When the state’s oldest and largest art museum closes for three years for a $50 million makeover, expectations are high.
But the transformation of the Speed Art Museum, which attracted 17,000 people to a 30-hour marathon reopening last weekend, blew me away.
The Speed has long been recognized as one of America’s best regional museums, with a large and diverse collection. Now, it has a world-class facility in which to grow.
“People were so enthusiastic,” Scott Erbes, the chief curator, said after he had a couple of days to recover from opening weekend. “That’s what we hoped for.”
The Speed raised $60 million in private money for the project, which included a complete renovation of its 79,600-square-foot original building that opened in 1927. A 1972 addition was demolished and replaced with 75,000 square feet of new museum space.
The expansion also includes a state-of-the-art, 142-seat cinema for film showings. Crews are now working on 135,000 square feet of landscape improvements around the museum beside the University of Louisville campus.
The project was designed by architect Kulapat Yantrasast and his firm wHY, which has offices in New York, Louisville and Los Angeles. The result is a stunning piece of minimalist contemporary architecture that seamlessly integrates with the heavy, old neoclassical building. Yantrasast filled the space with light and air.
The museum now has plenty of space to display its many collections, the largest of which include European, American, Native American and African pieces. The addition gives more room for contemporary art galleries, traveling exhibitions and educational and community event space.
The big theme is state identity, and how identity plays itself out through objects: who made them, who used them, who appears in them.
Scott Erbes, chief curator
You don’t have to look hard to know this is a Kentucky art museum: The contemporary galleries include pieces from several noted living artists, including Arturo Sandoval and Louis Bickett of Lexington. The first temporary exhibit is of 20th century Kentucky photographs. In fact, the work of Kentucky artists is scattered throughout the museum.
Perhaps the Speed’s most significant addition is a new 5,600-square-foot Kentucky Gallery, which traces the history of art and decorative arts in the state and is organized by region.
“The big theme is state identity, and how identity plays itself out through objects: who made them, who used them, who appears in them,” said Erbes, who also is the museum’s curator of decorative arts.
The Kentucky Gallery’s highlight is an outstanding collection of paintings, silver, furniture and other objects from the early 1800s. Much of the Kentucky furniture was donated by Bob and Norma Noe, who were among the first serious collectors. Other items are on loan from the Shaker communities at Pleasant Hill and South Union and private collectors such as Mack and Sharon Cox of Richmond and Clifton Anderson of Lexington.
“The Kentucky Gallery is a really big deal,” said Mack Cox, who also has become a leading scholar of early state craftsmanship. “I think Kentuckians are going to love it, because it shows that our decorative arts were as good as anybody’s.”
The Central Kentucky pieces are especially impressive: A game table attributed to Porter Clay, a Lexington cabinetmaker and brother of statesman Henry Clay; coin silver tableware by the Lexington silversmith Asa Blanchard; and significant paintings by Matthew Jouett, Chester Harding, Oliver Frazier and others.
Posted on walls amid some of the items are explanations of the artistic process.
“One of the things we wanted to focus on throughout the museum, and particularly in this space, is the idea of making,” Erbes said. “How some of these things got made, whether it was silver or miniature paintings or inlay. Why is called coin silver? Because it came from Spanish-American coins.”
The gallery also reflects artistic culture throughout the state in various periods through the mid-20th century, from cast iron furniture from Louisville’s industrial heritage to fascinating examples of folk art.
“Is folk art really a valid thing?” Erbes said, raising a question he hopes many visitors will ask. “Isn't it just art? Having the space to have that conversation is something we haven't had before.”
The Speed Art Museum was created in 1925 by Hattie Bishop Speed as a memorial to her late husband, James Breckinridge Speed. The Kentucky Gallery includes old family portraits and a beautiful Federal door surround from Thomas Speed’s circa 1811 Cottage Grove mansion in Bardstown.
There are several pieces reflecting the Speed family’s associations with Abraham Lincoln — Joshua Speed was Lincoln’s closest friend, and James Speed served as his attorney general — as well as Lincoln’s admiration for Henry Clay.
A rare large daguerreotype photo of Clay, taken about two years before his death in 1852, is one of many pieces throughout the collections that was sent away for repair and conservation during the museum’s long closure. So the Speed’s artworks, as well as its building, have never looked better.
“The installation is gracious and beautifully designed,” said author Estill Curtis Pennington, the leading expert on 19th century Kentucky paintings. “The citizens of the Commonwealth owe the Speed a deep debt of gratitude for the inclusive presentation of Kentucky's rich cultural and intellectual history.”