Knoxville Museum of Art

The Knoxville Museum of Art shown within the context of the city of Knoxville at large, as seen from the observation deck of the Sunsphere

The Knoxville Museum of Art represents a connection between city and performance of the arts — its dramatic architecture presents cohesion between Knoxville’s city districts, while still maintaining its own perspective. Throughout its location shifts and conceptual shifts throughout the years, the Knoxville Museum of Art has increased its prominence and is now one of the most versatile venues in Knoxville. Architect Edward Larrabee Barnes spoke about his building: “In architecture, flow is more important than form. The museum must have a sense of place, not an anonymous building… It has to do with spirit… it is an important focal point that demands architectural strength… there is room for ego, room for assertive design.” The strength of KMA makes it one of the most successful venues in Knoxville.


Knoxville received its first public art museum as the Dulin Gallery of Art in September 1962. Housed in a beautiful neoclassicist-style mansion designed by John Russell Pope, which was donated generously by the Folger family, the Dulin prospered for many years and gained its title as a full-fledged Knoxville cultural attraction in 1965, when it hosted the National Print and Drawing Competition, its first landmark exhibition.

This depiction of the Dulin Gallery is currently displayed in the Knoxville Museum of Art's Thorne Gallery.

In the 1970s, the Dulin started its immensely successful educational programs, such as the Art to Schools program, where art and informational material about art history was lent to local elementary schools, and began its tradition of young artist competitions. The Dulin’s prominence in the Knoxville community was rising, and in 1971, the Dulin gained the adjacent Taylor property, adding 950 square feet of space, totaling 3,450 square feet of usable space. But by 1980, the Dulin began to experience problems, including maintenance issues, which made it clear that its growth was limited. And, despite its outreach programs, its location in Sequoyah Hills made some Knoxvillians feel that it was elitist and only offered appeal to white, upper-class West Knoxville residents.

Thus the Dulin Committee began a political tug-of-war over whether and where to relocate. Many older committee members felt an allegiance to the Folger family, which leased the Dulin house for a single dollar and gave the Taylor property rent-free. By 1984, the Dulin’s programming began to be limited by its size, and the need for more space became evident. The Dulin Committee decided at least 50,000 square feet of space was necessary to represent the art community of East Tennessee and to complete its goals as a museum effectively, and several studies determined the DGA was absolutely limited at 25,000 square feet. This irrefutably proved that a larger venue was necessary.

But it would not be until early 1985, when the Dulin was showed its most prestigious collection with 41 works of Picasso, Degas, Henry Moore, Corot, Rousseau, Cassat, Rodin, Breton, and other artists, this need would become pressing. With this show came great stature in Southern art galleries, but it had to be ended prematurely due to the Dulin’s lacking climate control: the roof leaked; the air conditioning, heating, and humidity control frequently failed; and too much sunlight fell on the paintings. Coupled with the frequent traffic accidents as cars exiting and entering the DGA, it became clear that the Dulin as a venue was limiting the expansion of Knoxville’s fine arts culture. In the same year, Knoxville was ranked as the second most livable city in the US. The committee which determined “livability” added, if Knoxville had a fine arts museum, it would be a “quantum leap forward;” in essence, the lacking large public art museum was holding Knoxville back. In the words of Dulin Director Rebecca Massie-Lane, “The present Gallery is neither capable of serving the immediate needs of Knoxville nor matching the wider cultural aspirations of the vibrant city Knoxville is becoming” (The Knoxville Museum of Art Archives).

Present-day photo of the Dulin, photo credit Architecture: Tradition blog, published by Johnathan Miller Architects; used with permission

Though a feasibility study recommended a move to the site of the 1982 World’s Fair, the Dulin Board of Trustees nearly stalled movement on the issue, refusing to agree that the move was necessary. It was only after Mayor Kyle Testerman’s offered one million dollars if the Dulin was relocated to the western edge of the World’s Fair site that the Board began to have serious progress in attaining a successful vote favoring the move. Finally, on September 9, 1985, in a board meeting in the Sunsphere overlooking the future site, the board voted to build a regional art museum on the World’s Fair site, and ground-breaking was scheduled for April 1986. Mayor Testerman was true to his word and also deeded the land to the museum, taking 1.9 acres from the Riverfront condominium development, stating, “It’s the city’s land… let them [Riverfront] sue us. I hope they do” (The Knoxville Museum of Art Archives). Then the Mayor took a further step. In a public declaration while giving the Board the deed to the site, he agreed to pledge another one million dollars in public funds if the museum could raise three million on their own. With this bold action, the largest fund-raising effort for a cultural project in the history of Knoxville began; the total amount raised has yet to be challenged by another project.

