David Butler stands on the top floor of the Knoxville Museum of Art, looking out over the museum's new north garden. Until a few months ago, that space, a few hundred feet square, was just a hill next to the building. Now Butler expects it to serve as a site for rotating sculpture exhibits and private events.
"It was just a brownfield, a bare slope, and it couldn't be used for anything because the grade was too steep," Butler says, describing the small grassy space before it was redesigned, leveled, and landscaped last year. "Now it's such a beautiful design. When the leaves fill out, it's going to really look full. We've expanded the museum's footprint without adding on to the building."
Butler, the museum's executive director since 2006, has just overseen a $6 million, year-long renovation and refurbishment of the 24-year-old building. The white marble exterior was cleaned, the roof repaired, the new garden built, the floors and ceilings replaced and upgraded.
"Every inch of this building, something's been done to it—taken off, cleaned, put back on, fixed, waterproofed, you name it," Butler says.
All of that work is in preparation for what might be the biggest event in KMA's history since the building opened in 1990—the unveiling, in early May, of "Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity," a seven-ton, 185-foot wide, 30-foot tall black-and-white glass sculpture by local artist Richard Jolley that has been installed in the museum's first-floor Great Hall. The piece cost $1 million and took Jolley and his eight-person staff five years to design and construct; it took another three months to hang.
It is Jolley's grandest and most ambitious undertaking. It is also being touted as a turning point for the museum itself, a catalyst for more visitors, more money, and international recognition.
"This is so big," Butler says. "We're thinking about what happens after this is unveiled and we're operating at a whole new level."
Butler is neat and fastidious, and those qualities have, so far, marked his tenure at KMA. Under his direction, the museum has quietly refined its mission, stabilized its finances, and shored up its long-term projects. He has left almost nothing to chance. That's changing next week, when the giant drapery that has covered "Cycle of Life" since installation was completed in February finally comes down.
For eight years, Butler has kept a careful eye on the museum's future. On May 3, the future will be here.
The studio that Jolley shares with his wife, Tommie Rush, also a well-known glass artist, is made up of two utilitarian buildings on a wooded lot just off the Pellissippi Parkway. The studio fits neatly into a cluster of mixed-use development, most of which has been built in the years since Jolley moved here, in 1975. There's a gas station across the street, a shaded residential neighborhood behind the studio, and a stretch of light industrial buildings and office parks to the east.
The location has sentimental value—it's on the main route between Knoxville and Oak Ridge, the town where Jolley spent most of his childhood. His decision to settle in Knoxville, away from major art centers like New York and Los Angeles, was deliberate, and it has informed his career ever since. "Growing up in Oak Ridge, here were people who were at the top of their profession," he says, sitting at a metal picnic table on a walkway between the two buildings, one of his familiar 8-foot-tall bronze busts behind him. "They did not live in a major urban area. One of my goals was to try to be an artist without having to live in a major urban area."
Jolley's family moved to Oak Ridge, where his father worked as a research chemist, from Wichita, Kan., in the late 1950s. Jolley decided to become an artist during his freshman year at Tusculum University, when he met Michael Taylor, a young art instructor there. Taylor, just a few years older than Jolley, was one of the pioneers of the 1960s studio glass movement, a small community of artists around the country who saw the potential for traditional glass-making techniques to be applied to fine art—in essence, elevating glasswork from a craft up to the same perceived level as painting and sculpture.
Jolley and a handful of other students helped build a glass studio at Tusculum. In 1972, Jolley followed Taylor from Tusculum to Vanderbilt's Peabody College for his senior year. After graduation, he studied at the Penland School of Crafts near Asheville and then returned to Knoxville. The location insulated him from the hyper-competitive gallery scene in New York and from the schools that were primarily interested in preserving craft traditions. He was free to develop on his own.
"As an artist, you have to say, I'm going to do this, whatever people say about it be damned," he says.
Jolley's work evolved in distinct phases: the frosted glass male and female figures with blue detailing from the late '80s; the torsos and busts, especially the man with the baseball cap, in the '90s; and, more recently, birds, totem poles, mixed-media pieces, and a new interest in drawing, painting, and printmaking. Experts admire him for his technical skill—he's been called a master of hot glass and a virtuoso—and the subtle influence of classical Renaissance sculpture and architecture that appear in his work.
