The Great White Hope

Is the future of the KMA what it was 20 years ago?The Elusive North-Side Garden

Feature Story

by Jack Neely

It was about 20 years ago that the modest Dulin Gallery of Art closed, and the sparse collection that remained, along with the people who cared about it and a few new philanthropists, began operating under a new title never heard before: â“the Knoxville Museum of Art.â” Its first home was the Candy Factory, the big brick building which had been languishing underused on the site of the long-gone Worldâ’s Fair.

The fledgling KMA showed works by major artists like Peter Paul Rubens, Mary Cassatt, Alexander Calder, and John Singer Sargent, to give Knoxvillians an idea of what to expect from this more ambitious museum. Soon afterward, with generous help from private donors as well as some city, state, and federal sources, an impressive marble-clad edifice rose just north of the Candy Factory, and many heaved a sigh of relief that after all this time Knoxville finally had a real art museum.

In 2007, the KMA, which last week closed a fascinating exhibit of Rembrandtâ’s tiny etchings of urban 17th-century street people and recently opened a startling new exhibit by Japanese-American ceramics master Jun Kaneko, offers a dependably lively and diverse array of exhibits. In 1996 it earned accreditation with the American Association of Museums, to become one of only five accredited art museums in Tennessee, and it has maintained that distinction. Itâ’s a popular venue for regular events like the weekly jazz-blues show Live After Five, which recently earned an almost jubilant rave from a Frommerâ’s travel writer.

And to some, itâ’s also a disappointment. The KMA has yet to earn the landmark status enjoyed by some city art museums, the sort of place you take visitors on a Sunday afternoon, confident that theyâ’ll be awed and maybe enlightened. Depending on the current exhibits, first-time visitors may feel theyâ’ve gotten a good look at all the museumâ’s offerings in a 15-minute walk-through. Its permanent collection still contains no works by artists whose names are recognizable to the average educated American. Major traveling shows that earn national attention are rare at the KMA, and to judge by the museumâ’s short history, they seem to be getting rarer. Critics suspect the museumâ’s wealthy backers of â“dilettantismâ” and complacency about the quality of the museum and its exhibits. And attendance to the museumâ’s exhibits has been declining in recent years. At a particularly low point this past February, the gate was averaging fewer than 50 visitors a day, including schoolchildren on field trips.

What gives? Trustees and staffers are perpetually optimistic. They emphasize the museumâ’s strengths, like its events and its educational programs, both on-site tours and classes in art history and the KMAâ’s Art2Go Travel Cases, mini-exhibits organized around several different themes, available to area teachers.

But they also seem aware of the perception that the KMA has not quite fulfilled its promise of 20 years ago, when early organizers of the project pictured it as â“a first-class museum for people of all walks of lifeâ”; a showplace which would â“attract the top traveling exhibits in the countryâ” and draw upwards of 1,000 visitors a day; that it would be, in a phrase repeated by museum directors, newspaper editorial writers, and then-Mayor Victor Ashe, â“one of the finest regional museums in the country.â”

The museumâ’s executive director for the past year has been David Butler. A thin, constitutionally busy man with stylish half-framed glasses, he wears jeans and a crisp dress shirt to work in his basement office, which is spare but for a large colorful painting of parrots.

If you catch him when heâ’s free, heâ’ll give you a brisk tour. In the new Jun Kaneko ceramics exhibit on the second floor, colorful, cryptic, lozenge-shaped â“dangos,â” each one big enough to hide in, stand disconcertingly upright. Other objects are called, rightly, â“chunks.â” But the first thing you notice is an enormous shiny blue head, as if a giant buddha had outgrown the floor below and burst through.

â“It was the devil to install,â” Butler says. â“Itâ’s sitting on a steel table. For ceramics people, Kaneko is like the Godfather. Heâ’s huge!â”

Itâ’s the first stop for this exhibit. â“Weâ’re the guinea pigs,â” he says.

