David Butler and his husband, Ted Smith, were honored recently at the 25th annual James L. Clayton Award Luncheon at the Knoxville Museum of Art. The Clayton Award is presented annually to the individual, family or institution whose support of the museum is uncommonly generous and sustained.
Butler has been the KMA’s executive director for the past 17 years. Smith, a retired IBM executive, has been his unwavering supporter in that demanding endeavor.
Liza Zenni, executive director of the Arts & Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville, heaped praise upon Butler during her poignant remarks at the luncheon. “He helped us conquer our innate inferiority complex,” she said, referring to the town once labeled by a Wall Street Journal reporter as “a scruffy little city on the Tennessee River.”
The outspoken Zenni accurately said she herself often is described as “a pugilist.” She said people tell her that if they ever were in a war, they’d want her on their side! “Well, if I’m ever in a war, I want David on my side!” she exclaimed.
Taylor Wortham, the chair of the museum’s board of trustees, said the KMA “is stronger and better off than it’s ever been” thanks to Butler’s leadership.
Butler began his role as KMA executive director in 2006. Under his leadership, the museum has sharpened its focus, raised its profile and increased its engagement with the entire East Tennessee region.
The permanent exhibition Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee opened in 2008 to tell the story of the visual arts in East Tennessee. At the same time, the KMA instituted its policy of free admission. Higher Ground was soon joined by the permanent exhibition Currents: Recent Art from East Tennessee and Beyond to bring the story up to the present and introduce a more global perspective.
The 2014 unveiling of Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity by acclaimed Knoxville glass artist Richard Jolley, affirmed the KMA’s focus on artists with ties to the region. In preparation for the installation of Cycle of Life, the world’s largest figural glass assemblage, the KMA underwent a comprehensive renovation at a cost of nearly $6 million, supported by a successful community capital campaign.
Most recently, Butler has been instrumental in the ambitious effort to build the museum’s collection of paintings by Knoxville native Beauford Delaney. The KMA now holds more works by this great 20th century painter than any other public institution.
A national search has been underway to find Butler’s successor as executive director and an announcement is scheduled to be made in December. Zenni said Butler and Smith plan to remain in Knoxville and to be active in the community’s civic and cultural life.
In his remarks, Butler thanked his staff, the museum’s board members and the community for its support. Smith, who famously likes to stay in the background as his extroverted husband takes the spotlight, did agree to make a few remarks. “For those of you who have been waiting 17 years for me to say something in public, here it is: Thank you very much!”
The room burst into applause and laughter.