Meet Your BOK 2011 Winner: David Butler, Knoxville Museum of Art

Winner: Knoxville Museum of Art, Best Museum

How does it feel to be chosen best museum?

We were chosen against some pretty tough competition. Knoxville is blessed with some outstanding cultural organizations, including great museums. The McClung Museum at UT has some of the greatest Native American holdings anywhere, the East Tennessee History Museum has tremendous depth and breadth in its holdings, and I’ve been told we have more historic house museums per capita than Charleston. The richness of local museum offerings makes the Metro Pulse distinction even more meaningful, but having so many great organizations makes all of us better by setting standards high and challenging each other to do even better.

What have you done to attract visitors?

The KMA’s staff and board leadership have been working hard to make the museum more accessible to more people, to make it a place that embraces every element of our community. A huge step in that direction was dropping the museum’s $5 admission charge in 2008. Attendance jumped by 40 percent. At the same time the KMA opened its first-ever permanent installation devoted to the art and artists of Knoxville and surrounding areas. “Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee” has been a revelation. Visitors from out of town like to get a sense of what’s happened here artistically—they’re very interested in what’s unique about our area and sets us apart—while locals can take pride in the long and vibrant artistic history of their home region. The museum is able to present this overview of our artistic past and present only because the KMA’s sister museums have been extraordinarily generous with loans from their own collections. But the Knoxville Museum of Art should first and foremost be about Knoxville.

What about art from around the world?

The museum upholds a long tradition of showing vital new art from further afield. Last summer, for example, the KMA hosted a traveling exhibition of work by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei at the moment that news about the artist’s arrest and detention dominated world media. The museum also hosts an annual exhibition featuring two to four local artists doing important work that plugs in to the wider currents of international contemporary art. By celebrating homegrown talent along with new ideas from all over the world, we hope the museum can capture something of the flavor of an evolving community that is rediscovering its own authentic traditions yet is open to the stimulation of new ideas. Whatever your taste, you can almost always find something at the museum that will engage, interest, and challenge you.

What’s next for KMA?

Later this month the museum will unveil a special exhibition drawn exclusively from its own holdings, which have grown considerably in the past few years. “Liquid Light: Watercolors from the KMA Collection” brings together more than 50 works by artists from East Tennessee as well as artists of national and international reputation. Later this spring “Several Silences,” a traveling exhibition organized by the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, offers more cerebral delights with thought-provoking work that has to do with the absence of sound (think of the sound of one hand clapping). And soon you’ll be hearing more about big plans around the projected spring 2014 opening of an enormous permanent glass installation by local favorite Richard Jolley. That will be a big event for the entire community and should get the attention of the rest of the world.

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