“Rounding the Circle: The Mary and Al Shands Collection,” curated by Julien Robson, is a major exhibition celebrating the significant collection of contemporary artworks assembled by the late Al Shands (1928-2021) and Mary Norton Shands (1930-2009). The exhibit at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, also commemorates the transformative gift of art made to the museum, numbering over a hundred artworks.
It was Al Shands’ wish that the contemporary art collection he and his late wife, Mary, amassed at their Great Meadows estate in Crestwood, Kentucky be displayed in a public exhibition before being dispersed to museums across the state. In this way, he sought not only a closure to the collection’s life at Great Meadows, but also a bridge to the works’ future lives in other contexts. Shands, a former Episcopalian priest, hoped to stage an exhibition that would be dynamic but also contemplative—a place where museum visitors could be inspired to explore what meaning the works could spark in their own lives.
The exhibition appears in three parts but avoids chronological narratives and instead navigates space, time, and materiality to look at the evolution of a collection that includes highly established artists such as Anish Kapoor, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Siah Armajani, Petah Coyne, Olafur Eliasson, Elizabeth Murray, Alfredo Jaar, Betty Woodman, Sol LeWitt and Tony Cragg, alongside major Kentucky artists such as Vian Sora, Cynthia Norton, Kiah Celeste and Sandra Charles. I had the chance to discuss decisions behind the curatorial choices with Robson, as well as what the future of the Great Meadows Foundation holds for Kentucky’s artists.
“We walk up to the first gallery here, and we’re greeted by this piece which serves to direct us,” Robson says. “It’s Nina Katchadourian’s piece, which is part of the “Special Collections Revisited” series. It’s her portrait of John Canady’s book, “What is Art,” and then “Close Observation.” As you head toward the exhibition in this compressed space, the first thing it’s doing is pointing you to art and giving you advice about what art could be.”
The print serves as a direction point.
Yeah. Yeah. I decided the next step would be to go into a slightly larger space where there would be more didactic material, and this is really the only place where it’s distinctly about Al and Mary. I took this wall of photographs directly from the house and just hung it here with a brief chronology of the two of them and a text that’s an introductory text, then I’ve included three ceramic works. They’re all teapots. Ceramics is really where the collection started, with Wayne Ferguson‘s work. And at the end of their life, there were nineteen Wayne Ferguson’s in the collection from the early years. But in the early years of their collecting, Mary was asked by Phyllis George, the then-governor’s wife, to lead the Kentucky Foundation of Art and Craft, which eventually became KMAC. This spurred their collection.
She started taking Al to craft fairs like Berea’s. They both had cultural backgrounds, but they weren’t really serious collectors, and it was at Berea that Al found this piece by Wayne Ferguson that really touched him, and he bought it and put it in his car, and came back and started buying more things. He always talked about that from the moment he became a collector.
It got bigger and bigger and eventually became much more sculptural. The show isn’t a chronology, but it interlaces a number of things. As we walk into the next room, which is almost exactly the size of the courtyard at Great Meadows, we find in the middle of the floor the Alice Aycock, which sat in that courtyard. The sound work is the work Al commissioned after Mary died from Stephen Vitiello in her memory.
Robson gestures toward the open floor of the museum.
If we were coming out of the house and looking up this way, we would be looking at nature. I wanted to imitate or reflect on this idea of compression and expansion at the show’s beginning. While the beginning of the show has some of the elements of the beginnings, as if it’s starting to tell a story of how this collection developed, that’s not how the collection is displayed in the end. It’s in three parts. In this first part, we have the ceramics: the beginnings of it. Then in the middle part is really when it becomes a sculptural collection with paintings. I’ve been thinking about the visual connections that go on.
The second part is a kind of coda with pieces from early on and from the end. In this small space, I wanted to point out that we very much curated this collection in the house. I [have this] quote from Oscar Wilde included because he frequently discussed the mystery of art. The idea that the work of art operates in a space where, on the one hand, we can contribute to its own pictorial or imagistic things or its tactility as a material object. But simultaneously, when you think you’re honing in on it, it escapes you. So like in the painting, it’s the pictorial versus the material. Those kinds of things interested Al, but I wanted to think from a curatorial perspective. The house had a great effect upon what was collected as he saw these pieces gradually living together and having conversations go around them every single day.