A former director of museums in the Midwest, most recently at Wichita State Universityâ’s Ulrich Museum, Butler first encountered the KMA two years ago this summer on an AAM accreditation committee, and liked what he saw. The AAM assessment is conducted mainly to appraise the facilities and the business operation of the place, and to determine whether it was serving the public good. The style or quality of the exhibits is not a major criterion. â“It was looking a little dog-eared,â” Butler says. â“I could tell it didnâ’t have much fat, not much flexibility,â” he said. â“But I was very impressed with the level of community support, and the persistence of that support.â”

He took the job in mid-2006, with a charge to correct some of the museumâ’s deficiencies, specifically the declining-attendance problem. â“Weâ’re on a downward trend,â” he admits. Records show that attendance at the KMAâ’s exhibits in 2006-07 was just over 10,000, which represents about a 30 percent drop from just three or four years ago. â“I donâ’t know how much of that is tighter accounting, but there was a charge to me to turn that trend around.â”

He says the numbers tell him the KMAâ’s exhibits are not appealing to enough people. â“What we had was high-quality, but it wasnâ’t engaging. Whatâ’s the matter with us? Or whatâ’s the matter with the people? But the only thing we can do anything about is us.â”

Heâ’s quick to note that the figures for this past summer, roughly the period of the Rembrandt exhibit, show that 9,000 people visited in just three months.

Butlerâ’s aware of the risks of going too far to attract thousands. In 1995, the KMA hosted a major exhibit of the sculpture of Rodin, and Knoxvillians proved theyâ’d come out to see an especially interesting show; the gate counted 44,000 of them, and the show was a success. Emboldened, the museum launched some riskier shows, and lost a great deal of money.

â“The museum went through some really tough times, financially,â” Butler says. â“Itâ’s a pattern typical of startup organizations. A group of civic-minded folks raises a lot of money for something worthwhile, but it costs a lot more to operate something than people expect. Weâ’ve been very stable financially for a long time now.â” The KMA has an annual budget of about $1.5 million, and through membership and fundraising, usually comes close to balancing the books. Part of its financial success has come through cutbacks.

â“When we opened, our staff was probably twice as big as it is now,â” Butler says. The KMA currently employs 14 full time. â“Weâ’re a much leaner, more efficient organization. We do more with less. The laws of mathematics apply here just like anywhere else.â”

As we walk around the museum, a young woman is painting a wall white in a corridor off the Great Hall that often features small exhibits. Sheâ’s not a professional housepainter, but an unpaid intern. The KMA typically employs two or three of them at a time, often art students from UT. Many of the museum guidesâ"docentsâ"also work on a volunteer basis.

â“An art museum is really no better than the community where itâ’s located,â” Butler says, perhaps an ambiguous statement in context. â“Knoxville strikes me as a community thatâ’s changing rapidly. People tell me itâ’s really different than it used to be, really better.â”

Heâ’s not ready to prescribe solutions. But he observes offhand, â“In a lot of cities, a big chunk of culture is supported by the city and county.â” He cites St. Louis, where since the 1970s, a levy on business has paid for an art museum and a spectrum of other arts organizations.

The KMAâ’s original supporters, many of them Republican sorts who donâ’t like the idea of relying on taxpayer money, were proud that more than three-quarters of the museumâ’s funding came in voluntary gifts from private sources. Fortune 500 mobile-home magnate Jim Clayton led the charge with a donation of $3 million, more than a quarter of the total cost. The museum building is named for him.

Today, the art museum still depends heavily on donations and membersâ’ dues. Butler says about 2,500 households are KMA members, and member dues generate about $300,000 of the museumâ’s $1.5 million budget.

â“We have a big group of small donors, and a small group of big donors.â” The biggest donor, according to the most recent figures available, is still the (Jim) Clayton Family Foundation, which gave the museum $100,000 in 2005.

