Stephen Reily revels in the Speed Art Museum’s era of growth and advancement
By Laura Ross
When the Speed Art Museum, Kentucky’s largest independent museum, reopened in 2016 following a three-year, $60-million renovation and expansion, it doubled the museum’s overall square footage and nearly tripled its gallery space.
Louisville sat up and took notice.
No longer a somewhat sleepy museum housed on the fringes of the University of Louisville’s Belknap Campus, the new Speed Art Museum, with its architecturally stunning new North Building addition, event spaces, interactive exhibits and the outstanding Speed Cinema addition brought thousands through the museum doors during the reopening year. Unique community-focused programs, educational collaborations and outreach events, including the Brown-Forman sponsored Free Owsley Sundays, introduced the Speed to audiences who’d never stepped foot into the marble-floored institution.
For more than 90 years, the Speed Art Museum has focused on the mission of its founder, Hattie Bishop Speed, who built the Speed with a belief in the power of art to change people’s lives. Today, museum director and community philanthropist Stephen Reily, who took the reins of the museum in 2017, presides over a cultural gem of Louisville that is much more than “just” an art museum.
“We are just starting to understand how to bring our exhibits to life through events and activities,” said Reily. “I’m excited that we are hiring people and launching internal teams to expand our partnerships and use our existing successes to make our art ever more relevant to the people we serve.”
Reily, a successful entrepreneur, civic leader and lawyer, wears many hats in his varied career, but his tenure as the Speed Art Museum’s leader is arguably one of his favorite enterprises.
A longtime supporter of the Speed, he served on its board for 10 years, including several years as chair of both the museum’s Long-Range Planning Committee and its Curatorial Committee. He joined as director at the height of the Speed’s renaissance.
Since reopening in 2016, the Speed has enjoyed many successes, including groundbreaking exhibitions like “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” the blockbuster “Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism” and “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art.” For 2019, the Speed Art Museum is showcasing what it knows best: Kentucky.
“We have launched an exciting 18 months of Kentucky-themed exhibits, reflecting the beautiful history and diversity of this state back onto itself,” said Reily. It started with Louisville-born Keltie Ferris and continues with “Making Time,” an exhibit devoted to early Kentucky history and the way “tall case” clocks used technology and craftsmanship to serve a growing middle class in the early 19th century.
“It will continue with ‘Gonzo!,’ an exhibit devoted to the illustrators who worked with Hunter S. Thompson; a retrospective of the work of Jamaican-born artist Ebony G. Patterson, who spent the last decade teaching at UK; and will conclude with ‘Tales of the Turf,’ the Speed’s first-ever exhibit devoted to equine art,” added Reily.
FULL SPEED AHEAD
Building on its current mission of growing community “where art from around the world invites and inspires diverse audiences to experience the power of creativity,” the Speed is focusing on using all elements – art, architecture, programming, outreach and community – to be a hub of creativity for all of Kentucky. In addition to the art, the Speed has developed a heavy focus on community, launching and nurturing special efforts to engage visitors of every demographic, through offerings like the wildly successful Free Owsley Sundays sponsored by Brown-Forman, which provides free Sunday admission to all, to the popular After Hours at the Speed social events held once a month.
Following the successes of the past three years, the Speed is continuing to build on its accomplishments, which have included growing memberships, international media coverage and large, sometimes at-capacity crowds.
“The ‘new’ Speed will celebrate its third anniversary in March, and we are finding that time does more to generate excitement than the reopening did itself,” said Reily. “Our successes teach us how to grow even more. Free Owsley Sundays have taught us about the hunger to enjoy our amazing spaces and art. We have used that success to offer ‘Speed for All,’ a free family membership for anyone on any form of government assistance, offering the opportunity to enjoy the Speed to families across our community whenever they want to come.
“And, the success of After Hours has taught us that many people want to enjoy the Speed at non-traditional hours,” he added. “As a result, the Speed is now open every Friday night until 8 p.m. beginning in February.”
ART FOR ALL
2018 was a year of growth and learning at the Speed. The Museum welcomed more than 150,000 visitors in 2018, a 26 percent increase over 2017, and its membership base is at an all-time high. The Speed made adjustments as well, including reinventing its retail store from an operation that was losing money to one that is now generating profit for the museum.