The architecture of the new house they built in 1988 [with architect David Morton] was very much created to expand this collection. However, you can’t reproduce the house. The work comes into the museum and changes it in peculiar ways. Things end up on pedestals. So they’re elevated [where they weren’t before]. They are given a different perspective, but it gives an opportunity to look at the quality of the collection and how it comes into its own, even in this kind of space.
Al created a collection where you can see these regional artists next to artists with national and international reputations. You notice that it all has the same level of quality, and then, of course, we have teapots all over the place, which here it’s more about a variety of teapots. It was Mary who was the teapot collector.
Robson points to a wooden shelf installed on a vignette on the museum’s wall.
The wooden shelf is a kind of nod to the wood in the house. I wanted to soften up this hard art museum space where everything’s all orthogonal, right?
The first time I saw the wooden shelf, and some other wooden details, I wondered if it was extracted from the house. I suppose it’s just the same wood and stain.
It was an idea from a discussion with one of the exhibition designers. She was the person who would do the CAD drawings for the things that I was supplying her with. She came to the house and said, “Well, why don’t you have some wood elements?” So I started to think about shelves, then there are two doors and two windows in here.
Al and Mary Shand’s home weaves, narrows and opens. The open doors and vignettes in the exhibition’s constructed walls reference the home’s design.
The title of the show is “Rounding the Circle.” That title, first of all, comes from the title of the book of his published short essays that he would send out to his “house church” people every week.
There’s also this thing of the collection: that it was, from very early on, always intended to be given to a museum, this museum, specifically. So it’s as if at the end of his life, it’s come full circle. It’s now arrived at the place where it can start another circle. Here, the exhibition becomes an interstitial space between his previous life in the house and its future life, broken up into different formations for museum exhibitions. There’s also this personal layer for me; having been the curator of contemporary art here at the Speed for eight years, I’ve come full circle doing a final show here. As I put the whole show up, I realized the thing is full of circles.
The middle section is what I regard as the white cube, the real “museum.” I’ve avoided the idea of writing didactic texts. I tire of reading interpretations of works that become singular. Instead, I wanted to [imitate] how Al talked about conversations between works. That kind of magic happens out of the blue when looking at things. I used his voice to talk about that.
I love that this case, Kiah Celeste, is next to Kapoor—a twenty-five, twenty-six-year-old artist from Kentucky who’s next to a world star. You don’t think of any kind of hierarchy, right? They’re both illusory. Like what I wanted to do with the exhibition, the collection threads things together and doesn’t try to create a linear narrative—telling them to keep floating in and out of each other. We decided to conclude this floor with some information about the Mary and Al Shands Art Preserve, which is [comprised of] the sculptures at the back of the house that are staying there.
Robson directs us to another section of the exhibition that is intentionally separated from the exhibition on the third floor of the Speed. It is a collection of younger artists, both regional and national.
That then leads to the other part of the exhibition. I separated it out because what he’d been buying more recently made me think it would be nice to do a show of how he fell madly in love with brightly colored paintings and sculptures at the end of his life. He was really looking for color.
What do you think changed?
I think it was something in him. He just let go. After he had set up the Great Meadows Foundation, we were giving grants to many younger [Kentucky-based] artists, and he said he had to see this stuff, the work that came from it.
We started [making studio visits], and I think the first visit we did was with Tiffany [Calvert]. Then he was going to shows at Quappi Projects. He was going to shows at the University of Kentucky Art Museum, Georgetown College, Moremen Gallery, and things like that. He saw all of this work and got excited by it.
He was meeting with these young artists and, here’s another circle, ending with regional and local artists, much like it began.
He was coming back to where he started.
