When Elizabeth Martin-Villalobos was 10-years-old, she decided to be in the museum industry. Martin-Villalobos, who was named Executive Director of Simpson County Guild of Artists and Craftsmen and the Gallery on the Square in Franklin, Ky. in March of 2022.
“I was inspired by a classmate who wanted to be an archaeologist,” says Martin-Villalobos. She says it’s a vivid memory. “I didn’t know what that was, but even as a small child, since I was five years old, I’ve loved historic sites. Holding old things in my hands. When my friend told me what archaeology was, I thought that sounded just grand.”
Martin-Villalobos grew up in Portland, Tenn. and never abandoned her childhood determination. She majored in archaeology at Western Kentucky University, veering toward the registration and inventory area of the field. “I was fascinated by the job of describing found artifacts,” Martin-Villalobos said. “I graduated with a major in archaeology, a minor in folk studies, and a concentration in applied archaeology.”
Martin-Villalobos did two stints in Europe, the first one through a college program. “For a year, I was in Belgium,” said Martin-Villalobos. “Belgium is centrally located, so I was able to go everywhere. It was a magical year.”
After graduating in 2005, she orchestrated her second stay in Europe by taking a job as a nanny in the Netherlands. “During my time there, I developed a great love of Dutch art. I went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I saw the work of Rembrandt and Vermeer, and I adored it,” she said.
Coming back to the U.S. in 2006, Martin-Villalobos landed a job as a curator’s assistant at Belle Meade Plantation, where she stayed for two years. “I worked with a lot of young individuals and saw that if I wanted to move up, I needed to move on. I took a position with the Museum of Science and History in Corpus Christi, Texas. It was an amazing city-owned museum that had been in operation for close to 60 years. I worked there for six years as a registrar. It was my sweet spot. The founder of the museum was even Dutch — Albert Heine, who came to Corpus Christi from the Netherlands to escape the Nazis.”
Although the museum was successful, it wasn’t making much money, and the city decided to sell it to a private owner. Marin-Villalobos left the museum and took a position with the city. “There were some financial issues for me with the sale of the museum,” said Martin-Villalobos, “so I made a lateral move to another department in the city.”
Marti-Villalobos met her husband during this period, and in 2014 they married. About a year later, they had a daughter, now eight years old. Her husband, a native of Corpus Christi, was applying for engineering jobs all over the country. “Lo and behold,” said Martin-Villalobos, “he landed a job with Kirby Building Systems in Portland. So back we came.”
The move to Portland had the sniff of the miraculous. The couple found a house in Portland that was in foreclosure. “It cost $32,000,” Martin-Villalobos laughed. “And we had to fight to get it. You can believe, we weren’t the only ones who wanted it! Some developers wanted it, too. But my parents contacted a relative who’s in real estate, and this cousin pointed out a clause in the foreclosure that said the house could only be purchased by people who were going to live in it. And so, we were able to clinch the deal.” She added, “We’ve put a lot of work into it, but it’s been fun.”
Needing to work but wanting to stay home with her toddler, Martin-Villalobos got a job with the Portland Prescription Shop. “I had a friend who worked there, and Mike Stinnett, the pharmacist, agreed to take me on and give me really, really flexible hours. He’s become like family to me.”
Still, Martin-Villalobos knew she wanted to get back into her chosen field. “A position came open at the Franklin-Simpson Historical Society,” she said. “It ticked all my boxes. The position focused on genealogy, which I love. Genealogy is a lot like archaeology, except you’re excavating people’s family histories instead of their belongings.”
She interviewed for the librarian position at the Historical Society, was offered the position and started there in 2020, right after the Covid pandemic had shut everything down. “They closed the building from April through August. I started in late September, right after it reopened. I was working with a computer program called Past Perfect, which is the greatest name ever for a computer program designed for history museums.”
At this point, Martin-Villalobos felt like she had found her home. “When I came here, I felt like I had found my ‘people,’ and I’m still close with everybody there. And, I met my best friend for life.”
During her two-year hiatus at the Historical Society, Martin-Villalobos also served as the President of the Highland Rim Historical Society in Portland. “That put me in a leadership position, really for the first time in my life,” she said. “I was also instrumental in turning Portland’s Moye-Green House into the Portland Museum after it was restored. They had done the physical renovation, but we needed to explore whether a museum would work in Portland. We opened it for a single month at the end of 2020, just to try it out. Then we opened it for good in 2021.”
“2020 through 2022 was a growth period for me,” said Martin-Villalobos. She found herself inspired by watching James Henry Snider, director of the Franklin-Simpson Historical Society. “Watching what James Henry does, keeps the Historical Society thriving, plus my work with the Portland Museum — these influences were changing me.”
In the spring of 2022, the position of Executive Director of the Gallery on the Square posted an opening. “I decided I wanted to do more than registration. I wanted to do more than work in the background. I wanted to be the central person making doors stay open. It was time to leave my comfort zone, and I decided to apply.”
When she interviewed with the selection panel from the Board of the Guild of Artists and Craftsmen, she felt an immediate kinship, and apparently, they felt it, too. They offered her the position, and she took it.
“It’s more than a little unusual for a city the size of Franklin to have an established art gallery,” Martin-Villalobos said. “And this one has been here for 30 years. Some incredible people were instrumental in creating the culture and arts of Franklin, along with this Gallery on the Square. I’m so grateful to them.”
Martin-Villalobos has many plans for the Gallery. She envisions pursuing art as a means of therapy. She is also bringing once-popular programs back into a regular rotation.
“For instance, one of our afternoon programs has places for 18 children each week,” she said. “The only requirement is to RSVP and make it here by 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday. You don’t have to have any supplies or money, and we even provide a snack.”
The Gallery also has two home-school programs each month, works with a 4-H program, and has an artist who contracts space for a class. “I would love to see more Guild members teaching their area of art, like felting and glasswork classes,” said Martin-Villalobos. “And we have a trading area for people who need art materials. It’s an in-and-out drop off what you don’t need and pick up anything you want. It’s all free for the taking.”
The new executive director, of course, loves to discuss the Gallery’s exhibits. “Right now we are taking down our end-of-the-year exhibition, which is an annual showcase of the Simson County Guild of Artists and Craftsmen. It’s been up since the middle of November.”
Martin-Villalobos points to one painting. “This artist — Mel Davenport — expresses my philosophy about art in the note he placed beneath his painting, ‘On the Ropes.’ It says, ‘My painting is symbolic of the struggle many brave people have, due to illness, misfortune, adversity and other hardships…simply finding the courage to get up each day and continue fighting for their lives.’ ”
The next Gallery exhibition is right around the corner, and features guild artist Nicky Doody. “She experiments with light,” said Martin-Villalobos. “And she does it in the most astonishing variety of ways.”
Nicky Doody’s art installation, “Redeeming Light,” will be celebrated with a reception on Thursday, Jan. 19, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Admission is free. “We’ll be offering hors d’ oeuvres and a cake made by Nicky Doody herself,” added Martin-Villalobos. “I can’t wait to see that.”
The Gallery on the Square is open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Admission is free. The experience is priceless.