published Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Chattanooga's treasure: Hunter Museum celebrates 60 years

Roads were reopened and the Holmberg Pedestrian Bridge was created to connect Bluff View and the Hunter Museum to the riverfront and the rest of downtown in 2005.
Roads were reopened and the Holmberg Pedestrian Bridge was created to connect Bluff View and the Hunter Museum to the riverfront and the rest of downtown in 2005.

BY THE NUMBERS

28,000 Amount of square footage added by the 2005 expansion

77,000 Total square footage

43,000 Average attendance for the four years before the expansion (2001-2004)

56,000 Average attendance after the 2005 expansion

7 Number of outside events booked per year before the expansion

50 Facility rentals since 2005

ANNIVERSARY EVENTS

Oct. 11: Gems of Chattanooga cuisine with 212 Market. Viewing of the current exhibit, "Chattanooga Gems III," and dinner from 212 Market, 6 p.m.

Oct. 18: Art Collection 101. The Avant-art group hosts a panel of experts who will discuss how to start an art collection, 6 p.m.

Oct. 25: Landmarks on the Bluff. Local attorney Maury Nicely leads participants on a walking tour of the Hunter Museum complex, the Bluff View and surrounding areas, 6 p.m.

Nov. 10: Spectrum gala. Features a seated dinner and live and silent art auctions, with proceeds used to support the museum.

The Hunter Museum of American Art is celebrating its anniversary this year, but Executive Director Daniel E. Stetson wants to talk about the future, not the past.

"We may be 60 years old, but we are young," he said during a 90-minute interview dominated by talk of the many new events and outreach programs the museum and its staff are involved in. He stressed the importance and vibrancy of the museum in the community.

"When VW announced they were building here, they mentioned the intangibles," Stetson said. "The three buildings here are tangible, but what they represent is much more. We have the mansion, the modern and the post-modern buildings, and I think that perfectly describes the museum."

Since the museum was renovated and remodeled in 2005 in conjunction with the 21st Century Waterfront project, the way it has operated and thought about its role has changed dramatically, according to public relations and marketing director Katrina Craven.

Before the riverfront was reconfigured, the Hunter Museum sat somewhat isolated on the hill at Bluff View. Callers used to tell museum staff, "I can see it, but how do I get there."

Not only has the museum become more accessible thanks to the downtown reconstruction, the museum has become more open and friendly to visitors, she said.

"In the past, we would have a curator stand in front of a piece and talk about it," she said. "Now, we want to know what a visitor looking at it has to say. What John Smith feels or says is just as valid as anything a curator has to say."

The museum has posted journals throughout so that visitors can comment on the overall collection or individual pieces. In some cases, successive visitors have commented on an earlier entry, creating a running dialogue.

"We also have a lot of people writing on our website," Craven said.

Stetson said the attitude shift is happening in museums everywhere.

"We now say that you don't do something to people or even for people but with people," he said. "I'm out of the building a lot ... and other staff members get out. Attending other arts events or community events are unique opportunities and part of being a partner in the arts."

The change would seem to be working, as the number of visitors has increased an average of 30 percent since 2005, Craven said.

A glance at the museum's website reveals more than a dozen events or programs the museum has created to engage visitors and the community. Stetson points to such programs as Arts & Issues as one that has been eye-opening for staff, longtime members and first-time visitors. Guests are invited to use a certain piece as a launching point for a discussion.

On one occasion, former Chattanooga Police Chief Freeman Cooper was asked to discuss a painting called "The Arrest." It features the hooded image of a man being escorted by two police officers.

"Everyone sees a piece their unique way, but Chief Cooper said he wondered about the person under the hood and his family, where he came from," Stetson said. "It was a different perspective, and it was a very powerful conversation."

The Avant-art program is a "young-minded contemporary group" that is designed to create the next generation of museum supporters and members. Lyndsay Richardson, 34, got involved with the program when it began after the 2005 expansion. She'd been involved in other nonprofits but wanted to learn more about art. This year, she is the group's chairperson.

"I wanted to be able to get involved, and I was just beginning to learn about art," she said. "I wanted to learn more about it, like how to look at it and form my own opinions. I wanted to start collecting, and I have purchased a few pieces at Spectrum (an annual fundraising gala)."

Stetson said the museum is actively looking at ways to be a part of the future of downtown and the arts community. Whether it is hosting a discussion on Chattanooga being a "gig city" or exhibiting new mediums such as video or digital pieces, he wants the museum to be current and alive.

"Art is additive, not subtractive," he said. "It moves forward. People are still using charcoal and mud and creating new art, but they are doing things with digital art as well.

"The museum is a creative hub."

HUNTER MUSEUM TIMELINE

1914 George Thomas Hunter becomes president of the Coca-Cola Co. after the death of his uncle, Benjamin F. Thomas.

1924 The Chattanooga Art Association is established.

1938 Hunter moves into the mansion upon the death of his aunt, Mrs. Benjamin F. Thomas.

1941 Hunter establishes the Benwood Foundation.

1951 Hunter dies, the Benwood Foundation donates the mansion to the Chattanooga Art Association with funds for converting it to exhibition galleries.

1952 George Thomas Hunter Gallery of Art opens on July 12, 1952.

1952 Richard LaBarre Goodwin's "The Huntsman's Door" is the first piece to formally enter the collection.

1956 "Allen Street," a painting by George Luks, is given to the Hunter, one of the early major gifts to the museum.

1967 The Hayes Collection is obtained by the museum and a decision is made to specialize in American art. The gallery's education department is established, and the Junior League-sponsored art slide program begins.

1968 The Chattanooga Art Association reorganizes and establishes a board of trustees and an associate board of volunteers and advisers. Joe H. Davenport Jr., Ruth Golden (Holmberg), Robert L. Maclellan, John T. Lupton, Sebert Brewer and E.Y. Chapin III are elected to the first board of directors of the Chattanooga Art Association.

1969 The museum's docent program is inaugurated.

1973 Construction begins on a new museum complex around the mansion. The trustees approve a name change from the George Thomas Hunter Gallery of Art to the Hunter Museum of Art.

1974 The first Spectrum auction is hosted at the Silver Ballroom at the Read House.

1975 The museum announces the Benwood Foundation gift of the Cohen collection, which includes 33 American paintings, enriching the permanent collection. The new building opens in the fall, and Cleve K. Scarbrough becomes director.

1979 The museum receives a grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation that provides for the establishment of a collections department staffed by a curator, assistant and registrar.

1994 The name is changed to the Hunter Museum of American Art to better articulate the museum's mission.

1996-97 The museum mansion and the 1975 building undergo a major renovation with funding provided by the Benwood Foundation and the Hunter Museum trustees.

2002 The museum marks its 50th anniversary.

2004 Ground is broken for the new East Wing.

2005 The new East Wing opens in April, and a major reinstallation and reinterpretation is unveiled in the permanent collection.

2008 The Hunter receives a grant from the Benwood Foundation to purchase four major sculptures to place on public sites in Chattanooga: the Chattanooga Zoo, Miller Plaza and Renaissance Park.

2011 Daniel E. Stetson is hired as executive director.

2012 The Hunter celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Source: Hunter Museum of American Art

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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