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Up to Speed

By Katherine Tandy Brown

A $60 million renovation of the Speed Museum doubled the size overall and tripled its gallery space.
A $60 million renovation of the Speed Museum doubled the size overall and tripled its gallery space.

After an amazing, $60 million transformation, the Speed is back!

For the past three years, Kentucky’s oldest and largest art museum has been closed for an extensive makeover. During the venerable institution’s hiatus, its drastically scaled down, 6,000-s.f. Local Speed has offered art and educational programming in NuLu, Derby City’s hip, growing East Market District.

“Closing the museum for three years was a huge risk for us, but it paid off,” said Ghislain d’Humeries, who has served as Speed’s chief executive officer since 2013. “Local Speed has been a fabulous opportunity to reach out to a community demographic that’s new for us. Right now, we’re focused on the new building, but in the future we won’t say no to something in a different part of Louisville or even a different part of Kentucky.”

As of March 12, the Speed Museum’s doors adjacent to the University of Louisville Belknap Campus are open once again, and the metamorphosis – one that doubles its overall size and triples its gallery space – is mind-boggling.

There are gorgeous new North and South buildings; a sculpture-filled Art Park and Piazza; an indoor/outdoor cafe, Wiltshire at the Speed, created by Louisville restaurateur Susan Herschberg; facilities for collection care and research; and a state-of-the-art, 142-seat movie theater with the capability to show 16 mm, 35 mm and digital films. An eclectic program of weekend runs includes American independent and international art house films, partnerships with film festivals and universities, films for children, outdoor screenings and experimental cinema. Pure movie buff nirvana.

As for the art, the Speed’s collections cover 6,000 years of history and include Flemish, Old French and English Masters, Impressionists, Kentucky art and decorative arts, and Native American art. Upping the ante of gallery space, the new Speed has added 10,000 s.f. for contemporary art; another 10,000 for national and international traveling exhibits; and 5,600 s.f. dedicated solely to Kentucky works.

“Because the Speed has been here for 90 years, we are part of the history of Kentucky,” d’Humeries explained. “We can’t remain stagnant. If we don’t move ahead with the present generation, the museum will be a lost gift. As the most important art museum in the state, we have a duty for our resources to be available not just for Louisville, but for Lexington, Bowling Green, the entire state.”

As for programming, the Speed offers creativity connections for kids and adults alike.

For schoolchildren, Art Detectives allows art educators to take original art into the school classroom. This wildly popular program began in 2014 with 500 participants, grew to 4,600 in 2015 and this year will touch around 7,000.

In an outreach called Wall Together, the Speed connects disparate community groups for five to eight weeks, then displays their co-created artwork. One recent coupling paired teen artists at Presentation Academy and ethnically diverse elders at Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Their collaborative art will be the first such exhibit in the new museum.

“It’s important to Ghislain that we encourage people of different ages and backgrounds to interact,” said Anne Taylor Brittingham, chief engagement officer for the museum. “This project models one way we’re doing that in the community and bringing it back into the museum.”

The director added, “We want to make certain that everybody – especially underserved communities – have access to the Speed. To encourage that, during our first year of re-opening, every Sunday will be free to the public.”

Kids can take museum tours followed by art activities and can attend Speed’s annual summer camp. A youth apprentice program offers high school students a chance to peek behind the scenes in the running of a museum.

Art Sparks uses an interactive learning space that was once for kids only, now redesigned for adults with or without kids. Here, participants notice, create and talk about art. And during Social Speed on the second Thursday of each month from 6 to 9 p.m., grownups of any age can revel in hands-on artmaking, tours of the collections, a cash bar and live music.

If the museum’s founder – Hattie Bishop Speed – could see her creation now, she’d no doubt be pleased. Begun as a memorial to her husband, James Breckinridge Speed, a prominent Louisville businessman and philanthropist, the J.B. Speed Museum, as it was known, opened in 1927. Funding for the not-for-profit museum comes entirely from donations, endowments, grants, ticket sales and memberships. A 1996 gift of more than $50 million from J. B.’s granddaughter, Alice Speed Stoll, made it one of the top 25 endowed facilities in the country.

Though the Speed is not a part of the university, the visionary Hattie chose the location so that students pursuing higher education might gain access to art from around the world. The museum and the university now often partner to present concerts, lectures and other events. Look for more creative, cutting-edge exhibits and collaborations in the near future.

“The new museum will be a hub of creativity. We will open the channels of creativity for those who visit and participate in art programs and who go back home and continue to create. We will provide a bridge between generations. We want to be a place where grandparents bring their grandchildren. We want to bring the world to Louisville, to Kentucky, to expose them to our treasures of art and to connect the commonwealth to the rest of the world. We have a responsibility to the commonwealth to do that.”

The new Speed is revved and rolling to meet that responsibility head on.