It was a question posed to the Speed Art Museum Chief Executive Officer Ghislain d’Humières, whose answer flowed like the graceful lines and curves of the newly renovated facility. “Art is my medium,” said d’Humières. “I wanted a 21st-century museum with works created by artists to stimulate the creativity in patrons … using items and treasures in a classical way that is adapted to younger generations.” Set one foot inside the Speed, and you’ll notice this charismatic CEO’s vision clearly has become a stunning reality.
Originally named the J.B. Speed Memorial Museum—now affectionately referred to by locals as “the Speed”—Louisville’s signature art destination has been delighting visitors since 1925, when Hattie Bishop Speed created it as a memorial to her businessman and philanthropist husband James Breckinridge Speed. “She was an amazing woman,” d’Humières said. “She began this in memory of her husband and wanted the next generation to learn about art.” A supporter and board member for Louisville’s African-American physician-founded Red Cross Hospital, Mrs. Speed was responsible for much of its funding. “She paid black doctors to work in the hospital,” d’Humières said. “She was a dynamic person, always for the community.”
The city’s own Arthur Loomis designed the building, with the grand opening taking place Jan. 15, 1927. According to Speed literature, the Louisville Art Association sponsored the event, where “over a hundred American and European painters were represented and nearly two thousand visitors attended.” Following its incorporation in 1933, the museum received several impressive donations that precipitated the steady enlargement of its collections. In the early 1940s, Dr. Preston Pope Satterwhite contributed his 15th and 16th century Italian and French decorative arts as well as the English Renaissance room, which was relocated in its entirety from Devonshire, England.
Later that decade, the Speed became part of international history as the beneficiary of a unique set of French posters. On Feb. 3, 1949, in a gesture of thanks for the hundreds of boxcars filled with relief items sent by Americans the previous year, France sailed its “Gratitude Train”—also known as the Merci Train—into New York Harbor aboard the ship Magellan. The 49 boxcars—one for each of the 48 states and one to be shared by Washington, D.C., and the then-territory of Hawaii—were filled with assorted goods and art to be distributed across the United States. The Speed was given several 19th-century art nouveau posters, and an exhibit entitled Art of the Streets: The French Poster, 1880-1930, brought the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Chéret and Alphonse Mucha to the Bluegrass State.
Continued acquisitions prompted the first addition to the museum, and under the 22-year tenure of Director Addison Franklin Page (1962-1984), two more expansions followed. In 1996, Alice Speed Stoll, granddaughter of J.B. Speed, bequeathed more than $50 million to the museum, forever changing the course of its development and allowing for the acquitisitions of several significant works, including Jacob van Ruisdael’s “Landscape with a Half Timbered House and a Blasted Tree”  and Paul Cezanne’s Post-Impressionist masterpiece “Two Apples on a Table” [about 1895-1900].
Named CEO in 2013, d’Humières took control of a $50 million renovation that essentially doubles the size of the facility. “Seventy-five thousand square feet will be added,” he said, “not counting the outside. We have more room for contemporary art and special exhibits, as well as two spaces for rental and increased space for art storage.” Safety concerns, construction logistics and the preservation of more than 14,000 works of art—some thousands of years old—made it necessary to close the Speed to the public in 2011. This pause in patronage, however, is hardly noticeable given the extensive art programs and exhibits that have continued as part of the museum’s community outreach. “Local Speed,” a 6,000-square-foot exhibit and activity area in Louisville’s lively NuLu district, has been keeping art alive and well in the heart of downtown, prompting one Yelp reviewer to post: “The local speed [sic] is interesting, fun and free. I like the special children’s events which are a fun thing to do with the kiddos,” and another to gush: “Not only is this possibly the coolest wall in Nulu … but it is also a great gallery that displays some of Louisville’s local art and artists. It also has some really wonderful children’s special events, which of course I love as it helps to instill the importance and enjoyment of art at an early age!”
The excitement surrounding the museum’s reopening is evident from NuLu to the Belknap Campus of the University of Louisville, where the Speed is located. D’Humières enthusiastically explained the old, the new and the wow of this Louisville treasure. “Some of our art is over 6,000 years old,” he said. “We have ancient Greek and Roman through contemporary, with Flemish, 18th-century French and English works, as well as African and Native American art.” Pieces in those collections include “Tomb Guardian,” a statue from the Tang Dynasty of China dated to 700-750 AD, a marble Roman sarcophagus from the third century, 19th-century Lakota leggings, Fra Bartolommeo’s early 16th-century “Adoration of the Christ Child,” and Mary Cassatt’s circa 1905 “The Child.”
The classic lines of the 1927 building blend seamlessly with the new structure, and clever design elements allow patrons an opportunity to experience the art, not simply view it. Glass panels on the exterior contain reflective metal fragments that shield the precious pieces inside while still flooding the space with light. Sightlines have been carefully considered, and visitors can view several galleries from nearly every vantage point. The openness is a sensory experience that carries over to the outdoor spaces and seeks to engage all those who pass by. Museum visitors and UofL students on their way to class will be treated to the new Elizabeth P. and Frederick K. Cressman Art Park and public piazza—complete with a sculpture garden—while an indoor/outdoor café, welcome center, museum shop and multi-use pavilion round out the amenities.
Inside, d’Humières described some of the new features of the Speed. “We have a 10,000-square-foot exhibit space for new collections, a new 17th century room and a Kentucky Gallery,” he said. There, early Kentucky sculpture, paintings and various fine and decorative arts will fill 56,000 square feet of exhibit space. The south building houses a 142-seat movie theater, which will run 16mm, 35mm and digital films, while additional space will be used for research and maintenance of the collections.
The heart of the Speed belongs to the community, as its many interactive programs reflect. “Art Spark,” for kids ages 2-10, is a pilot project designed to bring together youngsters, parents and grandparents in an atmosphere that fosters connection and creativity. “We worked with the Exploratorium in San Francisco to create a multigenerational experience,” d’Humières said.
“Wall Together” brings together Speed staffers with local organizations and nonprofits to create works of art that showcase the ideas and aesthetics of Louisville’s diverse population. “It’s a three-month exhibit,” d’Humières said, “and we’ve had six of them. Social organizations can use this. It is a specific program that allows real exhibits; exactly what they want.”
“Art Detectives” brings art objects into the schools and enables students to investigate the pieces from a new perspective. “It approaches things in an anthropological/scientific way,” d’Humières said. “It started two years ago with about 50 kids, and now 6,000 are taking part.” Camps, “Art Underground” and various workshops offer even more opportunities for involvement, while adults can enjoy a variety of classes, social events and workshops.
Ready to head to the Speed?
The festivities officially kick off with the Speed Opening Gala on Saturday, March 5, where a ticket to this annual fundraiser buys an elegant evening of food, drink and art, along with a first look at the new facility. On Saturday, March 12, the Speed opens to the public with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. followed by 30 straight hours of activities and fun—all for free. “We will be open for 30 hours around the clock,” d’Humières said. “We want the community to have unprecedented access to the museum after our three-year-long closure.”
For more information on the Speed and its reopening, visit speedmuseum.org.