Arts and Culture

Rev. Al Shands III, founder of the Great Meadows Foundation, died earlier this week. He was 92.

Shands was a writer, film producer and an ordained Episcopal priest, as well as an art collector and philanthropist. 

His impact on the Louisville and Kentucky arts sector is “manifold,” Julien Robson, director of Great Meadows Foundation and curator of the Shands Collection, said.

Courtesy of Great Meadows Foundation

Shands in front of one of the sculptures on the Great Meadows grounds.

Shands created dozens of documentaries on life in Kentucky, wrote a couple of books, was a trustee of the Speed Art Museum for years and, in 2010, received the Arts Milner Kentucky Governor Award for his philanthropic support of the region’s arts. 

Robson said Shands believed that individual artists are a key part of the local arts ecosystem and launched the Great Meadows Foundation to support them.

“Al recognized that without those imaginative individuals who create art, there is no culture,” Robson said. “He wanted to support artists directly, not in the usual sort of marketplace way, but by helping them broaden their engagement with art, art theory, and art philosophy globally, to enrich their thinking and the quality of their work.”

He continued that Shands “loved artists because they think of and see the world differently.” 

One of those artists Shands supported over the years is Louisville painter Vian Sora, who is presently doing a residency in Berlin, Germany with some support from a Great Meadows Foundation grant. 

Sora said Shands provided a “spiritual level” of support in addition to the monetary aid. 

“To navigate the art world, sometimes there are a lot of hierarchies,” she said. “It was never that way with him… there was this great attitude and vibe around him.”

According to the Great Meadows Foundation website, Shands and his late wife, Mary, began their collection in the early 1980s soon after Mary was invited to lead the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation, now known as KMAC Museum. They started with ceramics from the region, and quickly developed a deep love for sculptural works. 

Their rapidly growing collection led to the construction of the Great Meadows estate in Crestwood, Kentucky. Its grounds feature several massive site-specific sculptures, a collection built over an approximately 16-year span. They’re meant to be meditations on nature, Shands said in a 2007 interview.

The Shands Collection includes works from renowned Kentucky, national and international artists such as Anish Kapoor, Sol LeWitt and Petah Coyne, among others. 

An extensive write-up in Hyperallergic about the home and collection said, “The artworks dominate the house, and the emphasis is experiential not referential.” 

“There is no explicit narrative conveyed, and by the same token there is no rigorous conceptual paradigm at play. The works combine to produce a profoundly visceral experience.” 

Sora felt a special energy from the Great Meadows house as well. 

“I felt always that there was, there was a magical moment that this is actually his residence, this is where he lived, and he shared it with people… just that big heart, big welcoming, and big love for the arts and the artists,” Sora said. 

Most of the collection, more than 150 works, has been bequeathed to the Speed Art Museum, Robson said. Other works will go to KMAC.

The outdoor sculptures will stay as is, becoming the Mary and Al Shands Art Preserve, managed by the foundation. Robson said the collection will “be open to the public on a limited basis.”

“Al’s passion, enthusiasm and appreciation for art was infectious, sparking prolonged conversation and engagement with ideas about creativity and insight into the artistic process with a perspective unmatched by anyone else I know,” Joey Yates, KMAC’s curatorial director said in a news release. “He was a lifelong learner, constantly finding new interests and imaginative connections within the art that surrounded him.” 

There was an outpouring of appreciation for Shands’ contributions on social media from a number of members from the Louisville and Kentucky arts community.

In a post on Instagram, artist and Quappi Projects gallery director John Brooks wrote, “the news of Al Shands’ passing hits hard.” 

He said Shand’s philanthropic support has impacted the Louisville and Kentucky arts community in a way that “simply cannot be measured.”

On a more personal note, Brooks added: “Al was many things to many people, but I can only speak for myself: I considered him to be a supporter, a patron, a benefactor, a sage, and, most importantly, as of late, a friend. A scholar, a gentleman, and a magnificently kind and curious human being, he was truly a man for all seasons. Simply irreplaceable. Ars longa, vita brevis.”

The team behind Ruckus, an arts publication focused on the American South and Midwest that received support from the Great Meadows Foundation, remembered Shands, “a monumental figure who forever transformed Louisville’s art community and opened doors for so many Kentucky artists,” in an online post and on social media

“As an early supporter of Ruckus, Al recognized and embraced the need for critical dialogue as a way to uplift and strengthen the artists and institutions in our region. His confidence in our publication deepened our commitment to this work. Through the Great Meadows Foundation, he provided us the opportunity to build Ruckus into a mainstay of art writing in our city and the surrounding area, and his memory will always be a part of our story.”

In memory of Shands, KET will air three of his films. More information on schedules here.

The work of the Great Meadows Foundation will continue, even expand, Robson said, its founder has ensured that.

A memorial service is scheduled for Sept. 22 at 10.30 a.m. outside the Great Meadows home at Highway 1694 N. in Crestwood, Ky. Masks are encouraged.

Disclosure: Louisville Public Media is a recipient of a Great Meadows Foundation grant, which has supported some of LPM’s visual arts reporting.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the Hyperallergic piece linked to is from recently.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.