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Commentary: Why Art Makes A City

Nearly 90 years have passed since the Speed Art Museum first opened in 1927 — built by philanthropist Hattie Bishop Speed to raise the cultural standards of Louisville. On Saturday, it reopens to the people after a massive expansion.

A good museum is a vital cultural resource for any city that has aspirations to greatness. It is essential if the young people who grow up there are to gain an appreciation for the arts.

In my life, the Speed has performed such a role, beginning with my early memories of Sunday afternoon visits with my family. In those days, the entire gallery space was located in the original Neo-Classical building, designed by Arthur Loomis, one of the city’s most prominent architects.

You entered the grand doorway on Third Street. On the rare occasions my mother would fail to check the schedule and we arrived to find the museum closed, a set of massive bronze doors presented a sober face to the outside world.

The grand lobby was perhaps the greatest work of art in the entire museum. The only interior spaces that were as grand to my young eyes were the Rotunda of the state Capitol in Frankfort and the main lobby of the Carnegie library at Fourth and York Streets. The heights were dizzying, and the scale made a small child feel like an insect.

How many other children learned how to appreciate – and to behave – in art galleries by being led through the Speed? During the week, buses filled with schoolchildren, church groups and scout troops were guided through, as patient teachers and docents insisted that voices be kept to whispers.

I’ve always believed that going to the Speed helped to prepare me, and many others, for the bigger world we would experience when we were old enough to travel beyond Kentucky, to see the great museums in Boston, New York, London, Paris and beyond. Like any other experience, especially those involving the intellect as well as the eyes and ears, preparation is vital. The Speed, as we knew it, performed that function well.

I’m glad to say that the children of 2016 are going to experience something dramatically different in scope and artistic achievement than we did back in, say, 1955 or 1960.

Still, before we venture into this marvelous new world, it’s important to bid a fond farewell to memories of the Speed that Hattie Bishop so lovingly created.

A recent documentary about the Louisville Orchestra was entitled “Music Makes a City.” It’s my belief that fine art achieves the same thing, and in so many ways the Speed has, and will continue to make this city a notable place.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. WFPL commentaries run Fridays on 89.3 WFPL and wfpl.org.

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