TALKING TEXTILES with ... Frank Bennett, CEO of the National Quilt Museum

Talking Textiles with Frank Bennett, CEO of the National Quilt Museum

In the fourth interview of our Talking Textiles series, we spoke to Frank Bennett, CEO of the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, home to one of the best collections of contemporary quilts in the world.

ECT: The National Quilt Museum is more than just a collection of beautiful quilts, it’s a museum with a mission

FB: It is. The founders, Bill and Meredith Schroeder, were both quilting enthusiasts who felt that contemporary quilts were under respected in the general artworld so, in 1991, they opened this museum to celebrate the work of today’s quilters and bring it to a wider audience. The words ‘honouring today’s quilters’ are written above the entrance.

National Quilt Museum exterior building National Quilt Museum

ECT: So it’s a modern collection?

FB: Yes, everything here – all 650 or so pieces - was made in, or after, 1980.

ECT: Are there any other selection criteria?

FB: We want to have the best of international modern quilting, it's that simple. The quilts in the collection represent every style you can possibly fathom, from plays on traditional blocks to things that don’t look like any quilt you’ve ever seen, because the point of museums is to give people things to consider. If you do it perfectly, then everyone who comes in will see stuff that blows their minds and stuff that they don’t think should be in a museum at all.

Quilt Coronall Solar Eclipse Caryl Bryer Fallert Corona II: Solar Eclipse by Caryl Bryer Fallert-Gentry, Paducah, KY. Hand-dyed fabrics; machine pieced and machine quilted. Named one of the 100 Best American Quilts of the 20th Century.
Quilt Summer Garden Cynthia Morgan Summer Garden by Cynthia Morgan, Queensland, Australia. Layered, machine quilted

ECT: The founders’ sense that quilting and fibre art are not considered to be on a par with other art forms still persists, why do you think that is?

FB: It’s just the moment we are in - in the 1930s, photography wasn’t considered an art form. But I’ve seen a shift in the 10 years I have been at the museum. When I took the job, other art museums would have laughed at the idea of doing a fibre exhibition, but now you see them all the time. We still have a long way to go, but we’ll get there through education. The more people who experience quilting, the more they will realise that this is a phenomenal art form on the same tier as art made from any other material. The only difference between people in the quilting space and any other is that quilters make their art out of fabric.

ECT: But that does seem to change people’s perceptions – there’s something about the domesticity and familiarity of fabric that makes us look at works made from fibre differently from paintings, or sculpture for example

FB: We do deal with those biases and one of the ways I address them is through the talks I do. I take pictures of quilts that don’t look like quilts at all, and I’ll ask the group what they think they’re looking at. ‘Paintings, drawings, stained glass windows’, they’ll say. And when I ask them if these things are art, they’ll say ‘absolutely.’ At the end of the talk, I’ll say, ‘ok, in reality, they were all quilts’ and I’ll show them the detail and the stitching and then I’ll say, ‘now you know they’re quilts, are they still art?’ It’s a great question because if they say 'no', then it means that the difference between what is and isn’t art comes down to materials - and that’s ridiculous.

ECT: What can visitors to the museum expect to see?

FB: Every time you come, you will get a different experience because we change the exhibits eight to 10 times a year and we have four or five travelling exhibitions each year as well. We have two audiences, quilters and art enthusiasts who don’t know about quilting and we want to show them all the styles and to represent the whole community. We want people to leave with an understanding of what modern quilts are about.

National Quilt Museum gallery quilts The National Quilt Museum Gallery

ECT: Do you have a favourite quilt?

FB: I can’t narrow it down to a single favourite, for two reasons. The first is that quilting evolves all the time. I’ve been here for a decade and I still see quilts that are unlike anything I’ve seen before – that’s one of the things I love about this art form. And the second reason is that, as my understanding of all the various techniques evolves, I start to appreciate quilts that didn’t mean as much to me a few years ago.

ECT: As well as bringing contemporary quilts to an international audience, the museum is also involved in preservation. Tell us about that.

FB: Not every quilt made will end up in a museum, but every quilt does deserve to be preserved because these are artworks that tell a story of our history and where we are living now. We teach other institutions how to handle museum-level quilts and we also educate people who just have a quilt at home. It’s so important that people understand the basics of preservation, such as storing them in an acid-free box, keeping them on a shelf in the house rather than in attic or basement and keeping them out of direct light.

Quilt Star Struck Cheryl See Star Struck by Cheryl See, Ashburn, Virginia. Hand pieced, hand appliqued, hand beaded, hand quilted

ECT: You’re also very involved in educating the next generation of quilters

FB: We know for a fact that if you get people into the process of quilting in primary school then it will be part of their lives forever and that is what will sustain it as an art form. We have an annual youth programme called the School Block Challenge, sponsored by Moda Fabric, which challenges students to create a 16” by 16” quilt block from a packet of three different fabrics. It’s a national programme, but we encourage other countries to become School Block Challenge partners in order to advance the art of quilting worldwide. At the end of the day, our goal is to see the growth and expansion of quilting because it is a special part of our lives and tells the story of who we are as humans.

ECT: Are you optimistic about the future of quilting?

FB: Yes, this is definitely not a dying art form! Our onsite and traveling exhibits are viewed by over 110,000 people per year and, as I joke in speeches, everyone who comes here either becomes a fan of the art form or a quilter! And in the past year, our Block of the Month Facebook group, where a quilter designs a block for members to make, has gone from around 13,000 members to more than 20,000. After all, we’ve been making things with our hands since the Stone Age, it’s part of who we are.

Discover our Paducah 2023 tour programme here

Why not listen to our full conversation with Frank below?