Special events raise more funds. The KMAâ’s annual wine auction alone generated as much as $200,000, and its Artscapes art auctionâ"the next one will be held on Thursday, Sept. 20â"raises almost half that much.

While all those numbers sound impressive to civilians, they donâ’t compare to the budgets of the leading 100 or so art museums in America. An Internet survey of art-museum budgets in American cities turns up dozens with annual budgets twice or more the size of the KMAâ’s. Even some much-smaller cities, like Davenport, Iowa, support art museums with bigger budgets. Closer to home, the oft-compared Hunter Museum of American Art in Chatanooga operates with an annual budget of $2.4 millionâ"not counting a building fund, which added a $20 million addition in 2005.

â“Weâ’re talking peanuts here,â” says a longtime KMA member whoâ’s knowledgeable about the reality of art economics, and is frustrated with the museumâ’s chronically modest expectations of itself.

Butler wants to improve things, but says in todayâ’s climate, just maintaining the status quo in the national art-museum world is a challenge.

â“Every year, doing the same thing costs more,â” he says. The KMA is partly crippled by its short history. The timing of its founding could hardly have been worse; the art-museum business has changed in the last couple of decades, as prices of art, both to procure and to obtain and insure for brief shows, have skyrocketed. The cost of major significant art, and the cost of exhibiting it, has risen much faster than inflation, especially during the life of the KMA.

Some Knoxvillians once hoped for our own version of Atlantaâ’s High Museum, with regular showings of both old masters and groundbreaking national newsmakers. Or at least a Junior High. But the High began assembling its collection back in 1905. The most impressive American art museums, for the most part, began acquiring impressive collections long before Knoxvilleâ’s old Dulin Gallery opened in 1961, and long before Christieâ’s auctions were selling important artwork at prices in the seven and eight figures.

Chattanoogaâ’s Hunter is older and larger than the KMA, endowed with a collection of major talent from Whistler to Warhol. Butler explains that major collections are not only an asset as an option for the museumâ’s own exhibits, but lending it out can be a major revenue source.

â“I think a lot of people would like something much more like the Metropolitan Museum of Artâ” in New York, Butler says. â“But we started so late collecting, as a community. Historically, Knoxville hasnâ’t been a place with a great tradition of collecting,â” says Butler.

Just borrowing a major art exhibit for a few months, transporting and insuring it, can cost more than $1 million.

â“It would be great if we could do a Monet show once a year. But the days of those shows has passed,â” Butler says. â“There are fewer and fewer big, splashy blockbuster exhibitions. Itâ’s a risky model. Itâ’s still something weâ’ll do when we can, but it wonâ’t be as much of our year-in, year-out schedule as it used to be. Unless the art market changes, and that bubble burstsâ"and I donâ’t think it will.â”

For the record, some on the board of trustees still want to find a way to make big, splashy shows happen. Susan Hyde, the incoming chair, is a former department-store buyer who has been involved with the KMA for most of its history. She made her manifesto clear in the current issue of â“Canvas,â” a KMA newsletter. â“I would like to see a major exhibition every two or three years that will dazzle the entire community....â”

Reached at home, she modifies that statement a little. â“I donâ’t want to say, â‘blockbuster,â’ but I would like to see us have a significant exhibition every other year. Thatâ’s what Iâ’d like to see.â” But she also emphasizes â“disciplineâ” and â“selecting exhibitions that are affordable.â”

If anyone can help make the big, broadly appealing shows happen again, it might be the new curator, who started at the job about three months ago; he turns out to be the old curator. Stephen Wicks, a personable guy whoâ’s also respected in the art community, was curator when the KMA moved into its current building in 1990. He left in 2003, reportedly uncomfortable with the policies of then-director Todd Smith, to take a job at the well-known art museum in Columbus, Ga., but found himself missing Knoxville.

