New Director Raphaela Platow leads the Speed Art Museum into a colorful future
By Laura Ross
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
Hattie Bishop Speed founded the Speed Art Museum in 1925 as a memorial to her husband, philanthropist James Breckinridge Speed, with the belief in the power of art to change people’s lives. On January 15, 1927, the Speed Art Museum opened its doors to a throng of visitors eager to see more than 100 pieces of art by American and European painters. Nearly 100 years later, and through many evolutions, the Speed Art Museum will once again be led by a woman. Raphaela Platow will assume leadership of the Speed Art Museum at the end of August. She arrives in Louisville from Cincinnati, OH, where she served since 2007 as the Alice & Harris Weston Director of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC).
“I feel lucky to be a part of this amazing group of people,” Raphaela Platow said recently, as she wrapped up her work in Cincinnati and prepared for the move to Louisville. “There’s so much potential. What are we going to tackle first? I’m anxious to create an impact and take the Speed into the next decade.”
During her 14 years at CAC, Platow increased annual attendance fourfold and improved the Center’s visitor experience by transforming the building into a cultural hub. She oversaw the renovation of the Zaha Hadid-designed building’s lobby in 2015 and implemented free admission for all in 2016. She also spearheaded a multi-year process bringing together diverse stakeholders to re-envision the CAC’s 10,000 square-foot interactive learning space. Along with growing the CAC’s operating budget and private support, she reshaped and expanded learning, outreach and community engagement programs to better serve the community.
Comfortable in her leadership, Platow did not have the opportunity to lead the Speed on her radar. She had visited the Speed many times over the years and collaborated with its past directors and had a fondness for Louisville. When the search firm tasked with finding the Speed’s new director called to discuss what she felt were leadership qualities for the next director, she didn’t anticipate throwing her hat into the ring.
“I had to take a deep breath,” she recalled. “Then I started thinking about it and it just made sense. I’m a big believer in regional connections. The new director, in my opinion, should be familiar with the community, and I am very knowledgeable about the arts community in this region.”
Being the first female director since Hattie Bishop Speed is a welcome personal challenge to Platow, but her focus is on raising opportunities for all, and increasing diversity, equity and inclusion across the board.
“I am the best person for this job, and honestly, gender doesn’t really play a role,” she explained. “We are living through a seismic change in all industries. I want to lift others up and improve equity and inclusion at the Speed. I’m thrilled to be the first woman since Hattie Bishop Speed, and even if it’s taken 100 years, I’m just the right person for the next step of the Museum’s journey.”
Her vast museum experience was key in her selection. “In addition to her nearly two decades of museum leadership, it’s clear from her accomplishments in Cincinnati that Raphaela is uniquely equipped with the experience, skills and vision to lead the Speed Art Museum into the future, ensuring that it remains a dynamic, welcoming destination for diverse visitors of all walks of life,” said Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Speed Art Museum Roger Cude.
Art in all forms is Platow’s passion. Prior to joining the CAC, Platow served as chief curator and acting director at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, where she secured critical acquisitions, more closely integrated the Museum with the University and helped lead a major renovation of the original building. She has also served as International Curator at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, NC; was part of the team that presented Rosemarie Trockel at the German Pavilion at the 1999 Venice Biennale; and has held positions at the Kunstforum München and Projektraum Berlin.
A noted art historian and curator, Platow has written extensively about contemporary art, and has lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Cincinnati, Tufts University, Boston University and Boston Institute for the Arts.
A native of Germany, where she still spends time each year visiting family, Platow earned her M.A. in Art History and Business Administration from Humboldt University in Berlin, and her B.A. in Art History and Economics from Albert-Ludwig University in Freiburg. She holds certificates in French Civilization, Art History and Philosophy from the University of Sorbonne in Paris. She is married and has two small children.
Platow succeeds Stephen Reily who joined the Speed in 2017 as director. Under his leadership, Reily grew the Speed’s relationship with the community, introduced Speed for All, which provides free memberships to those for whom cost is a barrier of access, and visualized After Hours at the Speed, a monthly evening event featuring a wide variety of programming designed to bring new visitors to the Museum.
Platow is eager to continue the Speed’s efforts to showcase priceless art and foster active communication with newer audiences. She looks forward to the Speed producing meaningful exhibitions and community conversations similar to its notable summer 2021 exhibition of “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” which reflected on the life of Breonna Taylor, her killing in 2020 and the year of protests that followed.
“Museums foster communication across all parts of the community,” Platow said, and added, “It starts with relationship building and a dialogue. We must collaborate, invite each other to participate and bring value into moving all of Louisville forward into an interesting future.”
For Platow, that means honoring the past and listening to what’s crucial for the future. Honoring the Speed’s long history is “a multigenerational effort” she said. “It’s a reverence and homage to historical collections and building them in inclusive ways. I also have a commitment to bring living artists to the Speed, and will work with contemporary art.”
The pandemic turned the world upside down in many ways, but one positive, Platow said, came from a forced initiative to pivot thinking, expand audience offerings and embrace the digital world. “I feel like most arts organizations had a shared experience in the pandemic,” she said. “We had to pivot extremely quickly and shut our institutions down. We had to make heartbreaking adjustments, and we didn’t know when or how we would reopen. Our focus was on the safety of our staff and our supporters. We all shifted to the digital world to make things happen.”
Platow paused and took in the enormity of the change. “It was an incredibly steep learning curve,” she explained, “But we had the incredible insight that we were engaging audiences successfully in ways we never had before. That was an exciting moment for all institutions and a positive experience in growth out of the pandemic.”
She’s eager to take that knowledge and grow upon a new future full of possibility. “I’m so thrilled with the Speed’s potential,” she said. “There are so many facets, from how to build the collection, support artists, extend arts education in Louisville and into the state, and just how to be an institution that is really smart about its collection and contemporary art.”
“I feel rooted here,” Platow added. “I love Louisville and its spirit, hospitality and creativity. There are amazing arts organizations here. I’ve thought a lot about my next step, and this seems like the right move for me and my family.”
And she’s thought of Hattie Bishop Speed as well. “I’m tickled with the thought that, if all goes well, I will get to oversee the Speed Museum’s centennial. I hope I make Hattie proud,” she laughed. “Strong, visionary women are always in the back of my head. I hope I continue Hattie’s imaginative work in my own way. It’s nearly 100 years later, but I think she’d appreciate seeing that the Speed is thriving, growing and serving its community in so many meaningful ways. If I can add a building block to that, I will. And hopefully, that block will be a really beautiful, colorful one.”
Speed Art Museum
2035 South Third St.
Louisville, KY 40208