Criticizing UK's attitude toward arts, museum director resigns

rcopley@herald-leader.comMarch 19, 2013 

Kathy Walsh-Piper has announced her retirement as director of The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, saying she has done all she can to raise the profile of the museum, and it needs a new director who can rally university and community support to move it forward.

"It needs a new director to take it to a new level, meaning a new building," Walsh-Piper said Tuesday morning. "It needs a better location."

Walsh-Piper, who has been the museum's director since March 2002, said her predecessor, Harriet Fowler, had said much the same thing when she departed.

The 20,000-square-foot museum is tucked into the northwest side of the Singletary Center for the Arts, at Rose Street and Euclid Avenue. The past decade has seen several discussions of adding to the existing building or moving the museum to another location, possibly in downtown Lexington, but no substantive action has taken place.

"This museum needs to be a priority for someone," Walsh-Piper said. "The city has no art museum except us. It needs to be part of the heart of the city, and for that to happen, the city and community need to support it more."

Walsh-Piper, 65, came to UK after posts at the Dallas Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Among her accomplishments while at the museum were developing the exhibit Hoofbeats and Heartbeats: The Horse in American Art to coincide with the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games; bringing in several high-profile touring exhibits, including works by Auguste Rodin and Egyptian artifacts; doubling the museum membership from 250 to 505; and raising the annual Art in Bloom fundraiser to a major visual arts event in Lexington.

In a statement, UK College of Fine Arts Dean Michael Tick said, "Kathy has brought energy, passion and creative leadership to The Art Museum at UK. The museum has made great strides during her directorship, and she will be missed both on campus and in the community."

Walsh-Piper said she also has suffered setbacks: The museum was moved into the College of Fine Arts after years as an autonomous organization; its staff was cut from 10 to eight, with more cuts likely; and a $30,000 feasibility study in 2003 "wasn't given the attention it deserved."

In a statement after this story was originally posted at, Tick said bringing the museum into the College of Fine Arts had been good for it.

"With the addition of the Art Museum at UK to the college's infrastructure over the last fiscal year, we have already started looking at facility issues related to the museum and are dedicated to pursuing solutions to their location challenges," Tick wrote. "Additionally, since joining the college, the museum has received support through the college staff and has been involved in college-wide initiatives, raising the visibility of the museum with the students and the community."

UK did not provide any officials to be interviewed for this story.

The museum is not the only entity in the College of Fine Arts that wants a new building. After years of lobbying, the art department is finally poised to move from the 96-year-old Reynolds Building, which Tom Harris, UK's associate vice president of external affairs, deemed "probably the worst building in higher education in the state." And for years, students and faculty have decried the state of the College of Fine Arts' main building at Rose Street and Patterson Drive. Built about 1950, it recently suffered another flood.

Walsh-Piper said those cases are indicative of the general attitude toward the arts at UK.

"The university needs new buildings and dorms, for sure," Walsh Piper said, "but we are just being ignored. There is no vision for the arts and humanities at the University of Kentucky. It's demoralizing."

Tick replied, "UK has not turned its back on advancing the arts on campus, but has demonstrated significant support."

He cited several examples since the arrival of current UK president Eli Capiluto, including the purchase and renovation of the University Lofts property where the School of Art will move, improvements to the Schmidt Vocal Arts Center, new seating in the Singletary Center for the Arts, the installation of a new tower for the marching band, tuition-funded financing for a new arts administration online master's program and funding for musical therapy faculty and staff with UK HealthCare.

The many demands on university funding are why the community must get behind supporting the art museum, Walsh-Piper said.

The museum is one of five in Kentucky, and the only one in Lexington, accredited by the American Association of Museums. Its current main exhibition, Art and the Animal, continues through April 28.

Walsh-Piper said she is ready to retire. She said she has not decided whether she will remain in Lexington.

She said she wants to make sure the message is not lost that change and community support are vital for the museum.

"Give it the building it needs," she said, citing museums at Indiana University and the University of Georgia as examples of campus museums that have become regional attractions. "Almost every other university museum has more resources than we do."

UK's statement said Tick and Mary John O'Hair, dean of the College of Education, will head a search committee for a new director.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog:

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