Foothills Folk Art Festival wins statewide award and gears up for the next festival.

On March 14, 2018 at an awards ceremony in Clayton, NC,  the Foothills Folk Art Festival won a statewide award from the N.C. Department of Commerce, for Best Downtown Special Event. A panel of judges chose the award winners from dozens of applications submitted from throughout the state; and NC government officials presented the award to Newton Mayor Anne Stedman and Hickory Museum of Art Executive Director Jon Carfagno. The festival's principal organizers, Shannon Johnson, Newton’s Main Street Program coordinator, and Clarissa Starnes, Associate Director of Hickory Museum of Art and the Foothills Folk Art Festival artist contact, were also at the awards ceremony.

The result of a partnership between Hickory Museum of Art and Downtown Newton Development Association, the mission of the Foothills Folk Art Festival is to celebrate and support contemporary folk art locally and regionally, while maximizing the benefits for the artists and to Downtown Newton both economically and culturally. Shannon Johnson says, “Thanks to the the efforts of hundreds of volunteers throughout the year, we [together] are able to bring close to 100 amazing artists to the festival for a day that celebrates folk art. This award from the N.C. Department of Commerce speaks to the quality of the festival, and we are dedicated to to making the festival even better each year.”

The Third Annual Foothills Folk Art Festival will take place on Saturday, October 6, 2018 from 10 AM to 4 PM in Downtown Newton. This family friendly festival, expected to once more draw thousands of visitors from throughout the region, will again showcase a variety of local and regional contemporary folk artists whose work will be for sale, as well as artist demos, hands-on art activities for kids, two locations with free live music, food from area restaurants and food truck vendors, beer gardens, and more.

The Foothills Folk Art Festival is a juried event dedicated to folk art. The festival's artist committee is looking for themed artwork intensely influenced by and displaying the spirit of folk, visionary, and outsider art.  Information for artists wishing to be considered for participation in the 2018 festival is here


Says Clarissa Starnes about the festival award, "We would like to thank the many hands that went into making last year's event a success, including the artists, participants, sponsors, local businesses, volunteers, staff members, and visitors to the Festival! We look forward to an even bigger, better Festival this October!"

More information about the Foothills Folk Art Festival itself, including signing up to volunteer, here

Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since March 2015.

HMA memberships: so many benefits!

Did you realize that with every HMA memberships, in addition to all the benefits directly related to HMA you get reciprocal admission privileges at over 190 participating museums across the Southeast? And not only free admission during the regular hours of those museums, but also THE SAME DISCOUNTS IN THEIR ON-SITE GIFT SHOPS AND CAFÉS as those offered to their own members, and

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Please congratulate our new 2017/2018 Board of Trustees inducted at our Annual Meeting on June 22, 2017!

New Members:

Re-Elected Member: (2nd Term)

Continuing Members:

Click here to see the complete Annual Meeting presentation, including descriptions of earlier, current and coming exhibitions and events.

Coffee in the Coe: art discussions twice a month.

Clarissa Starnes, the organizer of the twice-monthly Coffee in the Coe, says that her inspiration was the European coffee houses of the early 1900’s where people sat for hours discussing a broad range of ideas, including art. She thought, “When do people now get together to discuss art? And how can HMA facilitate doing this in a safe no-right-or-wrong environment?” Coffee in the Coe is structured as an answer to those questions.

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HMA Executive Director Announces Retirement (September 2016)

Hickory, NCLisë Swensson, who helped attract artists and exhibits from around the world to Hickory Museum of Art (HMA) and expanded its reach in the local community during more than 12 years as executive director, announced recently that she will retire.

Swensson, 65, who became HMA executive director in 2003, plans to leave her job in March 2017, giving the Museum’s board six months to search for a replacement.  Once her successor has been identified and employed by the Museum, she looks forward to continuing work in areas of art education, community arts, exhibitions and arts fundraising. Swensson is also eager to try her hand at art sales.

While she is sad to be leaving her work at HMA, Swensson said she is proud of the Museum’s accomplishments during her time as executive director.

“I continued the vision of (museum founder) Paul Whitener; I’m lucky to be a part of that,” she said. “I love working on projects with creative, passionate people, especially when a variety of cultural expressions are shared.”

HMA Board President Alan Jackson said Swensson has brought a high level of creativity, professionalism and enthusiasm to Hickory Museum of Art, which would not be the organization it is today if not for her energy and passion.

