Visual Arts

Tom Eblen: Lexington's Headley-Whitney Museum fights to preserve its future

The Headley-Whitney Museum, closed for its annual winter break, includes a building known as the Shell Grotto, decorated with shells and other objects.
The Headley-Whitney Museum, closed for its annual winter break, includes a building known as the Shell Grotto, decorated with shells and other objects. Herald-Leader

George Headley had the money and talent to create his own little world of art. He did it with jewelry and curios he designed for the rich and famous, and with the gem he left Lexington, the Headley-Whitney Museum.

The designer, collector and socialite died in 1985. His museum now faces some real-world money troubles, just as many other museums have since the 2008 financial crisis reshaped the economy.

Before the Headley-Whitney reopens in March after its annual winter break, the museum's board is taking steps to shore up finances. It is putting Headley's home, named La Belle, up for sale and is deaccessioning — that's museum-speak for selling — several pieces from the collection that are rarely displayed or are costly to conserve.

The goal is to pay off debt incurred when two wings were added to the museum in 2009 and build up operating cash reserves, said Linda Roach, the board chairman.

"There's no question it is tough," Roach said of the museum's situation. "If selling La Belle, deaccessioning and paying off the wings doesn't work, the museum may not make it."

George Headley studied art in New York and Paris before going to work for Paul Flato, the first celebrity jeweler in Beverly Hills. Headley then set up his own boutique in the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, designing jewelry for movie stars.

In 1949, Headley moved back to the family farm on Old Frankfort Pike. He lived at La Belle, a house designed by the noted local architect Warfield Gratz and built in 1936. Headley married Barbara Whitney, a sister of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney.

Headley continued designing jewelry and bibelots, small curios made of gems and precious metals with intricate craftsmanship. Dozens of bibelots became the core of Headley's personal collection, and in 1968 he built a "jewel room" and library of art books beside his house.

He then opened his collection as the Headley-Whitney, adding a museum building in 1978. The grounds also contain the quirky Shell Grotto, a small building whose interior is covered with seashells and other decorative materials.

In addition to being an artist and designer, Headley was quite a character, famous for his personal style, gregarious personality and lavish parties. Roach said she got to know him shortly before his death, when he was hospitalized.

"His robe was a fur coat," she recalled. "And he would open the bar at 5 o'clock, and the doctors would all make him their last visit of the day."

The museum suffered a crisis in July 1994, when burglars broke into the jewel room and stole 103 pieces worth $1.6 million, including most of the bibelot collection. The biggest art heist in Kentucky history remained a mystery for five years, and then a group of Ohio thieves was caught and convicted.

Unfortunately, the bibelots apparently had been dismantled and sold as scrap for a fraction of their value. Since then, the Headley-Whitney has commissioned several artists to create bibelots for its jewel collection.

The museum has broadened its scope in fine and decorative arts, said Amy Greene, curator and administrator. The new museum wings have played host to some first-class exhibits, such as a recent display of Chinese woodblock prints.

The museum's permanent collection also includes huge, elaborate dollhouses commissioned by Headley's sister-in-law Marylou Whitney.

Like many museums, the Headley-Whitney has faced pressures to cut costs, focus its collection and reach beyond its core audience and financial supporters.

A big step in that process will be the sale of La Belle. The house, along with several outbuildings and 8.42 acres of land, will be put up for sale soon with an asking price of $1 million.

"We hope someone will fall in love with the property and be good neighbors," Roach said.

The museum bought La Belle after Headley's death. In recent years, it has been a decorator showcase house and a venue for weddings, receptions and other events. All current bookings will be honored, Roach said.

The Headley-Whitney has contracted with Neal Auction Co. in New Orleans to sell some Asian textiles, Chinese porcelain, a Kentucky coin silver pitcher and a few "politically incorrect" art objects made years ago from such things as endangered animal tusks. They will be auctioned Feb. 23 and 24.

The Headley-Whitney has been an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution since 2003. It also has formed several other partnerships, such as with the Confucius Institute at the University of Kentucky, and is seeking more relationships to broaden its range of exhibits and public appeal, said Christine Huskisson, a board member who teaches museum studies at UK.

The museum has increased education programs, including sponsoring adult and family how-to workshops ranging from woodblock printing to tie-dying. It also has sponsored a faux bibelot competition for middle school students. The best ones this year, which showed some amazing creativity, were displayed at the museum.

"One of the problems we have had is that people look at this as an elitist museum," Roach said. "We're trying very hard to be engaged with the community and have the community engaged with us. This isn't some snob place. This is a place where people can come and learn about the arts."

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