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Speed Bump for Museum Plaza
Louisville Art Museum to expand, art-related skyscraper on ice
The Beaux-Arts Speed Art Museum.
John Nation

After nearly a decade of research and soul searching, the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky has just announced an eclectic shortlist of firms for its planned expansion. While the Speed finally moves ahead, the city’s most ambitious architectural project, the REX-designed Museum Plaza, has been put on indefinite hold.

The Speed, an encyclopedic collection that is also the state’s largest, sits on the campus of the University of Louisville, which is well outside of the downtown area. It has had difficulty drawing students and its visitor numbers are relatively modest. The eight finalists for the expansion, who range from experienced museum builders to up-and-comers, include SANAA, Gluckman Mayner Architects, Bernard Tschumi Architects, Bjarke Ingels Group, Snøhetta, Studio Gang, Henning Larsen Architects, and wHY architecture. “We wanted a range of architectural thinking, which we believe will produce unexpected solutions for our difficult site,” said Charles L. Venable, the director of the Speed. The museum is also expecting the teams to work closely with a landscape architecture firm, which has yet to be announced.

A decade ago the museum’s board of governors, which then included the prominent local art collector Steve Wilson, began deliberating an expansion, including relocating to or opening a satellite branch in downtown Louisville. Following a feasibility study conducted by Cooper Robertson, the board decided to expand on its present two-acre site instead. “When I arrived a year ago, the board had done an enormous amount of investigation and research,” said Venable. He helped jump-start expansion plans by hiring the Chicago-based firm Rise Group, an owner’s representative that is known for working with institutional clients, to sift through the research and develop a plan of action. Venable, who was last deputy director at the Cleveland Museum of Art, had previously worked with Rise on that museum’s ongoing expansion, designed by Rafael Viñoly.

REX's Museum Plaza includes a contemporary art center, hotel, condominiums, and offices.

The Speed and Museum Plaza have been intertwined from the start. After the Speed decided not to expand downtown, museum governor Wilson, with his wife, Laura Lee Brown, heiress to a liquor fortune, and two partners, initiated the Museum Plaza project, a mixed-use 60-story tower that includes a 35,000-square-foot kunsthalle, which will host traveling contemporary art exhibitions, at its center. Wilson eventually left the Speed’s board, though he and Brown continue to be involved with the museum. “Steve and Laura Lee have been very generous to the museum, and they really pushed the institution to set its sights at the highest levels,” Venable said. The Speed plans to formally announce its capital campaign after it selects an architect and landscape team in early 2009.

Ground was broken on Museum Plaza last year, and thus far a street has been closed, extensive utility and infrastructure work is underway, and several historic buildings have been demolished, though their facades have been retained, to make way for the building’s tilted entrance. REX’s Joshua Prince-Ramus wrote in an email, “Owner, design team, and general contractor remain totally committed to the project. We are waiting for the bond market to strengthen to secure the tax increment financing. It is not a question of if the project will get built, but when.” Alice Gray Stites, managing director of the planned contemporary art center at Museum Plaza, believes the city can support both institutions. She added by email, “Steve and Laura Lee’s desire to create a contemporary art institution in the heart of downtown was fueled by their commitment to both contemporary art and to the revitalization of downtown Louisville. The Speed’s decision to expand on its own site does not alter the need for a strong, contemporary visual arts presence on Main Street.”

Alan G. Brake