Another success in 2018 included the launch of a five-year partnership with the Eskenazi Museum at Indiana University Bloomington, which has closed for extensive renovations. The first exhibition in the partnership, “Picasso to Pollock: Modern Masterworks” from the Eskenazi was a major hit for the Speed.
“This partnership is remarkable for several reasons,” Reily noted. “One is the opportunity to share real masterpieces from one of the country’s great museum collections with a broader audience in Louisville and our region. It is also far longer than most three-month loan agreements and gives us five years to organize many exhibitions from the Eskenazi while it is closed.
“I’m equally wowed by the impact of sharing individual works from their incredible collection,” he continued. “We moved audiences with a cabinet exhibit built around the Eskenazi’s masterpiece by Norman Rockwell, ‘Breaking Home Ties,’ and individual works from Bloomington continue to enhance and create new conversations around some of our own masterpieces.”
A key piece of the Speed Art Museum’s strategy is to focus on the theme of “invite everyone.”
“That spirit has led to many new programs this year at the Speed,” said Reily. “We’ve launched a broad Community Connections program to celebrate important partnerships across the community, exhibiting art created with our friends from Family Scholar House, the Backside Learning Center and the Americana Community Centers. We launched the Speed for All program, and we’ve made tours free for all Title I schools in which a majority of children are living below the poverty line. And we’re hosting 120 students from Cane Run and Whitney Young Elementary Schools four days a week in partnership with our friends from Global Game Changers.”
THE BIG DANCE
Every day, it’s a constant whirl of activity for the Speed and its dedicated staff. The height of the event season, though, remains the coveted Speed Art Museum Ball. For decades, the Speed Ball has been the most anticipated and sought-after social ticket in the city. More importantly, the funds raised from the gala help fund exhibitions and programs at the Speed all year long.
“This is a party only the Speed can throw,” said Evan McMahon, chief of staff to Stephen Reily. “The Speed Art Museum Ball is one of the oldest and most celebrated fundraisers in Louisville, benefitting the museum’s mission, outreach and exhibitions. Featuring an elegant dinner in the historic 1927 galleries, this black-or-white tie evening is the social event of the season.”
The Speed Art Museum Ball will be held, as always, on the first Saturday in March at the museum. Highlighted by a seated dinner by Wiltshire at the Speed in the museum galleries and cocktails by Brown-Forman, the evening includes music and dancing to Louisville’s noted Love Jones band, which recently enjoyed an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” in January. Dancing into the late night will continue with music from Second Wind, a high-energy dance band from Cincinnati.
While the ball doesn’t have a specific design or theme this year, the galleries themselves are key to the elegance of the evening, said McMahon. “The Speed Ball offers the rare opportunity to dine surrounded by paintings, sculptures and columns of marble with floral centerpieces and table linens to enhance these already beautiful and historic spaces,” he said. The more contemporary design of the Speed’s North Building will feature more modern décor and lighting elements and will be home to the bands and dancing.
THE EXPERT ADVISORS
Trace Mayer of Trace Mayer Antiques and Andy Vine of Blue Grass MOTORSPORT are serving as the 2019 Speed Ball chairs along with a committee of several Speed Art Museum community volunteers and supporters. Mayer and Vine were key committee members in 2018 and returned this year with fresh ideas for the traditional ball.
“We intend to build on last year’s efforts to expand the museum’s reach to a broader audience within the state and region, both geographically and demographically,” said Mayer. “We want to energize not only our guests but corporations and individuals who will help propel the Speed forward. The Speed Art Museum Ball is a spectacular mix that always provides surprises.”
“We are so lucky to have Andy Vine and Trace Mayer,” added Reily. “Andy, whose Blue Grass MOTORSPORT is also a major sponsor, has corralled an incredible committee of young men and women who have helped us exceed our goals for corporate sponsors. Trace is a longtime museum supporter who brings his own discerning eye to the event as well as a great head for business, teaching us how to make the Speed Ball both special and sustainable.”
Proceeds from the Speed Ball are the single biggest contributor to its mission and budget, said Reily. “We are especially grateful to our corporate sponsors, who pay much more than their ticket prices to make our work possible,” he said.
“I believe the ball directly empowers the museum to do more and reach more people and continue to be a place of inspiration and ideas where people can come together,” added Mayer.
