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A stitch in time builds world-class quilt collection and center-museum

Among the more impressive art venues in Nebraska I’ve visited is the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln. Everything at the facility is done at a high level, and in fact, bespeaking its name, is done at a world-class level. That includes the design and outfitting of the building, the way the quilts are stored, handled, and displayed., and of course the magnificent quilts themselves.  If you’re a quilter or quilt lover, I don’t need to explain why these objects are not only things of beauty but fascinating and illuminating. If you’re among the uninitiated or skeptics, I’m confident that upon viewing the quilts at this center you will come away with a new appreciation for the form and the craft.  My story about the center for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared just as it was opening. It’s a must-see attraction to round out the usual tourist stops here.

This blog contains a couple other stories related to quilts and quilting:  a profile of Nancy Kirk, an antique quilt expert and restorer known for and her late husband’s The Kirk Collection; and stories about John Sorensen and his The Quilted Conscience documentary.


A stitch in time builds world-class quilt collection and center-museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)


The next time you look at that quilt hanging on your wall or covering your bed, try reading it. Every quilt, you see, tells a story.

Nebraska’s newest world class arts venue, the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, opened six weekends ago in Lincoln to 1,500 visitors, including many enthusiasts from the state’s tight-knit quilting community.

Among the throng were two special guests, Robert and Ardis James, a pair of native Nebraskans who envisioned the center years ago. The New York-based couple  built a fabulous collection of quilts beginning in the 1970s. Their 1996 donation of 950 quilts to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, whose College of Education and Human Sciences is the center’s academic home, led to the center’s creation in 1997. For its first decade the institution operated from cramped, shared quarters in the Home Economics building on UNL’s east campus. The museum is allied with the college’s Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design.

The makeshift accommodations proved inadequate for an organization with an ever-expanding collection and reputation. Until now the center lacked its own dedicated space for preservation, much less exhibition. Staff worked with quilts and prepared exhibits only as rooms became available. Shows had to be mounted at a succession of galleries on campus. Storage was limited. Photographing the rather large objects posed extreme difficulties.

Despite these less than ideal conditions the center’s gained cachet for its: temporary and traveling exhibits; research-publication efforts, including a collection catalogue in the works; savvy acquisitions; and major grants. It’s well-established as a must-see for scholars, historians and quilt-lovers.

The James’s articulated a goal shared by center administrators and supporters for a permanent site that addressed the physical shortcomings and maximized the institution’s already proven strengths. The couple next had to convince UNL officials. With a gift of $5 million from the James’s and the contributions of hundreds more donors, many of the $50 or $100 variety, the dream of a new facility has turned reality in little more than a decade.

Now in their 80s, the James’s were prominent among the special guests at the Mar. 30 dedication ceremony and Mar. 31 donor events. The couple have a unique appreciation for how far the center’s come in such a short time.

“It’s unbelievable that we have this impressive building built. We feel good about what we’ve done but it couldn’t have been done without the university. We’re proud to be able to work with the university. It was not easy for them to make this commitment,” Robert James said by phone from New York.

When he and his wife began seeking a permanent home for their collection in the 1990s they met with many museums-galleries but, he said, “none had a concept of what needed to be done other than the university.” The preservation, study and collection of quilts, he said, is a never ending process that requires dedicated resources. The couple would not entrust their quilts to anyone until $3 million was pledged toward an endowment for the collection’s ongoing care, research and growth. When UNL fulfilled that stipulation it signaled to the couple they’d found the caretakers they’d long sought. A deal was struck and the result is what Art and Antiques magazine recently termed one of America’s “top 100 treasures.”





For center director Patricia Crews the new facility culminates a journey that’s seen her put Nebraska’s love affair with quilts on the map. Her work with the Nebraska Quilt Project, organized by the Lincoln Quilters Guild in the 1980s, led to her authoring Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers, an acclaimed book that caught the attention of the James’s and set in motion their support.

“Patricia put together a wonderful compendium on Nebraska quilts. Practically every state’s done a book like that but hers was clearly the best,” James said. “Pat also has something that’s very important when you do something like this — an expertise in textile conservation.”

