Aldy Milliken, the new executive director of Kimball Art Center in Park City, Utah, discusses his career, what surprises him about Utah, and his passion for education.
Park City, Utah is a small alpine town with a large personality. Its permanent population is fewer than 10,000 residents, yet the region’s mountainous environment, clear crisp air, and decades-long focus on culture and sports bring an influx of visitors and part-time inhabitants for offerings such as the Sundance Film Festival and ski resorts. Kimball Art Center has remained a mainstay since 1976, created because of the successful summer arts festival that began in 1969.
While the Kimball has stayed true to its mission, it has moved several times, expanding with the town. Five years ago, the Kimball moved to a temporary space; in early 2021, it relocated to another temporary space dubbed The YARD. A few months later, Aldy Milliken—most recently executive director and curator at KMAC Museum in Louisville, Kentucky—was named the Kimball’s new executive director. Milliken works at The YARD with staff and constituents to maintain the Kimball’s mission while reimagining its future.
Hikmet Loe: You’ve worked within various international arts capacities. What is the thread that binds your work?
Aldy Milliken: Education. When working in Jakarta and Budapest I was a fifth-grade teacher. Because of the freedom with curricular goals, I used art to connect other subjects. I was interested in the Indonesian art scene. I played Gamelan music, working with local dance groups and visual artists to make performances for students. In Budapest, I was involved with the Hungarian photography scene—my first exhibition in Stockholm was of Hungarian photographers. So, education first, and then good art and relationships to artists.
Are you originally from Sweden?
No, we’re originally from outside of Boston. We lived overseas—my wife and I and family—for twenty plus years. My relatives worked at the United Nations and lived all over the world. There are a lot of global perspectives and interests in our family.
Do we refer to Kimball Art Center as a museum or as a center?
You know, that is the subject of a great debate. I became involved in the museum sector through the Getty Leadership Institute and the accreditation process through the American Alliance of Museums [secured at KMAC Museum]. For me, the museum sector should move towards the community center attitude. They should respond and lead audiences in a more dynamic way. First about audiences, then about preservation and holding the history of humanity through visual culture. Our standards are museum quality; our outreach and programs are as a community center.
Please explain the Kimball to someone who’s never been there.
We are an educational institution that inspires and connects people to art. We’re a non-collecting institution that collaborates with artists to inspire. We look at visual culture from Utah, across the country, and across the globe. We’re dedicated to our local arts community. We want artists to find their own voices, feel comfortable in their space, share the diversity and beauty of the human condition. Art is the deepest form of communication. I want to make sure we are accessible so we’re not placing value on one person over another.
Describe what “place” means to you and to your stewardship of the Kimball.
Place is important. Good community art centers respond to and challenge the needs of their community. I listen to local audiences first. But it’s our job to push our local audiences to deeper connections across issues of race, gender equality, gender identity, or economic disparity. Our first exhibition since opening in March was about female utopias. The artists were women of color—they had different, alternative views and perspectives you might not find in Utah. We felt it was important, especially in a post-COVID world, to really think about challenging social norms. We also look at our own hierarchies within the institution. We think about ourselves as a structure and try to be open about who we are.
You mentioned the Kimball moved to a new space in March—can you describe that?
We’ve been negotiating with Park City Municipal about building a more ambitious cultural district. The proposed land was being renovated, so we rented a warehouse space about 100 yards away, redesigning the interior with museum quality walls and excellent facilities for ceramics, painting, and printmaking classes. Unfortunately, it’s about 30 percent the size we need, but provides an opportunity to curate excellent exhibitions and have classes connected to them. The world is an opportunity—even negotiating a COVID world where the Kimball was closed for a few months gave us time to reevaluate our future. The current space represents growth potential; it’s an opportunity to have a conversation about best practices.
Do you have a timeline when you’ll move into your new museum?
It’ll take as long as we authentically discern needs—who’s going to help fund it and advocate the project. We’re in the foundation stage—it takes a long time to build, especially for a nonprofit. I’d rather work hard making sure we have the right cement, or the right footprint, rather than changing or wishing we had done things differently. What attracted me to Park City was working with the community to define this legacy project. It starts with us earning our place and being clear about our vision. What is the Kimball brand? What is authentically Park City that’s different from Aspen, Denver, or Santa Fe?
What surprises you about living in Park City?
The difference between working in a tourist destination town versus a steadier functioning city. The needs of the audiences are different. We might get 25,000 people for the weekend’s arts festival; on Tuesday it might be quiet. It’s finding a way to be authentic and locally focused, and also, something to a tourist, or visitor from Salt Lake who needs to escape the inversion. What surprised me was how international Park City is, yet locally focused. I also want it to be something more global and relevant nationally. People come here to escape and I’m not going to let them. I think people don’t want to escape—if we do something special, they’ll be proud of what we’ve created. I’m not interested in reflecting the mountain-town experience through visual art. I need to find a way to negotiate this, so it’s not about confrontation but about enticement and inspiration.
Is there something about your position that was a surprise to you?
The difference in opportunity that Utah has versus a more established nonprofit scene. Stockholm probably had a hundred galleries and five contemporary art museums with their own ecosystems. In Utah, we’re developing that; for me it’s about opportunity. I like building institutions—you can grow a footprint and grow your audiences. We’re getting into issues of Indigenous cultures, land rights, water rights, and our relationship to nature, which is so in front of us here. If these issues are relevant to you, you’re more likely to engage.
If you weren’t a museum director, what would you be doing?
The profession I love is education. Being an elementary school teacher was one of my favorite jobs. In some ways this job is a marriage between education and art. I trained to be an artist, I have so much respect for artists, and I know how hard it is. I just don’t think I could do it. I love to be creative, but to be an artist is something really special.