"He almost doesn't fit in with other glass artists," says Tina Oldknow, a curator at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y. "He's coming from the world of glass but he's more grounded in contemporary art and sculpture. He's always had a really strong vision and done things his own way. He has a defined artistic vocabulary, his own iconography—the man and the woman, the everyman and everywoman. The human experience is very much what his work is about. This is quite far from people who make decorative vases."
Collectors also love Jolley's whimsical characters with their rubbery expressions and the artist's broad, cosmic, New Age themes. His work routinely sells for tens of thousands of dollars or more; a large wood-and-glass sculpture now on display at Bennett Galleries in Bearden is priced at $160,000. He is probably the most celebrated and widely collected artist who ever worked in Knoxville. Still, there's a sense that Jolley is an outsider—that the accessibility of his work, his broad style, his popularity, and the fact that he's working with glass sometimes make him seem like something less than a serious artist.
Jolley refuses to directly address the distinctions critics and curators make between "art" and "craft," a fraught battleground for most of the 20th century. But he insists that his choice of material matters less than what he makes with it.
"When Pollock started using industrial materials to paint with, everybody thought, oh, he's not using an artist's materials," Jolley says. "It seemed so radical at the time. Sixty years later, paint is paint. It doesn't matter that it was industrial enamel as opposed to artists' oil.
"Let's face it, we all want to have as high a prestige as we can for ourselves. At the same time, you cannot be a complete crusader. It's about the poetry of the art. It just so happens that it is that material."
Butler, however, speculates that "Cycle of Life" is directly related to Jolley's feelings about being excluded from the highest reaches of the fine-art establishment.
"I think for Richard a lot of this is about declaring the seriousness of glass as a fine-art medium. … Glass has always been consigned to a ghetto as craft, which is still a live issue. I think it's stupid. It's easy to dismiss when you think of the guys making swans at Dollywood, or in Milan, for that matter. But Richard and his generation have really fought, demanding that glass be recognized as just another fine-art medium, end of discussion. I don't think that question has been put to bed by any means. But the fact that this is here, its scale, makes the statement that, like it or not, you can't ignore it. This is seven tons of argument in favor of that idea."
In 2008, in one of its third-story galleries, KMA opened Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee, which has become its flagship exhibit. Higher Ground is a rotating display of local and regional art from the museum's permanent collection by Jolley, Beauford Delaney, Bessie Harvey, Catherine Wiley, and dozens of others. A landscape of Lyons View by James Cameron, a Scottish-born painter who lived in Nashville and Chattanooga in the 1850s, hangs just inside the entrance to the gallery.
"Everybody knows that view if you go to Lakeshore Park," Butler says of Cameron's painting. "It's never that clear, but the view essentially hasn't changed, except for the houses. That island's still there. The river level is probably different, because it's dammed. It really has changed very little. I think it's great that we have, from before the Civil War, this beautiful thing."
When Butler arrived in Knoxville from the Ulrich Museum in Wichita, where he was also executive director, KMA was on a downward trajectory—attendance and donations were declining and big-budget shows were losing money. (During the 1990s and early 2000s, exhibits featuring Andy Warhol, Red Grooms, Rembrandt, Goya, Rodin, and Dale Chihuly attracted visitors, sometimes in very large numbers, but those shows cost more to rent and stage than the museum earned back in admission fees.)
More generally, though, the museum, after almost 20 years as an institution, still lacked an identity.
Attendance numbers have stabilized under Butler, and other statistics indicate his reliable fiscal stewardship: the museum's revenue and budget have both slightly increased under his leadership, private donations are up, and the museum's endowment has more than doubled since 2007, from $1.3 million to $3.3 million. The recently completed renovations were the result of a capital campaign that raised more than $8 million.
Creating a regional and national profile for a small museum, however, was a longer-term project. Early on, Butler identified two specific curatorial issues to address. The first involved a tighter focus on local and regional art, with special attention to East Tennessee's underrepresented historic legacy. Higher Ground was the first evidence of that new focus; in 2012, a companion exhibit of contemporary art with connections to East Tennessee opened in the other third-floor gallery. (There are several other temporary exhibits of local artists every year.)