â“This place feels like home,â” Wicks says. â“The landscape, the people, the music we love.â” He was curator during the major exhibits of the â‘90s and very early 2000s, when the museum mounted shows of Rodin, Red Grooms, Thomas Hart Benton, Dale Chihuly, Andy Warhol and others readily recognizable to a non-artistic majority.

â“The blockbuster exhibitions were really expensive, potentially dangerous, and sometimes very successful. Sometimes they werenâ’t successful.

â“I want to see us broaden the menu a little,â” Wicks says. He loves juxtapositions. Recently, when Rembrandt squared off against Kaneko on the top floor, he says, â“You have these small, delicate miniatures, and over here these huge, extroverted, powerful things that dwarf you in this space....â”

Heâ’s excited about some upcoming exhibits, like â“New Directions in American Drawingâ” in late October, which picks up where the Columbus drawing exhibit ends, around 1980. In spring of â’08, there will be an innovative video installation that seems hard to describe.

Wicks is enthusiastic about the museumâ’s future, and Knoxvilleâ’s. â“Iâ’d like to make it so that artists at UT think they can stay here,â” he says, â“and donâ’t feel they have to go somewhere else. Iâ’d like to see more collections, more galleries, more shows, more discussions in cafes.â”

A lot of the secret to improving the KMA will be in improving the collection. â“Thereâ’s still no endowment, but a group of collectors who have helped us build the collection,â” Wicks says. One of the most impressive aspects of the recent Rembrandt exhibit was a section of artwork, loaned by local collectors, by artists plausibly influenced by the style, including a particularly striking Whistler. It may hint at the potential of local-collector participation.

The collection, such as it is, may not awe visitors in its fluorescent-lit windowless basement room. It does contain some interesting pieces, like those of unique folk artist Bessie Harvey, whom the KMA championed in the 1990s; hobbyist Russell Briscoe, an insurance executive who in retirement turned to quaint historical primitivism; and lately lots of other modest works, including drawings and photos. Itâ’s still a very small collection, Butler admits, of fewer than 1,000 pieces, and not yet much in demand by other urban museums. Butler says its size makes it easier to rearrange for public shows, like the whimsical â“Habitatsâ” show earlier this year, which made some surprising connections between artworks familiar to KMA regulars.

One lack, Butler thinks, is the signature piece, a painting or sculpture that people develop such a fondness for, they come back to see it again and again, and bring their friends and family to see it. â“People havenâ’t bonded with things in the museum; they havenâ’t made old friends in the collection.â”

The nearest exception, he says, are the Thorne Rooms. A legacy of the Dulin years, theyâ’re seven elaborate miniature period rooms, arranged as if in a dollhouse. Assembled by a wealthy matron and reportedly shown at the Chicago Worldâ’s Fair of 1932, they were an object of but-is-it-art ridicule even back in the Dulin days, when they often seemed more an obsessive hobby.

â“I wasnâ’t a big fan of it at first,â” Butler says. â“Theyâ’re interesting historical artifacts. But they sat in our basement. We didnâ’t know what to do with them.â” The KMA loaned them to the Oak Ridge Childrenâ’s Museum for a time.

He found himself growing more interested in them. â“I spend a long time just looking and looking. Theyâ’re kind of a nostalgic connection to our predecessor, the Dulin. Besides, theyâ’re just kind of fun.â” He gave them a permanent berth in a dark, quiet closed-door gallery off the Great Hall. Each one is lit in its own window.

He wants to offer more bondable objects through emphasizing local and regional art. You notice some of his initiative when you walk into the foyer. Itâ’s always been stark and unadorned, perhaps honoring a modern-architectural edict.

â“It looked very bare,â” Butler says. â“Anybody who visits, when they walk in the door, you should have a sense of where you are, geographically and culturally.â” Now there are half a dozen paintings right there. One of the first things a visitor sees, before even paying admission, is one of the museumâ’s loveliest holdings, Catherine Wileyâ’s 1921 work, â“Morning,â” a quiet painting of a woman seated on her bed in the sunlight. Wiley, regarded as Tennesseeâ’s greatest impressionist, is about as local as you can get. She spent much of her youth in a Laurel Avenue house only two blocks from the museumâ’s site.

