Speed Museum Director Stephen Reily reflects on his milestones and the future of the museum
By Sarah Levitch
Photos by Kathryn Harrington
The end of one chapter opens the beginning of another. When Stephen Reily stepped in as interim director of The Speed Art Museum in April 2017, he began with an end in sight. He always knew that this role wouldn’t be forever, though his original plan of staying 18 months extended far beyond his initial expectations now that he’s reaching the four-year mark. The Speed’s blend of rich history dating back to 1927 and the fresh, contemporary renovation provided him a unique opportunity. Reily said, “At heart, I’m an entrepreneur, and I felt there was an exciting chance to tackle the Speed as a start-up and help figure out what this new, ambitious role was that it wanted to play. The building wasn’t the strategy, the building was a tool to use to fulfill a strategy.”
Centering around the three parts of the new mission statement that Reily, his colleagues and the board created, Reily said, “At the Speed Art Museum, we invite everyone to celebrate art, forever.” Reily continued by identifying milestones that he aspired to accomplish during his time at the Speed. “If I felt I had accomplished them, or come close, then I would know that the reason I was here was coming to an end,” Reily noted. Now, as Reily intends to depart from his role as director on March 31, 2021, confident in the passionate team he leaves behind, we spoke with him to reflect on these milestones and what the future entails for the next director, the Speed Museum team and the museum itself.
Reily’s first milestone was to make the Speed accessible to everyone, which involved creating programs such as Owsley Free Sundays, the Speed for All membership and free family membership for whom cost is a barrier to entry. “Inviting everyone meant continuing to make the Speed a place where everyone feels at home. We’ve made school tours, and now virtual school tours, for all Title I schools completely free, as well as free transportation,” said Reily. Abby Shue, deputy director for external relations and advancement, commented, “Stephen is someone who thinks constantly about how he can use his own privilege to make greater accessibility for everyone around him. Every decision that he makes as a leader is thinking about how he can move the Speed to a stronger place than he found it.”
His second milestone was to celebrate art by both acquiring and exhibiting it through a diversity of artists that reflects the whole state and brings people together. “I learned early on, to my surprise, that people were really open to the Speed using art to address some of our complicated topics,” said Reily. “It made the Speed pretty fearless in saying, as long as we ground it in art, which is creative and open-ended, people want to have these conversations.”
Reminiscing of an early encounter, Reily shared, “When I met with a group of security guards, I learned that not only were they great security guards, but most of them were practicing artists on the side. It’s something people don’t think about, that they wanted to be around art all the time in a museum more than anywhere else. That was inspiring to me, and I see what the people at the Speed bring to the community and to our mission, but also to each other.”
Third, forever “means sustainability both financially and in our teams. I built an advancement department that has grown our contributed revenue by 50%. We actually just completed our most successful fundraising year in history. Also, the teams don’t need me there to be successful. I’m proud of the leadership team I built, and the teams they built,” said Reily. “I’m especially proud of my seven-member leadership team, which includes Speed veterans like Kim Spence and Steven Bowling and rising leaders like Shannon Karol and Emma Pridham. Two members of that team oversee multiple departments and teams themselves and have recently gained new titles. Abby Shue, previously chief advancement and programming officer, is now our deputy director for external relations and advancement and Toni Carver Smith, formerly COO/CFO, is now our deputy director for operations and finance.” Toni Smith added, “he [Reily] cares about the growth of all his staff, not just what’s happening in work, but also outside of work. As a leader, there are times when he listens to the team’s voices and understands that they’re greater.”
Longevity also demands transparency and honesty. Issuing a racial equity report in August revealed to the public how far they’ve come, as well as quantifying their commitments for the future. “We’re not congratulating ourselves because there is still so much more to do,” Reily urged. “How do we continue helping and healing this broken world, Louisville in particular being one of the epicenters of national conversation? How do we play the right role in that? That’s an ongoing challenge, and we’ll never get it all right.”
Preparing for a new chapter, the Speed team begins a national search for the next director, with a focus on diversity to reflect the community in new ways. Ideally, they’re looking for someone who is passionate about art, is organizationally equipped to lead a large institution and can strategically think of new ways to build upon the strong foundation of programs and teams constructed by Reily.
Allowing the wind to carry him to wherever he is meant to land next, Reily knows one thing for sure, he said, “I want this to be a community where we feel more connected to each other, where we’re not scared to tackle hard issues and where we’re confident we can grow stronger. I want this to be a community where everyone feels at home, together.”
Speed Art Museum
2035 South Third St.
Louisville, KY 40208