The KMA at 15

Adolescence suits the museum with lofty goals

economic and cultural climate, and the climate around the country for art museums," he says. The major question: "What have we really been good at, and what have we struggled with?" Answers from the board and staff pointed to change and adaptation. Some of the museum's largest and most successful shows had occurred in the late '90s—exhibits of sculpture by Rodin, drawings by M.C. Escher, and, more recently, the works of glass artist Dale Chihuly. Smith calls such exhibits "incredible opportunities for the community to come together and celebrate art and for this museum to really shine." But shows by world-renowned artists were also incredibly expensive. And as much as Chihuly, Escher and Rodin raised the museum's stock, Smith says, "We knew, though, that those exhibits were next to impossible to replicate day in and day out." They created what Smith calls a "boom and bust" cycle in which visitors flocked to the museum in droves for awhile and then didn't return until the next big show.

"Choosing is both subjective and based on my knowledge of the industry," says Self, who keeps in contact with art dealers in major markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. Staying current on contemporary art means a certain amount of vigilance; Self makes it sound like a treasure hunt. "I read everything that comes across my desk, all the journals, plus I'm constantly looking at websites and gallery sites," she says, allowing that plenty of research is tempered by a measure of her intuition. She says she's particularly interested in how non-white artists, specifically Asian artists, address themes of home.

"It's not supposed to give you all the answers," Smith says of Design Lab. "It's a laboratory." He says he hopes museum visitors contemplate the issues of the modern world as well as what's on display. "Up front, this isn't always about art," he adds. "This is about the visual culture that surrounds us, and design has become such an important part of that over the last 10 years that we thought it would be relevant. I think design impacts people more than

The Knoxville Museum of Art reflects the city around it. The two-story glass windows on its eastside echo the grassy lawn and sprightly fountains of the World's Fair Park below, as well as the whole skyline of downtown opposite. Inside, the museum's galleries convey downtown's attitude of innovation, promise, and a certain amount of youthful energy. As Knoxville's downtown continues to pinpoint its goals and discover its best traits, the art museum that calls downtown home furthers its own discussion of purpose and relevancy in its 15th year, which will be marked this week by the unveiling of a Kenneth Snelson sculpture.

Over the years, the museum has survived financial hardships, complaints about the structure, rotating staff members and other challenges of living up to the $11.5 million project of establishing a world-class art museum from its beginnings at the Dulin Gallery. But the decade-and-a-half milestone seems to be more about the present and the future as far as KMA Executive Director Todd Smith is concerned.

Smith came to the helm in October 2002, after the museum had been without a director for 27 months. As a well-read and frequently published authority on 19th century American art in his mid-30s, Smith's new job was to oversee a collection of 20th century art, acquire more of it over time and arrange exhibitions of work that would engage the citizens of Knoxville. And the time was ripe for a serious internal inquiry about the museum's direction, Smith says.

"We started asking questions about who we were, given the economic climate of the U.S. at the time, Knoxville's economic and cultural climate, and the climate around the country for art museums," he says. The major question: "What have we really been good at, and what have we struggled with?" Answers from the board and staff pointed to change and adaptation. Some of the museum's largest and most successful shows had occurred in the late '90s—exhibits of sculpture by Rodin, drawings by M.C. Escher, and, more recently, the works of glass artist Dale Chihuly. Smith calls such exhibits "incredible opportunities for the community to come together and celebrate art and for this museum to really shine." But shows by world-renowned artists were also incredibly expensive. And as much as Chihuly, Escher and Rodin raised the museum's stock, Smith says, "We knew, though, that those exhibits were next to impossible to replicate day in and day out." They created what Smith calls a "boom and bust" cycle in which visitors flocked to the museum in droves for awhile and then didn't return until the next big show.

"So my charge to the staff and board and myself was figuring out ways to make what we do sustainable," he says, in order to "build an audience and long-term relationships that grow the organization and provide Knoxville with something to be extremely proud of."

Longtime museum supporter and art instructor Sarah Kramer has watched the changes that have occurred since the mid-'80s when plans were being drawn up for the KMA. The most tangible proof of progress is the museum structure, which allows for larger exhibits than the Dulin House on Kingston Pike did, and the impressive series of exhibits the museum has maintained over the years. Other developments are harder to point at, she says.

"I think the museum has a life of its own," says Kramer, who worked as the KMA's curator of education for 17 years. "It's not just made of the wishes of a few people. It really exists because the community has embraced it. I feel it's an inherent part of the fabric of the community."

 

The KMA's first-floor galleries answer some of Smith's original questions. Since their inception, SubUrban and DesignLab have been constants in the museum's public image—through ads and through their consistent presence to the left and right of the lobby. SubUrban has introduced the community to many emerging artists, including Atlanta-based photographer Sarah Hobbs, large-scale Dutch painter Michael Raedecker, and New York digital artist John F. Simon Jr. Raedecker and Hobbs marked the artists' first solo shows.

The idea for SubUrban grew from the museum's desire to create its niche, not only in Knoxville but in the country. Very few other museums in the United States, Smith says, showcase up-and-coming artists. Those rising stars building their reputations in the art world match the museum's goals and resonate with Knoxville's art-minded community. New art by new artists, he says, "is relevant to the museum world, relevant to the art world, relevant to Knoxville, and it's something we're all passionate about."

