The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (KMAC) in Louisville is a small museum with big ambitions. Founded in 1981 as a center to promote the state’s traditional crafts, such as quilting and wood carving, it has evolved to become a contemporary-art museum with a focus on materials and artistic process. In line with this revised direction—and to better serve its growing audience—the museum was recently renovated by New York–based Christoff : Finio.
Occupying a four-story former warehouse building from 1885, the 20,000-square-foot space was redesigned to strengthen the museum’s connection to Main Street, which it faces. Its neighbors on Main Street include the Louisville Slugger Museum, the Louisville Science Center, the Frasier History Museum, and the 21c Museum Hotel, all of which occupy renovated historic buildings. Together, they form a museum district, which has helped revitalize the western end of downtown Louisville, a once thriving center of the bourbon, tobacco, and hardware industries that had suffered neglect.
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The architects used a method of “subtraction” in approaching the project, according to Martin Finio, a partner at Christoff : Finio. The strategy involved removing nonessential walls, exposing elements of the historic building, and revealing views. The main intervention was relocating the staircase from the center of the floor plates along the building’s eastern side to the southeast corner immediately on the street-facing side, and replacing a cluttered gift shop that made the institution look more like a store than a museum. The new staircase, visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the cast iron facade, is constructed of rusted-steel plates. Rather than use preweathered steel, the architects opted for a less expensive option, exposing low-carbon mild steel to the elements. “The staircase knits the building together, and the rusted steel is a way of introducing the idea of craft, with the imperfections and the marks of the fabricators left visible,” Finio says. “We wanted it to have a sense of improvisation—to feel like a sculpture.”
The new configuration increased the gallery and programming space, and created a maker space and a studio for resident artists, all of which support the museum’s new focus. “Many artists talk about how they use materials to express their ideas, redefining craft in the contemporary context,” says KMAC director Aldy Miliken. “The previous iteration of the museum really limited what we could do.”
The first floor features a flexible lobby gallery. Furnished with rolling carts and movable displays, the gift shop can be expanded during the holidays or consolidated to create space for larger events. The second level houses the largest gallery, a floor-through space that overlooks Main Street and the Ohio River beyond. The architects placed freestanding walls at three-quarter height in front of windows to provide surfaces for hanging art and to protect select pieces from direct sunlight. Mechanicals were moved into new perimeter walls, which similarly rise just short of the ceiling to allow for air return.
Miliken couldn’t be more pleased with Christoff : Finio’s work. Since reopening last summer, he says, “We’re attracting a younger and more diverse demographic of visitors, and connecting people to art and creative practice.” The firm’s intelligent renovation demonstrates how well-crafted architecture can better an institution, no matter the size, while enriching the remnants of a city’s history.
Christoff : Finio Architecture
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Taryn Christoff and Martin Finio, Partners in charge
Architect of record:
Christoff : Finio Architecture
K Norman Berry Associates Architects
Kerr-Greulich Engineers - MEP
One Lux Studio - lighting
Bosse Mattingly Constructors
Kevin Kunstadt, 917 693 2129
Existing masonry bearing wall and wood frame construction with new structural steel reinforcement.
Metal/glass curtain wall: Kawneer window wall system
Other cladding unique to this project: Existing cast-iron facade
Wood frame: SunClad USA
Metal frame: Kawneer
Entrances: CR Laurence
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Blue Grass Custom Cabinets
Special surfacing: Zinc counter top
Special interior finishes unique to this project: Weathered steel plate - Sentry Steel
Reception furniture: Blu Dot
Chairs: Blu Dot
Tables: Blu Dot
Interior ambient lighting: Linear LED pendants - Bartco
Toto low-flow toilets