It’s also a highly anticipated and welcome society bright spot in the depth of winter. As patrons gather to enjoy the food, drinks, laughter and community, they can’t help but be influenced by the spectacular art collection that the Speed houses. The community focus, the constant, behind-the-scenes work of the curators and staff and the ongoing outreach to new audiences builds the importance and relevance of the Speed Art Museum daily. Founder Hattie Bishop Speed would be proud of what the institution she built in 1927 has become.
For Reily, it’s a time to reflect and plan for another successful year. “As we complete our third year in this new building, I am more aware than ever that the Speed is a place, and a place that can bring people together,” he said. “At a time when media, social media and politics seem to push people apart, I am grateful that art – and a place where we can celebrate – brings people together. People are hungrier than ever for opportunities like these, and I feel like the Speed is only beginning to tap into that potential.” V
The Speed Art Museum Ball takes place on March 2, at the Speed Art Museum, 2035 South Third St. Benefactor tickets ($750 per person) include a cocktail hour, dinner in the galleries and drinks, dancing and dessert following dinner. Late Night tickets ($200 per person), include drinks, dancing and dessert. Benefactors arrive at 6:30 p.m., Late Night guests arrive at 9 p.m. For ticket information, visit speedmusem.org or call Kelly Scott at 502.634.2704.
2019 at the Speed Art Museum
A Celebration of the Speed Collection
Opened March 2016
Extending the legacy of its founder Mrs. Hattie Bishop Speed, the museum’s permanent collection presents art from more than 6,000 years of human creativity, including ancient art, European art, the Speed Cinema, contemporary art and the art of Kentucky.
Making Time: The Art of the Kentucky Tall Case Clock, 1790–1850
Feb. 2 – June 16
In early 19th-century Kentucky, clocks and watches were a costly investment – especially tall case, “grandfather” clocks. “Making Time,” the first exhibition devoted to Kentucky tall clocks, will bring together more than 20 outstanding examples of these towering creations. When shown side-by-side, the clocks reveal the distinctive hands of many Kentucky cabinetmakers and clockmakers; illustrate the hidden world of gears, bells, weights and pendulums that kept a clock running and chiming; and record the complex webs of craft, taste and trade needed to make these practical works of art.
Yinka Shonibare, MBE: The American Library
March 30 – Sept. 15
“The American Library” by Yinka Shonibare MBE is a celebration of the diversity of the American population. The thousands of books in this art installation are covered in the artist’s signature Dutch wax printed cotton textile, which has been celebrated as a symbol of African identity.
This installation considers what our society would be without the gifts that America’s immigrant populations and minority groups have brought to this land. It represents those seen as the “other” who have made a valuable contribution to the nation’s history.
Ebony G. Patterson ….While The Dew Is Still On The Roses…
June 22 – Oct. 6
The Speed Art Museum will present the work of artist Ebony G. Patterson in the comprehensive solo exhibition “…while the dew is still on the roses…” Organized by the Perez Art Museum, the project is the most significant presentation of Patterson’s work to date and includes work produced over the last five years, embedded within a new installation environment that references a night garden.
Patterson’s works investigate forms of embellishment as they relate to youth culture within disenfranchised communities. Her neo-baroque works address violence, masculinity, “bling,” visibility and invisibility within the post-colonial context of her native Jamaica and within black youth culture globally.
Gonzo! The Illustrated Guide to Hunter S. Thompson
July 12 – Nov. 10
“Gonzo!” spotlights one of Kentucky’s most celebrated writers, Hunter S. Thompson, whose professional collaboration and personal relationship with artists Ralph Steadman and Tom Benton produced works that have become touchstones of postwar American counterculture.
Kentucky Women: Enid Yandell
July 17, 2019 – Jan. 12, 2020
This exhibition looks at the groundbreaking work and history of noted Louisville-based sculptor and artist Enid Yandell.
Loose Nuts: An Illustrated Novella by a Rediscovered Louisville Artist
Dec. 13, 2019 – April 19, 2020
Shown in its entirety for the first time is “Loose Nuts,” a richly illustrated and handwritten novella set in Louisville’s West End during the 1930s by the little-known African American artist Bert Hurley.
Tales from the Turf: The Kentucky Horse
Nov. 15, 2019 – March 1, 2020
“Tales from the Turf: The Kentucky Horse” is the story of how the Bluegrass State became the equine capital of the world. This ambitious exhibition features paintings, prints and sculptures from the late 18th century to the present day.