Another, larger, boisterous canvas, high on the wall, is Knoxville native Joseph Delaneyâ’s scene of a Macyâ’s parade in New York. Delaney himself donated it to the new museum shortly before his death.

In many ways, Knoxvilleâ’s creative past is impressive to a degree that can surprise. In areas of literature, technological innovation, and several varieties of music, Knoxville arguably has a place on the world map.

Visual art has been a little more elusive. A few competent and even nationally notable artists have lived in town, including Wiley, and both Joseph Delaney and his better-known brother Beauford Delaney, a noted modernist whose work is sought in New York and Paris.

Beauford Delaney, whose career spanned Harlem-Renaissance-era portraits and abstract expressionism, has been the subject of a scholarly biography and is almost certainly the best known artist associated with Knoxville. (The KMA mounted a fascinating survey of Delaneyâ’s rich and varied career about two years ago, but the museum still lacks a single example of his work in its permanent collection.)

Over the generations, what Knoxville lacked, more than talent, were significant and generous art collectors. And until recent years, the city hosted very few art-minded philanthropists.

Combine Knoxvilliansâ’ non-accumulating tendencies with a populace that, at least since the 1920s, has been skeptical of taxation for non-utilitarian purposes, like the public art museums that were beginning to rise in other American cities. Knoxville voters have tended to opt for the thriftiest short-term solutions.

Thus, for almost 200 years, the city existed without a real art museum. And, at 20â"or 46, if we date it all the way back to Dulin daysâ"the Knoxville Museum of Art is still one of the nationâ’s newer art museums. In the world of art museums, youth is rarely an asset. It takes decades, and a measure of good luck, to build a collection.

An illustration of the principle is downtownâ’s venerable Calvin McClung Collection, a branch of the public library devoted to historical research, especially genealogy. The librarians who run it donâ’t prioritize art acquisition and few visit the quiet rooms on the third floor of the history center just to see the paintings. But its collection of papers and artifacts is almost 90 years old; over the years, it has accumulated some important regional art, including quite a few works by Catherine Wiley, several of them on permanent displayâ"a much-larger collection than the KMA possesses. Butler says heâ’d like to work something out with them to show the work on a long-range basis at the KMA.

Some critics regret the KMAâ’s isolation from other cultural organizations, including the historical societies and even the university. At the moment, one of the KMAâ’s galleries happens to have a show of computer depictions of futuristic modern homes by a UT architecture instructor, C.A. Debelius. However, one art professor we spoke to is frustrated that the KMA does not involve the UT art faculty in its programming.

â“Since 1990, there has been continuous lip service paid to the idea of cooperative ventures between KMA and UT Knoxville, particularly with the School of Art and the Ewing Gallery of Art,â” says Fred Moffatt, UT art professor and longtime KMA member. â“For some perhaps complicated reasons, this amalgamation has not occurred. There seems to be a cultural gap between the personnel of the two entities.â”

The natural comparison is always with Chattanoogaâ’s Hunter. â“Once a month or so, the Hunter calls on UT Chattanooga art faculty to exhibit and give talks or show slides,â” he says. UT Chattanooga students are admitted to such events free.

In several other respects, Moffatt adds, â“The KMA, unlike the Hunter, has not been very neighborly.â” He says the Hunter maintains close ties with the public library, and cooperates with bicycle history tours of the city. â“The KMA could easily initiate a sharing program with the East Tennessee Historical Society that would bring added interest to local exhibitions that are oriented to Knoxvilleâ’s craft industry, Civil War history, TVA, Oak Ridge, etc.â” Some cultural leaders say their relationships with the KMA were cozier before previous director Todd Smithâ’s term in office.

