Speeding Into The Future

While the venerable institution will have a physical makeover, the real change will come in the change in attitude that the museum – under the guidance of director Ghislain d’Humieres and his team – will have in relation to the notion of the gallery as a community hub.

“A museum, in my mind, in terms of the structure of the city, is a place for the whole community,” explains d’Humieres. “It’s a place where you welcome the community, and where they can experience and enjoy the arts. And every part of the community, including the underserved part of the community, will feel welcome and have a good time.”

And for d’Humieres and his colleagues, the way to truly do this is to instill a 21st century mentality, moving away from an antiquated view of the gallery as a place where art is simply revered and put on an elite pedestal.

Illustration by ANDREW SPALDING.

Illustration by ANDREW SPALDING.

“Many museums around the world are still very much stuck in the 19th and 20th century idea of a museum as a temple of the arts,” adds d’Humieres. “But we want to create something new because the museum is an open window onto the rest of the world for the whole community.”

One way in which the Speed Art Museum has tried to embrace the idea of bringing art into the community is through their work with the West End School. The goal has been to introduce one of the most immediate artistic mediums – photography – to students, perhaps who have had less experience in using it as an art form. Providing Holga cameras with film, and developing photos with the students, has been one of the ways in which the museum has sought to branch outside of its current Market Street location.

“The goal was for the learning and community outreach department to go to the school and  really work with the kids and teach them how they can express themselves with photography,” explains d’Humieres.

“It was a great program that allowed us to spend lots of time there,” adds Anne Taylor, Director of Learning & Community Outreach. “I think having multi-visit trips or stays in schools is a real benefit. We went there for three hours a day, two days a week, for 5 weeks, so we got to know the boys really well, and built their trust, which was a big part of the project. We got them thinking about composition, expression, and different techniques, allowing them to bring in their own voices and ideas and because we used film, the kids only had 12 shots. So part of the process was getting them to be really selective about what they wanted to take photos of.”

But while that photography has hopefully inspired some children, it will also benefit the school. The best photographs taken by the children will be offered in a silent auction at the annual Speed Ball, with proceeds going directly to the West End School.

Ghislain d’Humieres, Director. Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune.

Ghislain d’Humieres, Director. Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune.

“This is the first time that we’ve supported another organization at the Speed Ball,” adds d’Humieres. “But it was a way of reinforcing the idea that we want to reach out to the community, and make a difference.”

Aside from their work with the West End School, the community outreach, headed up by Taylor, also went to other schools to test out the Speed’s initial pilot program – The Art Detectives. The goal was to encourage children to think like museum curators, and consider how pieces of art are appraised, by analyzing them, asking questions and physically interacting with them. This was done by bringing pieces of art directly to the schools. The program was a resounding success.

“The pilot project reached 2,500 kids,” says d’Humieres. “But next year we will be reaching 5,000-6,000 school children, and so far it has been free for all Title I schools.”

But while the gallery has seen success by going out into the community, the ultimate goal is to get Louisvillians to come to the Speed Art Museum when it reopens next year, after its multi-million dollar renovation project. And with the renovation will come a new way to experience art and allow the community to start a dialogue about the collection. This is something that’s been in the thoughts of the team at the Speed Museum, and none more so than for Scott Erbes, the Speed Art Museum’s Chief Curator.

Anne Taylor, Director of Learning & Community Outreach. Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune.

Anne Taylor, Director of Learning & Community Outreach. Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune.

“For me one of the things that art museums are good at addressing is visitors’ concerns and ideas, ‘We don’t understand how to look at these pieces.’ And this is particularly true of abstract art because people find that challenging.”

The first way to address those concerns has been to think carefully about how the gallery will be ordered and how that affects the visitor’s experience. Gallery One, the first building that’s part of the old 1927 building that visitors walk through will be a cross section of the entire collection, but with a knowing nod to the gallery’s founders.

“What the other curators here have done is tried to think about how we can introduce visitors to the collection in a new way,” continues Erbes. “We want Gallery One to be a tribute to Mrs. Speed, and to acknowledge her, and how none of this would be possible without her, so it will have  pieces from her collection. But then there will also be an overview of the whole collection in that one space.”

However, it’s in Gallery Two that the real change will occur under Erbes’ auspices, with the space being divided into quarters dedicated to technique, function, context and response, and allowing gallery goers the choice of what they want to see, and experience, and to better equip them to do that.

“We’re giving people the permission to hate things,” explains Erbes. “It’s okay to hate something because what’s important is the engagement itself. So in the “response” section we will have post World War II – 1970 abstract art. This will allow us to talk about composition and form, and begin to get people thinking.”

TVT_7426“We have to strip down what we, in our world, call ‘curatorial authority,’” continues Erbes. “Which means often we [the curators] are the ones who are telling you what pieces of art mean, and what to look at, and we need to move beyond that. The goal is just getting people thinking about the art, whether they like it, hate it or are even ambivalent about it, because what people bring to that discussion is just as important, if not more so, than what I have to say about it.”

And it’s this continuing and evolving dialogue that continues to be central to the goals of the Speed. What’s important is the chance for a community to come together, regardless of social or economic background and enjoy the art on offer in Louisville, whether it focuses on the city, the nation or acts as an eye on the rest of the world.

Lisa Resnik, Deputy Director. Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune.

Lisa Resnik, Deputy Director of Advancement & Operations. Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune.

One thing that the team at the Speed noticed was how different generations wanted to start that dialogue. While one would think that the young would embrace technology while older generations would stick to more traditional ways of engaging with the artworks, in fact, focus groups showed that it’s very much the other way around, with young people looking to switch off from their persistent connection to the world via smart phones and the internet in preference for absorbing the gallery naturally, with older people desiring an electronic connection to the museum experience.    

“What is an experience?” asks d’Humieres. “It’s a dialogue with someone you know, or don’t know, or someone from different generations. And if the museum is the only neutral, non political and non religious place where people can have this sort of dialogue without any risk and are able to talk and challenge, where else can you do that in a community structure?”

“I challenge you to get me one person who can come to a place like the Speed and not react to a single piece,” concludes d’Humieres. “Whether they like it or not that’s a reaction, and therefore a discussion.”

And it seems whatever that conversation is, it will be a modern one – a dialogue firmly rooted in the 21st century. VT