Visual Arts

Tom Eblen: A look inside the shuttered Speed Art Museum

A portrait of Henry Clay is among the Speed Art Museum's painting collection that is in storage during a $50 million, three-year renovation and expansion. Many of the museum's best European paintings are now on display at The Art Museum at UK.
A portrait of Henry Clay is among the Speed Art Museum's painting collection that is in storage during a $50 million, three-year renovation and expansion. Many of the museum's best European paintings are now on display at The Art Museum at UK. Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — People gasped when Kentucky's largest art museum announced in late 2011 that it was closing for more than three years for an extensive renovation.

Would the Speed Art Museum lose momentum during such a long shutdown? Or would the break allow it to shift into high gear? After a tour of the work-in-progress, I'm betting on the latter.

The Speed has raised more than $50 million, including $18 million from Louisville's Brown family, to renovate its 1927 main building, demolish a 1972 addition and expand all over its 5-acre campus beside the University of Louisville.

When it reopens in early 2016, the museum will have 79,600 square feet of renovated space, 75,000 square feet of new space and 135,000 square feet of new outdoor facilities, including an art garden and piazza. Two new wings will add galleries, an education center, a 150-seat film theater and a café.

Like most museums, the Speed wants to attract a larger, younger and more diverse audience by offering relevant art experiences. Those efforts are already underway in a small, temporary space the Speed has rented in downtown Louisville, at 822 East Market Street.

But the Speed also is making a big commitment to Kentucky's past: a large gallery showcasing the state's rich decorative arts tradition.

When the Speed's director of collections, Scott Erbes, offered to give me a private tour of the shuttered museum, I couldn't resist.

Our first stop was the famous English Room, where elaborate oak paneling carved in the early 1600s for a manor house in Devon has been stripped from the walls. Each piece has been numbered and shelved so it can be reassembled in a different room.

Some galleries were empty and in various stages of renovation. Others resembled high-class attics, packed with the museum's 14,000 pieces of art. Paintings hung on sliding panels of steel mesh. Furniture and sculpture lined shelves. The arms of marble statues were covered with bubble wrap.

The Speed has loaned some pieces to other museums. Choice European paintings are part of an exhibit at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky in Lexington through Sept. 22. Some Kentucky paintings are at the Hopewell Museum in Paris through Sept. 2.

I was most interested in plans for a new Center for Kentucky Art, a 5,600-square-foot gallery that will house paintings, sculpture, furniture, silver, pottery and textiles made or used in the state between the late 1700s and the mid-1900s.

"With the exception of paintings, Kentucky art had never been a major focus" of the museum, Erbes said. But that changed after he met Bob and Norma Noe of Wilmore.

The Noes are Garrard County natives whose ancestors came to Kentucky more than two centuries ago. The Noes lived for 25 years in the Washington, D.C., area, where he worked as a cost analyst for the Air Force. In their free time, they visited museums all along the East Coast.

"Many of them had sections devoted to their home state," Bob Noe, 84, recalled. "It was very noticeable to me that there was no such thing in Kentucky, even though I knew many high-quality things were made here."

The Noes began collecting early Kentucky pieces, and their hobby became a passion after they retired and returned to the state in 1979. The Noes went to local auctions and noticed that the best Kentucky pieces were being bought by out-of-state collectors. So they started buying.

"It was quite cheap then, because there weren't many Kentucky collectors," Noe said. "Now it is very, very expensive."

The Noes wanted Kentuckians to have more appreciation for their arts heritage, so they began looking for an institution to donate their collection to. They considered the University of Kentucky, "but they had no place to put it," he said.

They began talking with the Speed and were impressed that several board members and the staff shared their passion. In 2011, the Noes donated 119 pieces to the Speed, more than doubling its Kentucky holdings. The Noe collection is the foundation of the new center, which Erbes hopes to expand through other acquisitions and loans.

The new center will show the quality and variety of early Kentucky art. It will explain how styles developed as artists, craftsmen and their customers moved around the state. And it will link history to the arts, showing, for example, how the arts were used to promote and memorialize famous Kentuckians such as Daniel Boone, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln.

"Rightly or wrongly, I have felt that Kentuckians have not had enough pride in their early beginnings," Noe said, adding that he hopes the Center for Kentucky Art will help change that.

When the Speed displayed pieces from his collection at special exhibits in 2000 and 2002, Noe said, he enjoyed watching visitors' reactions.

"I saw young people turn to their parents after leaving," he said, "and say they didn't know Kentuckians had made such beautiful things."