To be fair, some of the KMAâ’s apparent isolation was involuntary. One of several reasons the museumâ’s original planners chose the site was that, in 1990, it appeared to be central to an emerging â“arts district.â” The seven â“Victorian Housesâ” along 11th Street were set aside as artistsâ’ studios and galleries soon after the Worldâ’s Fair, and after failing to interest private developers in it, the city opened the Candy Factory for use by arts organizations in the mid-1980s.

The big white building itself was a late-career project of Edward Larrabee Barnes (1915-2004), a noted modernist architect who had studied with seminal modernist Walter Gropius. Barnes was already famous in his own right for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Dallas Museum of Art.

The KMA was originally conceived to include a permanent cafe, library, and bookstore; today it has a nice, but small, gift shop, which includes, among the usual art-museum offerings like jewelry, cards, and artsy knickknacks, and pottery from the shop of 101-year-old ceramics legend Eva Zeisel, whoâ’s probably more famous now than she was during the Bauhaus era that spawned her style. She visited the KMA during a show in 2004.

The cafe and library, which architect Barnes was confident would keep the museum boisterously busy all the time, are rarely mentioned today.

Even after the construction of the new buildingâ"which seems almost to mimic, on its eastern face, the twin-bulwark form of its only next-door neighbor, the birthplace of the KMAâ"the art museum maintained a presence in the Candy Factory, where the KMA maintained classrooms for its educational programs. For the patrons of both, a trip to one often included a trip to the other. But rising demand for downtown residential space prompted the city to unload the Candy Factory. Itâ’s now in the middle of a major renovation for residential condos.

A colorful but fading banner on a light pole across the street from the KMA still proclaims it â“Worldâ’s Fair Park Arts District,â” with a fanciful drawing of the Candy Factory. Today the KMA occupies the district alone, as several other art galleries and even a UT art-museum annex have opened along Gay Street, half a mile to the east, and elsewhere in the old part of downtown. Thereâ’s a KAT trolley for First Fridaysâ’ art nights, to connect people between galleries in the Old City and Market Squareâ"but it doesnâ’t go near the KMA.

Wicks is especially interested in the idea of making intercultural connections. â“One of the main things weâ’re trying to do a better job of is work with the communityâ"understand what opportunities for working with artists groups, cultural organizations, combine forces, combine audiences. A-1, Art Gallery of Knoxville, UT Downtown Galleryâ"First Fridays are so successfulâ"what can we do to make them more successful? Iâ’d like to see a trolley line connect the museum to downtown.â”

â“The KMA seems less a place to see art than a place to have big events,â” says one patron, and thereâ’s a bit of truth in that.

Live After Five, a Friday-evening music event in the museumâ’s Great Hall, commenced in 1993, even before the now almost-legendary Rodin exhibit. Combining live music with tables and a bar, wedding style, itâ’s a seemingly unlikely success. The Great Hall has issues with acoustics and its great white walls seem inherently unacquainted with jazz and blues. The show usually happens when itâ’s broad daylight outside, when the bassist can see students playing pick-up soccer and kids jumping around in the parkâ’s big fountains. But itâ’s typical for the event, in its 15th season, to draw crowds. This past Friday, more than 100 patrons paid up to $8 each to see a show by local singer/songwriter R.B. Morris.

A decade ago, Live After Five was one of the few things going on downtown, but Fridayâ’s standing-room-only show proves it thrives even when itâ’s competing with the popular and diverse art smorgasbord of First Friday.

â“Iâ’m glad we can be a kind of community gathering place. Thatâ’s very much a part of the industry of the American museum in the 21st century,â” says Butler. â“And I canâ’t say I donâ’t prefer the new model.â” Heâ’s proud that the KMA is a popular wedding spot.

