Stephen Reily leads me through the back halls of the Speed Museum into the center gallery filled with white marble sculptures. He points to one of his favorites, “Nydia the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii,” an 1850s work based on the best-selling novel “The Last Days of Pompeii.”
“And what it shows is this beautiful marble sculpture made in Rome by one of the first American artists to settle in Italy,” Reily says.
He points out the intricate detail of the sculpture — the wind-blown appearance of Nydia’s cloak, for example — as well as its historical context. “Nydia the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii” is representative of a time in American history when many politicians, artists and philosophers were saying that in order to improve the country, we’d have to pattern ourselves after the civilizations of Greek and Rome.
“But at the same time, in the 1850s, there were artists and others who were looking to that story of the destruction of Pompeii as an example of what America was going through and slavery in some ways was our Mount Vesuvius, ready to explode,” Reaily says. “Which it did and caused a lot of destruction, but one we had to work through as a country.”
During Reily’s three weeks as interim director — in addition to the 10 years he served on the museum’s board — he’s gotten pretty well acquainted with the art. Despite that, the pace of learning about the organization’s complete inner workings has come as somewhat of a shock, especially in the midst of hanging “Southern Accent,” their most ambitious contemporary art exhibition yet.
“It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” Reily says, laughing.
Reily is perhaps best known locally as an entrepreneur who chairs IMC, a holding company for three companies he founded: Vibrant Nation, IMC Licensing and SUM180. But he has a deep love of the arts.
He currently serves as chair of the board of directors of the Creative Capital Foundation, a national grant maker in the arts, and is a member of the board of trustees of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.
Reily officially took the position of interim director on April 1 following former director Ghislain D’Humieres’ decision to move back to France. Reily has committed to 18 months at the Speed, and says he’s come into the museum at an interesting time.
“One of the fun things about the moment that I got to come in is that we were just celebrating the first full year in the new building, so it’s been a moment to look back and see how we did,” Reily says. “The Speed welcomed over 130,000 people and that’s a 74 percent increase over the number of people we welcomed the year before closure.”
Of those 130,000, nearly half visited the museum on their free-admission Owsley Sundays — which has become known for drawing more diverse crowds to the institution than throughout the normal week. This leads into one of Reily’s main goals as interim director.
“One thing we know is that we want it to always look like Sundays,” Reily says.
“I think there’s so many divisions in America right in cities and states like Kentucky — art can be, and in some ways has to be, part of the ways we come together and connect with each other, connect with the issues we have a hard time talking about.”