He admires her ability to garner support, adding, “she’s gotten some great gifts from not just us but the Getty (Foundation) and others.” He said Crews has surrounded herself with a fine staff and attracted a large corps of volunteers. Trained docents lead guided tours at the museum.

While the center’s long offered guided tours and education programs, such as lectures and symposia, they were off site. Now everything’s under one roof.

“It is absolutely fabulous to be in this stunning new facility,” Crews said, “and to have dedicated space for everything — exhibition, study and care of the collection. It’s a huge difference in our efficiency of operation, a huge expansion in our capacity to do research and to care for the collection”

The new building’s amenities include: a state-of-the-art, climate controlled conservation work room and a large storage vault with automated storage systems; an education seminar room; a photography studio that resembles a surgical suite; and an interactive virtual gallery that enables visitors to remotely view the collection as well as record their own quilt stories and histories. Visitors can also access the collection online.

Virtual access is key as only a fraction of the holdings — 40 to 60 quilts — can be physically displayed at any one time due to the fragility of textiles, which must be rested at regular intervals.

Unquestionably, the center’s 2,300-plus quilts hailing from 24 countries and spanning four centuries is the star attraction. The quilts range fromworks made for decorative or utilitarian purposes to those made by studio artists for gallery display.

The two inaugural exhibitions showcase the breadth and depth of the collection and the elements that tie quilts together. Quilts in Common explores the art form in groupings of three, showing how quiltmakers have used similar patterns across eras and cultures. The quilts are juxtaposed with other art objects of similar designs. Nancy Crow: Cloth, Culture, Context showcases works by this acclaimed American quilter drawn from the center’s own collection and other sources.

As sublime as the quilts are the Robert A.M. Stern Architects of New York-designed building is a jewel, too. The structure’s organic shapes and materials express quilt characteristics. The bowed steel and glass east face features curvaceous, soft-lines representing the sensuous, sweeping flow of unfurled fabric. The facade’s cross-hatched windows articulate quilts’ complex patterns. The pale, patterned brick that completes the exterior continues the artesian craft motif.

The interior accentuates what senior architect Robert Stern calls the building’s glass lantern and brick-clad box structure. The box is the central, working core of the museum where quilts are stored and cared for, where the staff office, et cetera. The lantern is the transparent facade that acts as a reflective window to the outside world, opening up an otherwise shuttered, compact interior. A winding terrazzo staircase follows the contours of the undulating front, climbing from the ground floor to a grand second story reception space whose window panels overlook the landscaped plaza below. This magisterial gathering area leads into the galleries, thus serving as a bridge to the treasures on display.

As light is the enemy of quilts, a series of filters, scrims and screens are in place to dampen the ilumination entering the adjoining galleries. The Green building’s already subdued natural and artificial light is further lensed down as visitors wend their way by elevator or stairs from the ground floor to the galleries upstairs.

The spacious galleries, with their white walls and maplewood floors, offer a blank slate for the explosion of colors, patterns and textures that jump out at visitors.

Crews said the museum is a suitable embodiment of the elevated place quilts now hold in the art world.

“It is true that it is only since the 1970s that there has been a growing appreciation for the quilt as an art form and this building certainly is an expression of the greater appreciation that many people have for quilts.”

Beyond any artistic merit, quilts are familiar, ubiquitous objects. Quilters are legion as are quilt guilds and quilting projects. It’s why Crews fully expects the museum to draw not just practitioners and aficionados but art lovers.

“There is a connection that almost everyone feels to a quilt,” she said, whether inherited or gifted, covering a bed or adorning a wall. She said visitors are bound to find some quilt at the museum they feel “a connection to because it reminds them of one in their family’s history. One of the wonderful things a visit here can do is to inspire visitors to delve deeper into learning more about themselves and their families and then, in turn, their past.”

It only takes some interest to learn what quilts have to say.

The center, located at 1523 N. 33rd St., is open every Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.m and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for youths 5 to 18 and free for children under five. For details, call 402-472-6549 or visit www.quiltstudy.org.

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