Rich Copley: University of Kentucky art museum's new director pictures possibilities

Herald-Leader culture columnistJuly 12, 2014 

  • Coming soon to The Art Museum at UK

    Stuart Horodner has already planned several exhibitions and events at the Art Museum, particularly for the Robert C, May Photography Endowment Lecture Series. Here's a look at what's coming up.

    Take My Word for It, Sept. 7-Dec. 23. An exhibit of text-based works drawn primarily from the permanent collection.

    Laurel Nakadate, Sept. 7-Dec. 23. The provocative photographer and video artist's recent work focuses on genealogy. She lectures Oct. 10 as part of the May series.

    Marvin Heiferman, Nov. 7. The photography curator and writer lectures as part of the May series.

    Tanya Habjouqa, February. Based in East Jerusalem, Habjouqa has gained deep perspective on gender issues in the Middle East and is part of the first collective of female photographers in the region. She exhibits and lectures in the May series.

    Julian Cox, April 10. The founding curator of photography and chief curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Cox has worked with the photographs collection at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and led the photography program at Atlanta's High Museum of Art. He will lecture as part of the May series.

Stuart Horodner walks into the upstairs gallery at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky and focuses on a sound sculpture by Harry Bertoia toward the front of the gallery.

He strokes the top of its vertical metal bars — something regular museum visitors are not permitted to do — and it makes a haunting sound.

"We have a very good music department here," Horodner says. "Has anybody ever invited someone from the music department over to play this, as an instrument, maybe create a new sound work with it? Is there a local band — granted, I can't have someone beating the hell out of it — that might want to use it in a musical score."

He looks at a familiar portrait of President George Washington by Gilbert Stuart hanging in the gallery and talks about it being the catalyst for an exhibit of portraiture, maybe comparing it to portraits of President Barack Obama and working with school departments like history and diplomacy to build events around it.

Horodner looks into this gallery of works from the museum's collection and sees a lot of possibilities.

"These are really low-hanging fruit," Horodner says.

Horodner, who comes to UK from the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, has inherited a museum many believe has high-hanging problems.

His predecessor, Kathy Walsh-Piper, took the unusual step of questioning the university's commitment to the arts when she announced her resignation last year.

"It needs a new director to take it to a new level, meaning a new building," Walsh-Piper said in March 2013. "It needs a better location."

The 20,000 square-foot museum is tucked in the northwest corner of the Singletary Center for the Arts, a location long seen as disadvantageous. Other issues such as parking have dogged the institution. Numerous discussions of downtown redevelopment have included a new home for the UK museum, though none of those has come to fruition.

Horodner acknowledges there are challenges.

But entering the job, Horodner is inclined to work with what he has and build on it.

"My answer is the museum becomes more and more vital, more energetic, more connected, more visible, and yeah, there are some parking problems and visibility problems," Horodner says. "But a lot of places have problems like that, or other problems.

"You want to go to a show at the High Museum in Atlanta? It will cost you $12 every time you park, and you'll sit in all kinds of crazy traffic to get there. In New York, if you want to go to the Met, you can take a subway or a cab from Lower Manhattan, but it's going to take you all day to see the Temple of Dendur, and it will be a big investment of time, money and energy.

"I think what people may be really saying when they say these things is, there's a hurdle, but when I overcome the hurdle, I want some more depth, or I want more diversity of the things you show, or I want more of a rotation of the permanent collection, I want to see more happening when I come over there. And all of those things I think are legitimate criticisms of the place, up until now. ...

"My job now is to make this place unbelievably vital, and those answers will follow."

What he thinks he has is a museum with a "sublime" permanent collection and numerous potential collaborators a mere walk away, and not just in the College of Fine Arts, but throughout the university.

"For my mind, there are three groups that really need to be engaged with the museum," Horodner says. "There's certainly the campus community, and then there's the community in Lexington and the region, and then the third group is people who may never come here, but are involved with us in national visibility and potential partnerships."

It is something he has already experienced in Atlanta, bringing in collaborations that attracted attention on par with national hubs New York and Chicago.

"My colleagues and I had built a national reputation, and we would hear from people in L.A., and we would hear from people in New York," Horodner says. "We were covered by The New York Times and The Huffington Post and by CNN and art magazines, repeatedly."

So, with all that established, why did Horodner choose to come to Lexington?

Horodner says he first became interested in UK and Lexington four years ago, when he was invited to lecture at the art department by assistant professor Rae Goodwin.

"I was aware of good people here doing good work," Horodner said, "and we stayed in touch, as I usually do with artists that I work with. So when the position came open, she sent me the information."

He says he had already liked and respected the people and work he saw happening at UK and in Lexington, and he liked the character of an academic institution, with like-minded collaborators in close proximity.

There are realities of proximity in Lexington Horodner has already come to enjoy.

On a flight out of Lexington's Blue Grass Airport, "I went literally from my house to the counter to get my ticket, through security and to the gate in 32 minutes," said Horodner, whose home airport used to be Atlanta's congested Hartsfield. "I was sitting there at the gate, having a cup of coffee, thinking, 'I could get used to this.' This would never happen at Hartsfield."

Now he's focused on what he can make happen at UK.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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