Yes, and gradually came around to supporting them again. This time, putting them in the existing collection’s context is much broader. So they go into the context of the collection as a whole. And when you just look at a group of works that were bought over the last five years, you see that he’s buying in New York, he’s buying in Kentucky. They’re coming from different places. I think this one even came from Miami. He was starting to talk to a lot of younger curators. There was one in particular in New York, >Owen Duffy, now in Houston, with whom he built a very strong friendship. Duffy would take Al to galleries on the Lower East Side, of which Al might as well have been in a foreign country, and introduce him to artists he otherwise would never have seen, much like the three Amy Brenner pieces.
He really liked Joey Yates [the KMAC curator] a lot. He would really listen to him. He’d go to KMAC, and he was excited when Joey started to bring it into the twenty-first century. He began to think much more conceptually about what it is we are doing. This piece [by Summer Wheat] was the second-to-last piece he ever purchased. The last piece was a painting by James Benjamin Franklin. It exploded with his excitement at the end of his life. It probably came with creating the foundation. He then saw many young artists, talking to and mixing with them. They would come to the house every time he gave a grant out, so we had loads and loads of people coming to the house. He just loved to show people around, and he’d love to talk to them and find out what they were doing. And to feel good. All of a sudden they all paid attention to this old guy, but then everybody liked him, you know, because he was such a nice person.
How did the discussion of Speed’s acquisition occur? From my understanding, it occurred over a good duration of years.
Over the years, the discussion was well underway about giving the collection to the Speed when I was curating here. After I left, the new director and the Speed tried to make it more concrete. This was Charles Venable, and he and the then-curator, Suzanne Weaver, started making up a list, and they got an appraisal of the whole collection at that point. They decided what they wanted. Then this was repeated when Ghislain d’Humières came as the director, and he came in with Miranda Lash, Miranda being the new curator, who obviously wanted to rethink what they should do as she may have different perspectives.
After Stephen Reily came on as director, the list came to be revisited once again. Al then decided he wanted to take some pieces out of what the [Speed] wanted because he felt he needed to give some key works to KMAC, because he had been one of the people at the beginning of the Kentucky Foundation of Art and Craft, which became KMAC as we know it now. He felt that he had to honor Mary’s memory. So he sifted out about maybe thirty-five-to-forty pieces and made clear to the Speed that they could have all the other ones they wanted. But these pieces had to go to KMAC.
I asked Yates to come around and look at what remained. He made a selection. So there were ninety works now going to KMAC and 177 coming to the Speed. Then the trustees left it up to me to decide how the remainder of this collection should be distributed. It was my ambition that all of this work should stay in Kentucky.
They all had to go to museums. And the caveat in the will was if there was anything left over, it had to be given to the Speed. I went to Western Kentucky University, which has the Kentucky Museum, and invited them to come here. So they chose forty-nine objects around the same time and also asked the curator at Georgetown to come in, and they chose, I believe, fourteen works. Then I spoke to Owensboro [Art Museum], and three pieces were left.
There are sculptures at the back of the house and all of the other sculptures around. [Sculptures that are remaining at the Great Meadows property include works by Jaume Plensa, Alyson Shotz, Zaha Hadid, Alex Hartley, Mel Kendrick, Eva Rothschild, Chiel Kuijl, Richard Long and Mary Carothers.] The works in front and near the house will eventually arrive here outside the Speed, but the ones at the back of the house will become the Mary and Al Shands Preserve, which is a small sculpture park that will be open to the public on a limited basis.
What does the future of the foundation look like? I think this is something that is on the minds of many artists in the state.
We’ve involved ourselves over the last couple of years with a number of big projects which we will step back from in order to return to core activities. We put money into this exhibition, which Al wanted, and then we’re funding a final project: a book. And the book will be a document discussing Mary and Al and their collection and the house. But we will continue the Artist Professional Development Grant, which really is the core of what we do, right?
“Rounding the Circle: The Mary and Al Shands Collection” at Speed Art Museum, 2035 South Third Street, Louisville, Kentucky, on view through August 6.