For several years now, an overarching institutional priority of the KMA has been the promotion of our region’s art history. It is a long, rich, and fascinating story, with
unexpected turns and surprises, vivid personalities, false starts, dead ends, and thrilling achievements. When Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee opened in 2008, no other institution had ever dedicated itself to telling the story of the development and significance of the visual arts here (although the East Tennessee History Center has done a magnificent job of documenting and promoting the broader social, economic, and cultural history of our region, including some of its artists).
When Higher Ground opened, our aims were modest, and we just managed to fill the gallery dedicated to the purpose, largely with borrowed works. We had a strong suspicion, however that there might be a lot of material out there we didn’t yet know about. We hoped fervently that creating a permanent installation dedicated to the art history of East Tennessee would change local perceptions about the visual arts, send a powerful signal that the KMA wanted to be a repository for East Tennessee art, and attract donations and financial support for purchases. We had no inkling that the response would be so powerful and so positive. Since the opening of Higher Ground, the KMA has acquired 180 works by artists from or working in our part of the world, largely through gifts, and we continue to discover new artists from our area or artists with strong connections to Knoxville and East Tennessee. The story just keeps getting more and more interesting.
The Knoxville 7 exhibition opening at the end January is the first harvest of seeds planted in the fertile acreage cleared for Higher Ground (if you will indulge some unartfully mixed metaphors) and represents a prodigious curatorial effort. These innovative artists, many of whom were connected to the founding of the art department at the University of Tennessee, introduced modern art to East Tennessee. Remarkably, this is the first time these artists have been brought together since they exhibited as the Knoxville 7 in the mid-twentieth century. Many works in the exhibition have been held locally—and not exhibited publically–since they were purchased from the artists who created them, and have been loaned or gifted to the KMA. This show will knock you over. Don’t miss the preview reception on January 29.
You still have a few weeks to catch the wonderful exhibition at the East Tennessee History Center on Gay Street dedicated to Lloyd Branson, Knoxville’s first academically trained artist (although the details of his education are still sketchy) and the city’s first full-time painter. Branson was very much a man of the nineteenth century—he was born in 1853—but was a mentor to and advocate for Knoxville’s two most important and talented twentieth-century artists, Catherine Wiley and Beauford Delaney (both now prominently featured in Higher Ground). We are exceedingly proud that this important exhibition, which travels to the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville this summer, features several Lloyd Branson paintings from the KMA collection. Much of the art of East Tennessee remains to be discovered and collected, and we are just getting started. Stay tuned . . .
–David Butler, KMA Executive Director