by Tuscaloosa-based quilter Hallie O'Kelley that were designed as logos for each year's festival. In 2012, just prior to her death, Clarke donated to the permanent collection "The Friendship Quilt," an installation of more than 100 pieces of work in diverse media created by as many artists to honor Clarke and to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Kentuck Festival of the Arts. The individual pieces are arranged in 12 display cabinets, each consisting of nine open boxes arranged to form a quilt pattern. In addition to the galleries and collections, the Clarke Building houses the workplaces of two Kentuck Studio Artists, painters Lorrie Lane and Ann Mottershead Betak, and a multi-purpose room used for performances, meetings, classes, and other events.
In addition to daily operations, Kentuck participates in "Art Night" with other galleries and museums in the Tuscaloosa-Northport area on the first Thursday of each month. On these nights, studio residents open their spaces to visitors to observe them at work and answer questions about their media and techniques. Kentuck also introduces new exhibits on Art Night as well as hosting monthly Art Night events. Kentuck programming includes classes, free hands-on Kentuck for Kids art activities for children every third Saturday, special events, and art fairs through which local artists and craftspeople can sell their handmade work. Kentuck also provides educational outreach to local elementary schools and offers the Full Moon Emerging Artists Program, which teaches local artists best practices for marketing and exhibiting their work.
Kentuck has been recognized by several national trade magazines, including American Style and Time, as being among the top art fairs and festivals in the nation and continues to draw artists and collectors from around the nation. In addition to competitive juried exhibits of artists' work, the festival spotlights regional craft guilds and guest folk and contemporary artists and features live music and storytelling on two stages. As an educational outreach, a number of free hands-on art-making activities are available for children.
Noyes, Brian. "Folk Art Jubilee." Smithsonian 34 (October2003): 78; http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/folk-art-jubilee.html