May, 2016

Rediscovering the Rich Visual Legacy

Rediscovering the Rich Visual Legacy

The Knoxville 7 exhibition, which included more than seventy works, many of which had not been shown publicly for more than fifty years, was a revelation. Anyone who saw it will never again understand the cultural history of Knoxville in quite the same way. The Knoxville 7 exhibition demonstrated dramatically that, far from being an artistic backwater, Knoxville was a vital, confident, and sophisticated art center in the 1950s and 1960s, conversant with national and international trends, just as it had been in the early twentieth century and is again today. It is gratifying that nearly half of the works displayed came from the KMA collection. Several generous owners of Knoxville 7 material were inspired by the exhibition to enrich further the museum’s holdings in this area.

The groundbreaking Knoxville 7 show is just one of the many exciting developments that have grown out of the KMA’s strategic decision to focus on homegrown visual traditions. That effort began more than eight years ago with the installation of the museum’s flagship exhibition Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee, and has since been joined by the permanent installations Currents: Recent Art from East Tennessee and Beyond and Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity. The latter, the world’s largest figural glass installation, by internationally-known Knoxville artist Richard Jolley, spawned yet another permanent exhibition, dedicated to glass as a contemporary art medium.

Knoxville native Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) represents another fascinating chapter of our region’s rich artistic legacy. In terms of national and international reputation, and his place in the mainstream of American and European modernism, Beauford is arguably the most important artist Knoxville ever produced. He spent the last decades of his life in Paris, where much of what he produced there remains and where he is far better known and more highly esteemed than in his hometown. For the past several years the museum has dedicated itself to building up its holdings of works by Beauford, which are hard to come by, and expensive. Visitors can now enjoy a representative sampling of his output in Higher Ground, and we hope to continue to acquire more by this indispensable modernist. This past February, KMA Curator Stephen Wicks and I, along with a contingent of museum trustees and friends, were honored to attend the opening of an exhibition in Paris of works from private collections there. We were moved by the dedication of Les Amis de Beauford Delaney in preserving and honoring his legacy, and inspired to redouble our efforts to that end over here. We hope to cultivate relationships with new friends in Paris and eventually bring some Beauford Delaney works from there to Knoxville—stay tuned!

We are still in the early, foundational stages of rediscovering the rich visual legacy of our East Tennessee home. That story continues to unfold in unexpected and delightful ways, and I look forward to seeing what lies just over the horizon.

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