Museum curator Dana Self has been at the museum for just shy of a year, having come from the Kemper Museum in Kansas City, where she worked for eight years. Self specializes in emerging artists and contemporary art, keeping her finger on the pulse of the art scenes in major cities and the newest stuff hitting galleries and group shows across the world. Considering the decisions made by the KMA's board and staff in regard to its direction in contemporary art, Self fits right into the mission. As curator, Self manages the selection of exhibits as well as the permanent collection, and while the decision-making process is different for each task, both use Self's skills, experience and industry connections.

"Choosing is both subjective and based on my knowledge of the industry," says Self, who keeps in contact with art dealers in major markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. Staying current on contemporary art means a certain amount of vigilance; Self makes it sound like a treasure hunt. "I read everything that comes across my desk, all the journals, plus I'm constantly looking at websites and gallery sites," she says, allowing that plenty of research is tempered by a measure of her intuition. She says she's particularly interested in how non-white artists, specifically Asian artists, address themes of home.

"I've always had an interest in the art of artists who have immigrated to this country. I think their dialogue is very interesting," she says. The work of Tam Van Tran, the current artist showcased in the SubUrban gallery, is a perfect example of such an artist; his family left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.

"For me, these artists' works are so much more complex and multi-layered, so there's so much more to think about, like how do you negotiate something as disruptive as leaving your country and navigating cultural differences and physical differences?"

In the next few weeks, Self will lead a trip to New York City with the museum's Collectors Circle, a group of about 40 museum patrons whose yearly donations purchase one or more pieces. The exploratory and educational trip will expand the members' knowledge of contemporary art through visits to the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Whitney Museum and galleries in Chelsea. Then, based on what they see there and what Self has discovered through other galleries and art dealers, three works in the group's price range will be shipped to the museum for consideration.

"I already have in mind what I'm bringing in for review," says Self. "It's very exciting."

While an individual might consider any one of the works on display in a swanky uptown gallery to be leagues beyond her budget, to a museum contemporary works are the cheapest around. That's in comparison to, say, a 180-year-old work of French impressionism. The same goes for exhibiting the nation's favorite kind of art. Smith says Knoxvillians aren't alone in their favoritism toward the classics.

"A lot of our supporters have strongly traditional taste in art," he says. "As do most people across the country. More often than not, someone would rather go see a show of impressionism than see a show of cutting-edge contemporary art. That's just the nature of American museum-goers."

But a combination of rarity and insurance costs keeps fewer and fewer shows of that nature on the museum circuit. And, although plenty of museums want to throw their budgets into that black hole, the KMA's choice to exhibit contemporary art is a less expensive path and one that builds upon the significance of the museum's permanent collection.

"People can understand our collection better if they see works from the same period that deal with similar issues," says Smith. "There's a dialogue to be had. Because if you bring in a show of 13th century Byzantine art, it's beautiful and important, but it stands in isolation to everything else that's going on in the museum at the same time. So it's hard to make the connection."

Helping visitors make connections visually, without gobs of necessary reading material or background information, is part of the museum's goal as an educational institution, Smith says, as well as increasing its reach into the community. An ongoing program with the Literacy Imperative has put two art exhibits on display in the group's East Knoxville office and operated workshops to help people interpret messages conveyed by media channels.

"We're hoping to build people's visual vocabulary," says Smith, "so that, in the next show we bring in that's contemporary or modern and deals with issues that are similar to a show they saw two years ago, those connections are easier for the viewer to make."

And if everything goes according to plan, visitors will also start asking questions, many of which are instigated by the Design Lab shows, which began with the Portland, Ore., design firm Crandall Arambula's prospective (and controversial) designs for downtown Knoxville and recently featured the sculptural dinnerware of Eva Zeisel.

"It's not supposed to give you all the answers," Smith says of Design Lab. "It's a laboratory." He says he hopes museum visitors contemplate the issues of the modern world as well as what's on display. "Up front, this isn't always about art," he adds. "This is about the visual culture that surrounds us, and design has become such an important part of that over the last 10 years that we thought it would be relevant. I think design impacts people more than

In a tangible expression of the museum's pursuit of 21st century design for its permanent collection, and an anniversary present for the museum, a newly acquired sculpture will be unveiled May 5. Well-known American sculptor Kenneth Snelson's 15-foot metal creation "Dragon II" climbs into the sky from the museum's Guild Garden. Smith considers the sculpture a signature work for the museum—one that will be identified with the KMA for years to come—and a gift to the city of Knoxville.

As the wires and poles of its dynamic shape seem to defy the laws of physics, "Dragon II" achieves Snelson's artistic goal, according to his artist statement, of dealing "with nature in its primary aspect, the patterns of physical forces in three dimensional space." Angular and chilly, the structure's metallic surface reflects the surrounding landscape: the trees, shrubs, benches and the museum's white marble face.

To Kramer, the new sculpture is a metaphor for the museum's relationship with the city. "Because it's in the gardens, it can be seen anytime," she says. Even people who don't have time to go inside the museum can "always peek over the wall and see it . That's really what the KMA has always wanted to be about: to be as accessible as it can be."

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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