I recently was introduced to David Butler, Executive Director of the Knoxville Museum of Art, by Kim Trent at the monthly Preservation and Libations gathering hosted by Knox Heritage. Kim spoke highly of David and I enjoyed talking to him that evening. Out of that introduction came a generous invitation to tour the KMA as it undergoes its renovations, reconstructions and general mayhem in anticipation of a partial opening in November and a grand opening next May featuring the unveiling of the giant sculpture by Richard Jolley.
Mr. Butler, who spent seven years at Witchita State prior to his arrival in Knoxville, characterizes the current changes as taking the building back to its original vision. Designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, the minimalist-modernist building demands clean surfaces and a pristine appearance. The exterior surface has already been ice-blasted and sparkles in the afternoon sun. The pristine appearance of the building had faded with passing years and it is recapturing that original visionn that drove the current funding campaign. The work will cost about 5.3 million dollars and much of it has been envisioned for years.
An exterior garden on the north side of the building will compliment the existing garden on the south. Built in such a manner as to appear to extend the interior space of the museums major hall, it promises to be a lively and inviting space. Also accessible directly, it will be open to the public during normal operational hours, but will also be available after hours for a fee.
The other, most startling, change will be the new installation by Richard Jolley. It may be the largest installation of its kind anywhere. The entire project, composed of several separate pieces, will be entitled, “The Cycle of Life, Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity.” It’s a big title for a big work. A left panel on the south side will be attached to the stairwell and will include life stages from the primordial to emergence and on through flight. The flight portion will include “127 black birds on a steel web.”
Additionally, an installation suspended from the ceiling will symbolize the sky and will feature “ethereal geometric shapes.” The final portion, mounted on the northern side of the great hall will be “Desire,” which will feature a reclining man and a woman reaching out to embrace him. A massive “tree of life” and a large head entitled “Conemplation,” are also included. It promises to be awe-inspiring at 185 feet long and 14 feet high. The installation of the sculpture was made possible by a donation from Ann and Steve Bailey.
While those two items form the splashy part of the campaign, the 5.3 million dollars covered many other improvements, some more visible than others. The exterior of the building has already been cleaned and work has begun on the North Garden which will include “terracing, landscaping, a fountain, sculpture, seating areas and walking paths.” 1.8 million dollars will cover these improvements.
Internal improvements to the building, such as replacing the old kitchen equipment, improving art storage areas and lighting are also needed. Water had begun to damage portions of the buildings entering through the stone-tiled terraces. That stone has been replaced and reset and water issues have been addressed. The physical changes, repairs and improvements will cost around will cost an additional 3.2 million dollars.
The twenty-fifth anniversary campaign (the museum officially became the KMA in 1987 and the campaign began last year) also seeks to develop a 1 million dollar art fund so that acquisitions may be made quickly as they become available. A “sustaining” fund of 4 million dollars is also sought in order to keep the museum viable through difficult eras.
For now the museum is a work site requiring the use of hard hats. The garden is so much clay and the best looking portions of the building are currently covered in dust and equipment. It will open surprisingly soon, with patrons slated to be welcomed into a reimagined entrance the day after Thanksgiving. Portions of the museum, including the great hall will remain closed as work continues on the Jolly installation. In the spring the great hall will reopen, with the unveiling of sculpture set for May 3.
All the arts are critical to a vibrant urban area and I’m proud to say Knoxville has funded the needs of its primary museum in an excellent fashion. I think it says something good about our values. In the meantime, I can’t wait for the opening. It should be quite exciting.