It does have its advantages. The KMAâ’s permanent collection and exhibits donâ’t attract much national attention. Earlier this year the exhibit of Candida Hofer photographs did make it into a few small art journals, as well as Chinaâ’s Artist Magazine; the KMA public-relations office hasnâ’t found a translation for it yet. That show was a bit of an exception, but occasionally, under the right circumstances, the KMAâ’s events do get the mainstream press that eludes its exhibits.

Earlier this year, writer Jamie Ehrlich, in the Frommerâ’s travel-guide website description of Knoxville, headed one section â“Dance Alongside Masterpieces at the Museum of Art.â” The short item starts, â“On my last night in town, I headed to the Knoxville Museum of Art. Their Live After Five event provides a perfect combo: fun, live music, and an arty atmosphere....â”

Moffatt and others would like to see Butler challenge the trustees to learn more about art and to take more chances, perhaps inexpensively, with controversial lectures or films. At the moment, one year into his tenure, Butler might seem an unlikely one to rock the boat. He has learned to like the Thorne Rooms, and last Friday at Alive After Five, he was the only one in the crowded room wearing Go Vols orange.

But he does reserve the right to speak out. He compares Knoxville unfavorably to his last home of Wichita, which insists on well-landscaped development, including mandatory tree plantings, even with its Wal-Marts.

â“And itâ’s a conservative Republican town,â” he says. â“To have a city people want to live in, it has to look good.â”

â“Weâ’re very behind our peer cities in design standards, and commissioning public art,â” he says. â“We donâ’t compare to similar-sized cities in the Southeast.

â“But I think itâ’s gonna happen,â” he says, referring to a city initiative to establish design and beautification standards.

If the AAMâ’s chief criterion is that a museum serves the community, the KMA does seem to do the job, often admirably. Many who are rooting for it wish it could be moreâ"perhaps something along the lines of what we heard about in 1987.

On the north side of the Knoxville Museum of Art was a large and particularly gorgeous elm tree that had been central to a popular amphitheater for childrenâ’s plays and improv during the Worldâ’s Fair. Cited as another reason for siting the museum hereâ"building architect Edward Larrabee Barnes was said to be particularly enamored of itâ"the elm tree dominated newspaper photographs of the groundbreaking ceremonies. It was to preside over a sculpture garden integral to the museum. Even back in 1987, before construction began, organizers were talking confidently about a north-side garden.

The south side, between the KMA and the Candy Factory, did indeed develop into a pleasant, secluded garden with a careful variety of trees and a few abstract sculptures. Its intended twin on the north side somehow never happened.

Perhaps compromised by the art-museum development around it, by the mid-1990s, the elm tree had weakened, and was finally cut down. Museum supporters explain there was a lack of consensus among board members and directors about how best to develop that spot. It remains a large, plain patch of grass by a parking lot, scorched by the heat and drought.

Over the years, directors have considered an expansion of the museum onto part of the north-side site. Some supporters have remained devoted to the original idea of making it a sculpture garden. It was apparently a lack of consensus that prevented actual work on any idea at all. As of a resolution arrived at late this summer, the KMA is officially looking for a landscape architect to do the one project while still considering the other.

â“A lot of people are very vested in that,â” says new KMA board chair Susan Hyde, â“to create something we can add to and grow over the years.â” Working on the museumâ’s long-deferred north-side gardens is one of her stated priorities.

â“Itâ’s a large project, but we donâ’t want to do anything that would have to be undone,â” she says. Itâ’s part of a five-year strategic plan. Within the next three to five years, thereâ’s the possibility of an expansion.â”

â“Weâ’re fantasizing about that,â” says Butler, separately. â“The expansion might happen in our lifetime, it might not. For now, itâ’s possible and do-able to make it a landscaped, graded, terraced space.â” The East Tennessee Community Design Center is already working with the KMA on that project.

â“It would be fairly easy, and fairly inexpensive,â” he says. â“It would make a large impact on downtown, and on our image.â” (J.N)


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