A 30 Hour Homecoming

30HourSpeed031216TV20On Saturday and Sunday, March 12 and 13, the Speed Art Museum re-opened and hosted a non-stop 30-hour celebration. Thousands of excited visitors made their way through the different exhibits and attended a wide array of events scheduled over the course of the two days, including music, art talks, demonstrations, live performances, film showings and more.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony took place at the Piazza at 10 a.m. on Saturday followed by a performance by the University of Louisville Steel Drum Band. The vast and diverse crowd showcased the city’s excitement for the return of Kentucky’s oldest and largest art museum in what was a historic moment for Louisville.

The Speed Art Museum originally closed its doors in 2012 to begin the $60 million renovation and expansion. Shortly after, they welcomed Ghislain d’Humières as the new CEO, who had previously served as director and chief curator of the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Art Museum. As a temporary way to display some of their collection, the Speed opened a satellite gallery, Local Speed, in NuLu during the renovation.

Of the many events I attended at the re-opening, the first was a performance by pianist, composer and arranger Rachel Grimes onstage in the Grand Hall. The crowd’s silence as she played was intensified by the ambient noise coming from the rest of the museum, but her music, accompanied by saxophone, easily filled the room and drew the attention of many passing by.

30HourSpeed031216TV24Exploring the museum was easier than I expected, even with my complete lack of directional skill. The layout of the Speed is fluid, and the maps provided at the door are easy to read. This was helpful when looking at the packed schedule and trying to quickly get from one place to another, having to navigate my way through the crowded galleries.

The first gallery talk I participated in was a tour of the Kentucky Gallery by Scott Erbes, chief curator and curator of decorative arts and designs. As a group, we were lead through a decorative door surround and into the gallery. Erbes’ knowledge of the art was evident as he gave detailed information on pieces from paintings to stoneware to wooden furniture. One of the most memorable pieces from this exhibit was a poster for The Southern Exposition in Louisville from around 1884. The poster advertised the industrial and mercantile show held near what is now the St. James-Belgravia Historic District.

“As Kentucky’s oldest and largest art museum, the Speed has a responsibility to preserve, study and share the state’s artistic heritage,” said Erbes. “For the first time, we have a gallery in which to show the sweep of this heritage, from the late 1700s through the 1940s. Visitors to the new Kentucky Gallery will see works ranging from portraits of notable figures like Henry Clay to inlaid furniture and whiskey flasks in the shape of pigs – all unique expressions of Kentucky and the Commonwealth’s artists and artisans.”

Art Sparks.At 12:45 p.m., I made my way back into the Grand Hall to see a performance by two singers from the Kentucky Opera. It was fascinating to see these performers up close, and the acoustics in the room worked surprisingly well for the operatic singing. They sang in front of a backdrop of swirling colors and brought wondrous life and energy to the stage, mesmerizing the crowd.

Following that performance, I quickly made my way to my next gallery talk with Erika Holmquist-Wall, senior curator of American and European painting and sculpture. She highlighted the Speed’s amazing 17th-century Dutch and Flemish collection. She talked about the importance of the collection and how it gives us an idea of what life was like at the time. Holmquist-Wall’s talk only further re-emphasized an emerging trend at the Speed – its vast collection and knowledgeable curators together make art accessible to everyone. It becomes a sort of time capsule that we can look through and gain whole new perspectives of past cultures.

I was able to speak with Holmqusit-Wall later, and she told me about her passion for the work: “My favorite part about working for the museum is the fact that we get to care for and interpret an amazing collection of artworks. I am cognizant of the fact that these works have already been well preserved for hundreds of years, and we are their stewards for only a short amount of time. And not only do I get to help care for these objects, but I get to talk about them with other people who are just as excited and curious about art. I am very, very lucky,” she exudes.

30HourSpeed031216TV28Back in the Grand Hall at 1:30 p.m. was a performance by the group Roots and Wings presented by The Kentucky Center. Their act included multiple powerful poetry recitations, music and dance. I’m always happy to see people get so invested in spoken word, and the performers certainly had the crowd’s full attention.

An hour later in the Cinema Courtyard was a performance by Louisville’s own Troubadours of Divine Bliss, an accordion and guitar duo. Given the unpredictability of the Louisville weather at this time of year, we were lucky to have a warm, sunny day, and there was even a bit of humidity that felt appropriate as the pair sang a song about New Orleans, where they were street performers for three years.

At one point in their set, they sang a unique version of “My Old Kentucky Home,” and with Derby season approaching, it felt delightfully anticipatory. They ended with a heartfelt, “May the horse be with you.”

An hour later, a group called Lunares Flamenco put on a show in the Atrium. I was near the back of the crowd, and it was striking to see the silhouetted Flamenco dancer in front of the massive glass wall overlooking the rows of trees on Third Street. The art against the Speed’s magnificent architecture seemed cumulative in a way – as if this was exactly what the intention was. To open the space and make art almost pour through the walls and out into the community.

30HourSpeed031216TV21Over the course of the 30-hour celebration, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Drepung Gomang Center For Engaging Compassion crafted a world peace sand mandala in the Special Exhibition South. This was one of my favorite things to watch, and I enjoyed seeing the progress they had made each time I stopped back in. There was always an excited crowd of spectators around the monks as they worked.

As badly as I wanted to, I wasn’t able to see every event, but I was fortunate enough to talk to many visitors who got to see some of things I didn’t. The differing responses I got when I asked people what their favorite performance or event was truly spoke to the fact that there was something there for everyone to enjoy.

“It was a pleasure to see a Louisville Ballet performance through the new and novel lens of the Speed Art Museum,” said visitor Lelia Rechtin. “The accompanying Louisville Orchestra quartet was resonant, and the dancers were almost otherworldly as seen from a bird’s eye view in the Atrium.”

For Susan Lewellyn, it was the film, “Decasia.” “It was a collection of broken down or burnt film, and it was absolutely incredible. They have both 35mm and 16mm film projectors, which is something Louisville really needs. Even better is that they got kids involved, drawing on 16mm film to create a short film they are going to digitalize and put on the website.”

On Sunday, Shadia Heenan lead a yoga class in the Atrium with music by cellist Ben Sollee. “It was definitely a new sight to come in and see a bunch of yogis spread out where I once analyzed Impressionism,” said visitor Sarah Pigott. “Ben Sollee provided a sweet soundtrack to the morning, and I wouldn’t have spent it any other way.”

Some of the other events included storytelling from Carmichael’s Bookstore, a two person performance from Kentucky Shakespeare, theatre and playwriting games from Actors Theatre, a joint performance from the Louisville Orchestra and the Louisville Ballet, a pajama dance party hosted by the Louisville Free Public Library, a blessing by the Center for Interfaith Relations, a historical reenactment by Locust Grove, a performance by the Louisville Leopard Percussionists and much more.

Both new and seasoned visitors were excited about the renovations and additions. “The new Speed is fantastic,” said visitor Tommy Skaggs. “I feel like it will catapult Louisville into a destination for art enthusiasts across the state and even beyond. It’s great that Louisville has such an amazing cultural attraction.”

With humble beginnings in 1925, the Speed has come a long way, and last weekend’s non-stop party was a phenomenal way to kick off a new chapter for the museum. It was an engaging cultural extravaganza that celebrated art in myriad forms, and as I walked through the galleries, surrounded by the love and enthusiasm for art, I realized how important a place like the Speed is for our cultural identity as a city. VT

By NICHOLAS SIEGEL, Contributing Writer