“Her efforts have made the Museum a true destination for local residents, as well as visitors from around the nation and the world,” Jackson said. “The quality and variety of exhibitions, educational activities and community events we have all enjoyed have been the result of a vision for the Museum that Lisë has created and shared since she first joined us.”

Kathryn Greathouse, executive director of the United Arts Council of Catawba County, said Swensson has made a tremendous contribution to HMA and the arts community in the Catawba Valley.

“None of us will forget what she has done for the Hickory Museum of Art and, indeed, the entire community here,” Greathouse said. “She has opened up HMA to new audiences and has initiated new programs that have been highly successful.  HMA has taken giant leaps forward under her leadership.”

Under Swensson’s guidance, the Museum drew nationally and internationally known artists and works, such as Israeli sculptor Orna Ben Ami’s exhibit, “The Softness of Iron,” and “Unexpected Beauty,” a collection of photos by Steve McCurry, who took the famous “Afghan Girl” photo that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1984. HMA partnered with the Catawba Valley Camera Club on the McCurry exhibit, which closed this past May.

In 2005, the Museum displayed “AFTERMATH,” an exhibition by New York photographer Joel Meyerowitz documenting the 9/11 terror attacks. The exhibit’s journey to Hickory began with a simple car trip that Swensson took. While driving to work the month after September 11, 2001, Swensson heard part of a radio interview with the nationally recognized Meyerowitz discussing his project documenting the monumental clean-up process at Ground Zero. 

“I just sat in my car and cried because this artist’s words moved me so much,” Swensson recalled.  “I wrote him an email and, months later, his assistant called me and said, ‘we’re impressed with what you wrote and, if we can work something out, we’re interested.’”

Former HMA board member and past president Mary Elizabeth Geitner said Swensson was key to attracting such strong exhibits.

“She has brought in wonderful exhibits, and it takes an executive director to make exhibits happen,” Geitner shared. “She has to knock on doors and get funding. Lisë hasn’t just holed herself up in the Museum; she has gone into the community.”

Swensson said she is also proud of the Museum’s efforts to reach into the community with programs such as Art for All, launched in 2004 soon after she arrived, that continues to involve low-income and at-risk children in art- making projects.

“The Hickory Museum of Art needs to be an integral part of this region and beyond,” she explained. “HMA is sometimes described as a ‘jewel on top of a crown.’ Instead of being ‘worn’ for special occasions, the Museum needs to be part of the day-to-day experiences of those representing all socio economic backgrounds and interests.”

HMA board member Trish Johnson said Swensson worked hard to connect the Museum with all parts of the community.

“Lisë tried to deliberately be inclusive of the entire community,” Johnson said. “She wanted the Museum to be reflective of the community, to involve the under-involved. She wanted everyone to feel the Museum was theirs.”

Swensson promoted diversity not just among people, but in art as well, Johnson said. In 2014, the Museum joined with the Hickory Pubic Library and the Hickory Community Theater to present a celebration of the play “Crowns,” about church hats worn by African American women. As part of the celebration, the Museum hosted a display of hats from members of the community.

“She’s always looking for avenues to make sure all people are included, from folk art to all kinds of art, not just paintings and drawings,” Johnson added. “She doesn’t miss the furniture aspect of it or the fabric aspect of it. She uses all media.”

Looking to the future, Swensson said the Museum has developed a partnership with the Downtown Newton Development Association and the City of Newton to sponsor the Foothills Folk Art Festival that will be held in historic downtown Newton on Saturday, October 1. This event is based on folk art festivals that HMA has held in Hickory and in Sherrills Ford since 2005.

Later this year, the Museum will feature contributions of women in the visual arts, including a partnership with Hickory Printing Solutions, which will produce a catalog and calendar for the exhibition “Woman Made: Women Artists from the Hickory Museum of Art Collection,” December 17, 2016 – April 23, 2017. The exhibition is being guest curated by Karin Borei. Additional community groups are encouraged to contact HMA to play a part in this multi-faceted celebration of women artists.

Swensson began as executive director in December 2003, when she and her husband, artist Dan Smith, moved to Hickory. Before that, she was director of the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, Va., from 1995 to 2003. She also has been chief art curator at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, S.C., director of the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County in Camden, S.C., and a high school teacher and coach.

Anyone interested in being considered for HMA’s executive director position will find application instructions at or by emailing

Hickory Museum of Art is located on the SALT Block, 243 3rd Avenue NE, Hickory. Admission is free. For more information about Museum exhibitions, art classes, field trips, and events, visit or call 828-327-8576.