"That's been our existential issue since the beginning, and I think this is the answer," Butler says of the museum's new focus on East Tennessee art. "It's not Chicago, it's not Atlanta—it is what it is, and that's a good thing. We've made our own distinctive contributions to the world. This is the best collection in the world of its type. Who wants a fifth-rate museum of modern art? There are a hundred of those around. This is the only place like this on the planet."
The second initiative Butler conceived was acquiring or commissioning a signature piece of art for the museum—a single work with brand-name recognition that will attract art lovers and tourists, something that will bring locals back to see it again and again.
He's pretty sure that "Cycle of Life" is that piece.
The origins of "Cycle of Life" go back to Butler's first couple of years in Knoxville. He immediately thought the big blank wall of the Great Hall needed what Jolley calls a "branding icon."
"I remember standing on the balcony and asking Richard what it would take to do something here," Butler says. "This great space is so empty, so barren. It just wants something."
Butler and Jolley casually discussed the possibility of a large-scale project, but the estimated cost made it seem impossible. Eventually, in 2009, the subject came up while Butler and Jolley were visiting Steve and Ann Bailey. The couple has a long-standing interest in both art (Steve is a former chair of the KMA board, and the couple owns several Jolley pieces) and philanthropy (Ann's maiden name is Haslam, as in the Pilot Flying J/governor's mansion Haslams). Again, the cost seemed insurmountable, until Ann Bailey suggested that she and her husband could pay for it. That conversation effectively sealed the deal—the interested parties went to work almost immediately based on a handshake, no attorneys or contracts.
Jolley came up with a single striking image to start with—a stand of poplar trees at night in the winter. That was followed by a pair of large-scale figures, one male and the other female, emerging from the foliage, and then he had a good idea of where it was all heading.
"At that point, I realized I was talking about a life cycle," he says. Stages of evolution and enlightenment followed. "I broke it down into adolescence and maturity, so it's primordial, emergence, flight on the south wall and then, on the north wall, maturity."
The first year of the project was mostly conceptual and structural. After the initial inspiration, Jolley worked up a model to present to a structural engineer.
"I like to think of structure because it's important," he says. "In the sense of keeping the poetry first, if you figure out what you need for structure, it's easy to implement the aesthetics to go along with it. On this project, to have seven tons hanging above people's heads, you don't want it coming off the wall. You have to be organized."
As the concept developed over the next couple of years, Jolley added two important pieces: the sky and universe icons, made up of hundreds of individual glass spheres on a swirling steel frame, that can already be seen hanging from the 23-foot ceiling in the hall. Those pieces serve both a metaphysical function, as the apex of the evolutionary narrative, and an organizational purpose—they're visible from the front entrance of the museum, announcing the installation's presence to the floor above, and they bridge the gap created by the mezzanine staircase that bisects the wall of the Great Hall.
"This is where everything kind of dematerializes," Butler says of the explosive climax of the piece. "These are stars, or galaxies, or atoms, or sperm—there's a lot of mythic creation origin stuff going on. It's pretty impressive."
In some ways, "Cycle of Life" is the culmination of Jolley's career. All the familiar images and themes he's explored for the last 40 years come together in a single giant piece telling the story of humanity, and it's housed in the museum of his adopted hometown—a city that didn't even have an art museum when he built his studio here.
But it's also something entirely new—it's probably the largest figurative glass sculpture in the world, and it required a completely new conceptual and technological approach from the artist.
"This is breaking new ground," Oldknow says. "It's something that hasn't been done before. He talks about this being the most challenging thing he's ever done. I totally believe that! He had to totally rethink how he makes his work, how he conceives of it, and wrap his head around this idea of a huge architectural sculpture. It's entirely different."
This turning point might be even more important to the museum. Almost as soon as the plan for "Cycle of Life" was made public, Butler said, "I think it will change everything." He envisions the museum operating in a whole new way—a kind of Golden Age for KMA.
"We'll be bigger, better, and badder than we used to be just by sheer weight—the sheer volume of this has been added to our collection," Butler says. "It gives us the critical mass that we need to really get traction. Without this we're a completely credible, high-quality, interesting museum. But you need something big and flashy to make people say, look at this thing. And that's what this provides."