A Conversation with David Butler, Retiring KMA Executive Director

David Butler, Executive Director, Knoxville Museum of Art, December 2023
Knoxville Museum of Art, December 2023

While younger and new residents to the city may assume that the Knoxville Museum of Art has always been as much a part of the fabric of the city as it is today, the truth is its history is relatively brief. Originally founded as the Dulin Gallery of Art, the museum opened in 1961 in a west Knoxville Home. Its current 53,500 square feet home opened only in 1990 on the site of the 1982 World’s Fair.

The museum worked mostly with traveling exhibitions in the early years as it had no large permanent collection. David Butler arrived as the new Executive Director in 2006 as the museum reached a point where it needed to find its identity. Much of what we associate with the museum today, from the updated gardens to Richard Jolly’s massive Cycle of Life installation, and particularly, the large regional collection now housed at the museum, came about during his tenure as Executive Director. I spoke with David to learn his background, what brought him to Knoxville, and how he decided this was the time to allow space for the next vision for the museum.

He said the transition, which has been underway for months has been a rewarding one. “It’s been nice to be able to manage the process. I love this job and I’ve loved this experience, but there are other things I want to do that you can’t do when you work full-time. This feels like the right time for me.”

David grew up in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in a very different Florida from today, and a place his family had been in the area for generations. He got an MA at Florida State and moved to Columbia, Missouri to take a job with the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Architecture. He attended Washington University in St. Louis, getting his PhD. in Art History in the early 1990s.

Knoxville Museum of Art, December 2023
Knoxville Museum of Art, December 2023

He said, “I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do (teaching), but it was an important credential. I’m suited better for that (museum work). It seemed to fit me better. I tell people I was trained in Renaissance Art History in the State Archives in Rome, and I work in community development in southern Appalachia and it’s a perfect fit! Art museums are about people and less about art . . . and that’s what I like about it.”

In the early 90s he took his first director job at Hamilton College at their art gallery in upstate New York. From there, his next stop was the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana. “It was a place with a great collection. It was a great opportunity, and we were able to . . .  buff this beautiful jewel of a museum in this declining rust belt city.” He stayed until about 2000 when he moved to the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University, which is where he remained until assuming the job in Knoxville.

Throughout those years he witnessed a number of downtown areas that had fallen into neglect with art being employed to try to help revitalize them. “Finally at the end of my career, I’m finally in the place where it’s all paying off. I laid the groundwork in other places, not here, but it’s satisfying to see.”

He first came to Knoxville and the museum in 2005 as a “site visitor” on an accreditation visit for the American Alliance of Museums. “It’s a deep dive” into everything about the institution. “I was so impressed with this building and the commitment of the people who made it happen. It had been struggling and they were casting about for ‘What are we going to be? What is our role in this community?’ It was all very up in the air.”

As early as his flight in and ride to downtown, he said he got a feeling about Knoxville that “things are really happening here. You could feel it.” He loved the natural beauty and historic buildings. He got to know Steve Bailey who was chair of the board at the time and expressed how happy he would be to work with them if they ever needed anything. Six months later he got a call that they had an opening for a director. After initially helping them search, he told them he might be interested. “I’m not sure they interviewed anyone else.” After a good return visit, he said, “It felt like a good fit.”

Knoxville Museum of Art, December 2023

His tenure has seen a dramatic transformation of the museum, and one that he credits to the commitment of the team. Initially he said, “I used to like to tell people we weren’t burdened with a large collection . . . We’ve been able to shape that in a focused way, with east Tennessee as our core . . . we happen to have this really interesting art history. It’s like a lot of things in Knoxville; for a little place it has a lot going on.”

From the beginning he knew the primary task was to “figure out what we wanted to be.” The museum had been primarily an exhibition space up to that point (remember “Rodin?”) and that model wasn’t financially sustainable. By the time David arrived, the museum was offering high-level contemporary art exhibitions which were more affordable, “but didn’t seem to be connecting with the public the way you’d want it to.”

He found Catherine Wiley paintings in the basement and learned about her and then Joseph and Beauford Delaney. “It turns out this city and region has produced several generations of really interesting, important artists. I introduced the idea of focusing on this part of the world, which was not immediately obvious to people. It was a moment when Knoxville and other medium size cities were discovering who they were.”

He said while there was some skepticism, there were a few Wiley paintings and there had been an exhibition of her work in the 90s. “Joe Delaney had given us several works. Beauford you couldn’t get at that point because of the legal issues. The “Knoxville Seven” guys, who were fantastic, no one really seemed to know about it. In 2008 we opened the first iteration of “Higher Ground,” and it kind of worked . . . We borrowed works from around the state, and that’s when things started coming through in a big way. People got it and connected with it . . . I think everything has kind of built out from there.”

Knoxville Museum of Art, December 2023
Knoxville Museum of Art, December 2023

While the best-known East Tennessee works began to form the core of the collection, the museum also pushed boundaries in other directions. “When you show a lot of beautiful paintings in gold frames, you can do modern, crazy stuff and it doesn’t make people mad. When that’s all you’re doing then it’s kind of off-putting. “We also dropped the admission charge at the same time (2008 — entrance to the museum has been free since). “Instantly, it became an institutional value . . . It says something about who you are.”

He feels the new directions and the passing years have yielded more community connection to the space. “I think people feel like there is a lot more to engage them, whether it is a new contemporary thing, or something more traditional. We show art from all over the world, with East Tennessee as our core.” He’s proud that our most celebrated artist is African American (Beauford Delaney) and another is female (Catherine Wiley).

Visitors to the museum are greeted by two large galleries on the entry floor filled with the works of East Tennessee artists, featuring works owned by KMA. “We weren’t sure we could fill a closet,” David said, of when they started the focus. He credits the work of Stephen Wicks, curator at the museum, both before David’s tenure and, again, on his return. He said Steven had “the intellectual framework” in his mind.

Now, he said, local patrons have bought in to the “story” the museum tells about regional artists. Once the acquisitions started, for example an early and expensive purchase of a major Catherine Wiley work, patrons supported the efforts in a large way, both financially, as well as through donations of art. The support led to a very large outlay of nearly $800,000 for a group of Joseph Delaney works. “Seven years later it looks like the best bargain in the world because his market has just gone so much higher.” He expects the story the museum tells to continue to grow and for the community connections to continue to expand.

David Butler, Executive Director, Knoxville Museum of Art, December 2023

The focus of the Higher Ground collection is of artists who “worked in the twentieth century and maybe a little before.” He expects a push in the future to identify more works from contemporary artists. Richard Jolley is an example of a contemporary artist who has been incorporated. “That will be the next guy’s job.” He also pointed out that somewhere in the future, more space will be needed. He expects the announcement any time of his successor and he’s excited about the potential he brings to the position.

Of what comes next for him, he says “this is home.” While an initial draw was being near his and his husband Ted’s parents, Knoxville is now a part of them, and they have no intention of leaving. He anticipates “doing more of what I want to do.” They have trips planned and look forward to painting and spending time with friends. “I’m not worried about filling my time.”

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