The Speed Art Museum, originally known as the J. B. Speed Memorial Museum, is Kentucky’s oldest and largest art museum. It was founded in 1925 by Hattie Bishop Speed as a memorial to her husband, James Breckinridge Speed, a prominent Louisville businessman and philanthropist.
Designed by Louisville architect Arthur Loomis, the museum opened its doors on January 15, 1927, with an exhibition sponsored by the Louisville Art Association. Over a hundred American and European painters were represented and nearly two thousand visitors attended the opening.
Mrs. Speed served as the first president and director of the museum. In 1933, the museum was incorporated as a privately endowed institution, and its board of governors was established. In 1934, the museum received its first major donation, a valuable collection of North American Indian artifacts given by Dr. Frederick Weygold. In 1941, Dr. Preston Pope Satterwhite made a significant gift to the museum - his collection of 15th century and 16th century French and Italian Decorative Arts including tapestries and furniture. In 1944, he donated the English Renaissance room, which was moved in its entirety from Devonshire, England. Dr. Satterwhite’s gift necessitated an enlargement of the museum and in his will he provided for the addition that bears his name. Completed in 1954, it was the first of three additions to the original building.
Hattie Bishop Speed died in 1942 and after her death, her niece, Jenny Loring Robbins, held the position of Director. Catherine Grey, a member of the museum’s first Board of Governors and a friend of Mrs. Speed’s, was acting director until 1946, when Paul S. Harris became the first professional director. During his tenure, acquisitions to the collection were made mostly in the areas of decorative arts and furniture. In 1962, he was succeeded by Addison Franklin Page, curator of contemporary art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, who served until 1984. During Mr. Page’s tenure, the museum collection was enriched and expanded, and the north and south additions were built.
After another major addition to the building in 1973, the Speed celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1977 with the acquisition of Rembrandt's magnificent Portrait of a Woman. Mr. Page and the Board of Governors led the campaign to raise the $1.5 million necessary to purchase the work, one of the museum’s most significant acquisitions. In 1983, the Speed’s most recent wing, designed by Robert Geddes of Princeton, New Jersey, opened.
Mr. Page retired as Director in 1984 and was followed in 1986 by Peter Morrin, who was formerly curator of 20th century art at the High Museum in Atlanta. Mr. Morrin continued the enrichment of the collection and initiated an outreach program to involve the communities the museum serves. Retiring after 21 years as Director, Mr. Morrin was succeeded by Dr. Charles L. Venable, formerly the Deputy Director for Collections and Programs at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
While the museum was closed for a dramatic renovation project in 1996, the museum received a life-changing gift, a bequest of more than $50 million from Alice Speed Stoll, granddaughter of James Breckinridge Speed. The bequest marks one of the largest given to any art museum and significantly increased the Speed's endowment, ranking it among the top 25 in the United States. Mrs. Stoll’s bequest secured the museum’s future and has allowed for several significant acquisitions including Jacob van Ruisdael’s Landscape with a Half Timbered House and a Blasted Tree, (1653), and Paul Cezanne’s Post-Impressionist masterpiece, Two Apples on a Table (about 1895-1900).
Since reopening in November 1997, the Speed has dazzled the region with exciting traveling exhibitions, new acquisitions to the permanent collection, and a new parking garage. It has also benefited greatly by a bequest from the estate of long-time Board of Governors member General Dillman A. Rash who left the museum works by Marc Chagall, Jean Dubuffet, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Maurice Utrillo.
The museum is supported entirely by donations, endowments, grants, ticket sales, and memberships. The focus of the collection is Western art, from antiquity to the present day. Holdings of paintings from the Netherlands, French and Italian works, and contemporary art are particularly strong, with sculpture prominent throughout. Representative artists include Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, Giovanni Tiepolo, Henry Moore, Thomas Gainsborough, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and contemporary artists Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, Alice Neel, Petah Coyne, Yinka Shonibare, Vito Acconci, and Juan Munoz.
Today, The Speed Art Museum is currently undergoing another major transition with an unprecedented $50 million expansion project that will welcome visitors to a space that seamlessly integrates art and nature with a new Art Park and public piazza. The expansion will also provide flexible exhibition spaces to present the Speed's collection and new acquisitions for the public, along with new facilities for collection care and research.
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