A couple weeks before its grand reopening, while the final touches were still being put on a three-year renovation and expansion project, the Speed Art Museum felt very much like an active construction site.
Caution tape blocked flooring that was not ready for shoes, the new chandelier in the atrium was being installed, and chairs — still with their tags attached — were stacked in what will be the cafe.
But on the carpet in the elevator, there was a thread. And Ghislain d’Humières, the Speed’s director, picked it up and tucked it in his jacket pocket, just as he had picked up a stray screw a few minutes earlier.
“I’m very detail-oriented,” he said. “That’s my job also.”
D’Humières moves, and speaks, very quickly, with the accent of his native France. He joined the museum staff in 2013, once the renovation project was already underway. He didn’t make most of the big decisions himself, but he gets to preside over the grand reopening like a proud papa.
To celebrate the completion of the project, the museum will be open to the public — with free admission — for 30 hours straight, starting with a ribbon-cutting on the morning of Saturday, March 12, and continuing through the following afternoon. D’Humières and his staff have arranged for ongoing events throughout the building.
“We’re going to have music, dance, poetry, creative writing, yoga, video game competition, the zoo, every organization in town participating,” said d’Humières.
(The complete schedule for the opening weekend is available here. Among those participating is WFPL, which will have a listening post inside the museum.)
Sightlines are important in the revamped Speed. Long vistas have been opened up, and there’s more of a flow between areas. From the entrance hall with the ticket counters, visitors can turn toward the galleries and instantly see down the length of a hallway, leading to a focal point of a large 17th century Flemish painting.
D’Humieres said visitors would be able to choose their own adventure, beginning in “Gallery One,” which has objects from 6,000 years of art in one room.
“You will see European and American art there, you will see antiquity, you will see African, you will see the orientation gallery, and you will see Flemish art,” said d’Humieres. “And everything is really again for you to decide, ‘OK, where do I want to go?'”
He encouraged the curatorial staff to mix things up, so visitors will see related pieces placed near each other, like a giant Andy Warhol “American Indian” print in the same gallery as a Native American headdress. There’s also a greatly expanded Kentucky gallery, and a revamped Art Sparks children’s area.
The space allocated to contemporary art is also much bigger than before and will include space for traveling exhibitions. The museum plans to host an exhibition of sneakers — yes, shoes — in the fall.
Curator Erika Holmquist-Wall came to the museum in 2014, so her time spent arranging the galleries was also the first time she had seen the artwork out of storage. She said finally seeing everything on the walls was “like Christmas.”
“You bring things up and you get it into good lighting, and you can see how we can best present this work of art,” Holmquist-Wall said. “And you know, it’s as much my job as a curator to make sure the collection looks good.”
The museum is using technology to improve the visitor experience, too. Most of the lighting throughout has been upgraded to energy-efficient LEDs, which are also cooler and less harmful to the artwork.
A new app will offer various suggested routes through the galleries, depending on interest. The much-loved “Renaissance room” has been resituated and will include an interactive piece of video art that is destined to be mobbed by every visiting school group.
And there’s a brand-new cinema, headed up by the museum’s first-ever Curator of Film.
“So we’re not just a repository of painting like we used to be, we are a place which is vibrant with dynamic organization, dynamic activities [to] really stimulate creativity,” said d’Humières.
Along with the new café, led by Susan Hershberg of Wiltshire Pantry, there’s a lofty new event space (weddings and parties are a solid source of income for an art museum). D’Humieres said in the old space, they actually had to move artworks out of the way when they hosted a big event.
Even though there are a lot of new things to look at, d’Humières said the original building remains the centerpiece.
“What I really like is, you have the north building and the south building around the 1927 building from Mrs. Speed,” he said, “so it’s like a jewel in a jewel box.”