Ask anyone in Paducah, and you’ll be told the busiest two weeks of the year there are during April and September, when thousands of people descend on the river city from all over the world for the annual American Quilter’s Society QuiltWeeks. The hotels are at max capacity; the restaurants have waits; and driving downtown can require strategy.
But if you ask Frank Bennett, CEO of The National Quilt Museum, he’ll tell you that quilt show week is just another week. Contrary to popular belief, the museum is a completely separate entity from the Quilter’s Society and quilt show—although it hasn’t always been that way.
Stitched Together in History
The National Quilt Museum—along with the American Quilter’s Society and what has grown into QuiltWeek—was the brainchild of Meredith Schroeder, president of the American Quilter’s Society, and her husband, Bill. The Paducah couple was visiting an out-of-town quilt show in the 1980s when they had the idea to bring a show to their hometown. “We thought it would be beneficial for the city,” Meredith Schroeder explained. “At that time, the [long-since-gone] Executive Inn was brand new.
“At that same time, we started the organization of the American Quilter’s Society, and we knew we wanted a museum. We knew we wanted the Best of Show quilts to be displayed in the museum … It was all one initial vision back in 1984.”
Schroeder laughed as she tried to remember their first correspondence with quilters about their idea. “Our first email … well, back then, it was direct mail,” Schroeder corrected herself. “We only got 1,500 responses, which wasn’t too bad. But we have 70,000 members today. That took a lot of time, though.”
The museum the Schroeders envisioned in 1984 was built in 1991. “Those quilts that won those first shows are all part of the museum collection,” Schroeder said with pride. “The motto of the museum is Honoring Today’s Quilter. We knew there were several museums honoring the quilters of the ’20s, ’30s, the 1800s—but we wanted to recognize and appreciate the quilters of today.”
Although Schroeder is still a member of the board of directors for The National Quilt Museum, she explained that the museum had to sever ties with the American Quilter’s Society when it received its official title as The National Quilt Museum from the United States Congress.
“I’m still on the board, but the museum belongs to the board now, not AQS,” Schroeder explained. “The museum was always a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and it has always belonged to the community.”
A New Pattern
Originally from Memphis, Bennett moved from Dallas to Paducah in 2011 to work for the museum.
“We tend to take for granted everything in the town where we grew up,” Bennett said of his hometown’s famous music and barbecue. According to Bennett, this also is true of people born and raised in Paducah when it comes to the Quilt Museum. “Natives of Paducah usually see the museum as either something directly associated with the quilt show or a location for hobbyists instead of art enthusiasts.”
Bennett said these misconceptions are just that—misconceptions. The National Quilt Museum receives about the same number of visitors during the quilt show that it does any other month of the year, with March 1-Oct. 31 being its busy season. Approximately 41,000 people visited the museum last year from 40 states and 15 countries. “In this case, a picture really is worth a thousand words,” Bennett said of a global map highlighting each of the countries represented by visitors to the quilt museum.
“A woman from Paducah, who had lived here most of her life, was in a hotel in France where she saw a documentary about the quilt museum,” Bennett explained of the museum’s global reach. “It was then that she realized how impressive the museum is around the world.”
Bennett spends a lot of his time educating people about their “default perception” that quilting is a hobby and not an art form. “We think of art galleries as Monet- and Picasso-worthy, when the average painter is in their garage making things that will never be seen in a gallery,” Bennett said. “Yet, we are the exact opposite about quilting. We think of grandmothers in their sewing rooms, when the pieces displayed in our galleries are true works of art.
“My audience is the art enthusiasts,” Bennett added. “But no matter who visits, once they get here, they’re sold.”
Ironically, Schroeder would be Bennett’s perfect visitor. “I’m not really a quilter; I just appreciate quilting as an art form,” Schroeder admitted. “I felt like quilters needed more recognition as artists, which is why we were the first show to give prize money for the winning quilts.
“I’ve made a couple of small quilts. They weren’t anything to brag about, but it was very rewarding … and frustrating at times.”
A Well-Oiled Quilting Machine
It takes a small army to manage the day-to-day operations of the museum’s three galleries, 22 employees and 75 volunteers. The main gallery houses approximately 100 of the 500 quilts in its permanent collection. The curatorial department rotates these several times a year. The side galleries house traveling and rotating exhibits.
Bennett explained that quilters are constantly submitting photos of their work to the museum, hoping to have it displayed there. “If you’re working in this fiber arts space, the highest honor is to be displayed at The Quilt Museum.
“We don’t take many new pieces—maybe five each year. It’s very rare,” Bennett said. “But occasionally, we will pursue certain pieces. If a quilter has won one of the big shows, we probably already know their work.”
Because of the museum’s promise to honor the quilters of today, it does not accept quilts made before 1980.
Once a quilt is added to the museum collection, it is delicately cared for by the curatorial team. When quilts are on display in the museum, they are in a well-regulated area, where temperature, humidity and light exposure are constantly monitored. Every wall in every room has monitors, and there are no windows.
“The monitors look like lie detector tests,” Bennett said. “It has a tracker and prints a paper report. It’s a massive system.”
When quilts are not on display, they are kept in the vault, which is a large concrete room. Quilts are stored in boxes where they are soft-folded to avoid creases and to prevent stretching.
Quilt in a Day
Bennett said the majority of visitors come to Paducah on a day trip. They usually visit the museum in the morning, eat lunch downtown, maybe at Max’s Brick Oven, and then visit other area attractions and quilt shops before returning home or continuing to their next destination on a longer vacation.
“We’re happy to be on their map,” Bennett said.
And Schroeder is thrilled that her vision of Paducah being Quilt City USA is still alive and well today. “Mothers and daughters and friends coming from opposite sides of the country to meet in Paducah and experience this together …” she said. “That is what it’s all about.”
For more information on The National Quilt Museum, visit quiltmuseum.org.