Knoxville Museum of Art Has a Lot to Celebrate

The first cover story I wrote for Metro Pulse after acquiring it in the fall of 1992 bore the headline, “Our White Elephant.” It portrayed the plight of the Knoxville Museum of Art, which was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy behind its imposing white marble facade that was pictured on the cover.

The subhead posed the question, “Can KMA Ever Live Up to its Grand Design?” And it’s very pleasing to report that the answer is a resounding yes.

As the KMA approaches the 25th anniversary of its opening in 1990, it has not only established financial stability but also an artistic identity and eminence that were also lacking in its early years.

These are epitomized by its flagship exhibition, Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee. It houses a collection of works by East Tennessee artists that makes KMA both distinctive and preeminent in its chosen field.

“Focusing on local and regional art has helped us make a turnaround,” says KMA’s executive director for the past seven years, David Butler. “If we’d done that when we opened, people would have said, ‘Are you insane? We want to be like everybody else.’ But with a generational difference, we now think of local as good and that’s what makes us unique.”

Another iconic addition, a 185-foot-long, 14-feet-high glass sculpture by renowned local artist Richard Jolley is in the process of being installed in the museum’s ground-level Great Hall. By the time it’s unveiled with a week-long celebration next April 30-May 4, Butler hopes to have reached another major milestone: completion of a $10 million capital campaign that will almost equal the $11 million raised to build the museum a quarter century ago.

“The Jolley installation was the impetus for the campaign,” Butler says. “Otherwise, we’d probably be sitting around trying to figure out how are we going to do all of this.” All of this includes $5 million of renovation and enhancements of the building and its grounds. But unlike the original $11 million, which went almost entirely into the building and left the operating cupboard almost disastrously bare, the other half of the proceeds of the 25th Anniversary Campaign will go into the museum’s endowment. This increase to $8 million will further secure the KMA’s financial operation, which Butler has managed to keep in the black even through the depths of the last recession, with a $1.8 million budget for the most recent fiscal year.

A remarkable $2.5 million lead gift from the Aslan Foundation and some 60 quietly raised donations from trustees and other key stakeholders have gotten the campaign within striking distance of its goal. Butler is banking on a much larger number of smaller contributions to yield the $1 million balance that remains in a public phase of the campaign that’s due to commence in January.

The kick-off will be a Jan. 16 preview of the Jolley installation (whose donation by Ann and Steve Bailey is independent of the $10 million). The Great Hall where it will reside is probably best known to the public as the site of the Alive After Five jazz and blues concerts, which the KMA has hosted on Fridays virtually since its inception.

In the meantime, the museum will reopen on Nov. 29 after having been closed since August for renovations, which Butler summarizes by saying that “We’re finally finishing everything that we had to make compromises on when it was first built.” Among the highlights:

• The front entrance, which Butler says “was kind of forlorn looking,” will have “a richness and texture with beautiful pink and gray Vermont granite pavers and a lot more green.”

• A new terraced garden, which will adorn what has been a dysfunctional sloping lawn to the north of the museum building. “We just didn’t have the money in the early ’90s to redesign that space,” Butler says. A giant elm tree that has since died also stood in the way.

• New terrazzo flooring is being laid throughout the building, portions of which had sustained water damage due to leaks that have been remediated by new caulking.

So after getting off to a shaky start, the KMA has truly established itself as a pillar of the community, or as Butler says, “A place that everyone in Knoxville can be proud of.” And, I might add, one that is worthy of support in the upcoming public phase of its 25th Anniversary Campaign.

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