Kathryn Gremley: Penland’s Gallery Director
by Robin Dreyer
When Kathryn Gremley greets members of the public at the Penland Gallery and Visitors Center, she does so with a knowledge of the school that is both broad and deep. She has worked at the Gallery and Visitors Center for fifteen years—for the first ten years as the exhibits manager and for the past five years as director—but her relationship with the school goes all the way back to 1981. “I had gone to several colleges for art and dropped out several times,” she laughs. “I was reading American Craft and I kept seeing Penland in the artists’ bios. I figured if all these great people went to Penland, I should check it out.”
She came for a fall Concentration in weaving and fell in love with the place. She returned in the spring, then stayed on as a core student, and was then invited to become a resident artist. She settled permanently in the community and continued her work as a production weaver of textiles for clothing and also worked in various capacities at the school. “I have worked in the kitchen,” she says, “I was a studio coordinator, I taught weaving and clothing design, I worked in the school store, and then I started working at the gallery.” She was also selling her work at large craft shows and a dozen other galleries. She was the first person involved with Penland Gallery who was also a selling craftsperson. “I didn’t have a background in conventional retail,” she says, “but I knew about the relationship between a gallery and an artist.” She also had a keen eye for good work and innovative displays. In her time at the gallery she has installed 135 instructor exhibitions and curated and installed approximately eighty invitational exhibits, both in the gallery and off campus.
As Kathryn became increasingly involved with the gallery, she gradually wound down her own craft business. Today, as director, she functions as curator and exhibition designer and manages a staff of four—working with them as they arrange tours of the school, set up displays, keep track of inventory, and answer hundreds of questions about the art work, the school, the artists, and, of course, the location of the bathrooms.
Although she has set aside her loom, Kathryn’s background as an artist informs everything she does. “I enjoy trying to create the presentation the work deserves,” she says. “Whether we are selling a greeting card, a mug, or a $20,000 sculpture, it should all be of the same quality. You go to a museum to see these beautiful paintings and sculptures, and then you go to the gift shop and it’s commercial products made in China. Here we want everything to have the same level of excellence.”
Especially close to Kathryn’s heart are the invitational exhibitions mounted each year. These are built around themes and are intended to expand the public’s understanding of craft. They are also meant to reflect aspects of Penland’s educational programs, and Kathryn works closely with program director Dana Moore when planning the shows. “The exhibitions,” she says, “encourage people to slow down and thoughtfully view the work, so they are more likely to engage with the process and the intent behind it. If Penland is trying to advance the perception of what craft is in the world, the gallery is trying to have a role in that by having exhibitions that help create a deeper understanding of what it is to be an artist.”