Supporters of the Knoxville Museum of Art gathered last week to celebrate the re-opening of the museum’s signature “Higher Ground” exhibition which showcases art and artists with connections to East Tennessee.
But they also were delighted with an unexpected announcement. Ann and Steve Bailey, after whom the museum’s Great Hall already is named because of their past support, have pledged $3 million to endow the David L. Butler Executive Director position. That’s in honor of David Butler who is retiring from the post at the end of this year after holding it since 2006. What a wonderful night!
The “Higher Ground” exhibit is important because it demonstrates the evolution of the mission of the Knoxville Museum of Art, which was opened in its current location at World’s Fair Park in 1990. When the beautiful $11 million Tennessee marble-clad Clayton Building — designed by renowned architect Edward Larrabee Barnes — opened its doors, the KMA didn’t own a great deal of art. Instead, it made a name for itself by bringing in huge traveling shows by artists like Rodin, Warhol, and Chihuly.
But, under the direction of Butler and the museum’s first and current curator Stephen Wicks (who left in 2003 and returned in 2007), the KMA has found a voice for itself — and for Knoxville and East Tennessee. It currently holds 200 works with connections to our region. Seventy of those are on display in the new “Higher Ground” exhibit now located in its new home in two large galleries on both sides of the museum’s first floor entryway.
“Higher Ground” is divided into five sections. “Grand Ambitions: Forging an Arts Community” addresses the early formative period of Knoxville art and artists. It features works by Catherine Wiley, Lloyd Branson, and Hugh Tyler.
The second, “Shaping a Regional Identity: Mountain Vistas and Urban Life” moves into the 20th century with majestic images of the Smoky Mountains and, in contrast, a look at the reality of sometimes gritty urban life. Artists including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Danny Lyon are featured here, along with photographers Lewis Wickes Hine and Charles E. Krutch.
“Beauford and Joseph Delaney: Expatriate Masters” is the exhibit’s centerpiece featuring a growing body of work by the two talented brothers who left their Knoxville home and took up residence and gained fame in New York and Paris. Beauford Delaney is increasingly referred to as “the most important artist East Tennessee ever produced” and the collection of his works allows glimpses into the various stages of his career.
“The Knoxville 7” showcases a group of progressive artists who cultivated modernism in East Tennessee during the 1950s and 1960s.
Finally, “Bessie Harvey” is dedicated to the self-taught Alcoa folk artist who achieved national acclaim for her religion-inspired works later in her life near the end of the 20th century.
It was a delight to see this important collection last week and to celebrate the generous contribution of the Baileys. You should check out “Higher Ground” when you can. And remember, admission to the Knoxville Museum of Art is always free.