By the end of April, the fund-raising campaign had grossed about $4.05 million in pledges and donations, the largest of which were from First National Bank, Pilot Oil, Alcoa Foundation, Coca-cola, and other private donors. Another shot in the arm for the campaign was the pledge of another million dollars from public Tennessee funds in the State Senate, resulting in about a total of $4.6 million dollars in early 1987. But then the fund-raising stalled when a new budget estimate revised the fund-raising goal to a massive $9.5 million, more than twice of the 1985 estimate of $4.5 million.

Nonetheless, progress was still being made. The architects for the new museum were determined: New York City-based Edward Larrabee Barnes and Associates, whose specialty was modern Bauhaus-style architecture — would design the actual museum building, and Knoxville-based architecture firm of McCarty, Holsaple, and McCarty would design the adjoining Candy Factory renovation. Thus both Knoxville talent and outside talent were used in the project, resulting in the appealing combination of the architecture of the current Knoxville Museum of Art with the Candy Factory. The Dulin officially closed its doors in March 1987, and the new Knoxville Museum of Art at the Candy Factory opened the next month. Even this small move had beneficial effects for the venue: during the first seven weeks at the Candy Factory, attendance passed the previous year’s attendance numbers at the Dulin, and the Art Market, also relocated from the Dulin, likewise had more sales in the same seven weeks than in the prior year.

The Knoxville Museum of Art at the Candy Factory, “Sweet Art,” Daily Beacon, 1988; accessed through the McClung Historical Collection

Donations mostly halted between the spring and winter of 1987, until Jim Clayton of Clayton Homes effectively saved the fund-raising campaign. After Clayton was unresponsive about donations for weeks, the president of the board of trustees, Caesar Stair, went to Clayton’s condominium. Clayton nonchalantly asked for a legal pad, and Stair obliged. Clayton gave the pad back to Stair, and asked him to read it aloud: Clayton had declared a one million dollar pledge in Clayton Homes stock, another one million dollar pledge to be donated over five years, and yet another one million dollar pledge to be distributed over ten years. Moreover, at the press conference declaring his donation in January of 1988, Clayton stated that he would pay the $250,000 extra needed to use Tennessee pink marble on the exterior of the building, which Barnes had already decided was his material of choice. After these generous gifts, the Knoxville Museum of Art building was officially titled the Jim Clayton Building.

Between February and May of 1988, donations to the project expanded massively — it seemed Clayton’s gifts had given the project the credibility it needed to be successful, and in June 1988, ground was officially broken at the World’s Fair site. But two days before the ground-breaking, yet another estimate increased the budget by $1.5 million dollars. The museum directors scrambled to delay or cancel projects from the budget so the building would still be able to secure loans and finish construction on schedule. By December 1988, the fund drive had reached over nine million dollars in donations and pledges, and the construction was making significant progress; by spring of 1989, the structure was in place.

Knoxville News-Sentinel, 1989; accessed through the McClung Historical Collection

In the summer of 1989, Rebecca Massie-Lane left after more than seven years as the director of the Dulin and the Knoxville Art Museum at the Candy Factory, having seen the museum through the most trying parts of its lifetime. Soon thereafter, the budget was increased by another ten percent, as structural problems were found in the ground and several hundred thousands of dollars of unbudgeted sales taxes from the contracting construction company were added. In fall of 1989, the museum hit yet an additional obstruction: for the museum to open on time, it would need to order some materials six months in advance, but they would need further loans for these materials, and local banks refused to give any more loans. In response, Caesar Stair, the chairman of the board of trustees, made a radical decision — he had the trustee members to sign “conditional pledges,” which guaranteed that if there were not enough funds by December 1993, the individual members would pay the balance. The banks agreed, and the materials were ordered in time.

In December 1989, another legend left the museum, as Caesar Stair conducted his last meeting as the chairman of the board of trustees, appropriately held in the Clayton Building, which was completed but would not open until March. The building was complete with state-of-the-art systems, including artwork-standard climate control, high-density construction to support heavy artwork, massively increased gallery and square footage, and window and lighting design to take advantage of natural light but prevent the sunlight from damaging paintings. This venue was everything that the Dulin was not: spacious, accessible for the greater Knoxville population, with high technology installations.

KMA prior to opening; Knoxville News-Sentinel, March 23, 1990; accessed through the McClung Historical Collection

Glady Faires soon followed Caesar Stair as the new board chairwoman in January 1991. The Knox County Executive and County Commission also generously agreed to donate $250,000 per year for the next four years. As March approached, the museum began to prepare for the grand opening, and by March 25, 1990, more than 850 people had contributed to the fund-raising. In the words of Stephanie Piper from The Daily Times, the museum had finally succeeded: “The nay-sayers seemed to constitute a vocal majority. There was a lot of sighing and shaking of heads. But there were other voices, quiet, insistent, powerful voices [like] Alan Solomon… who grew up in the shadow of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and never forgot it. There was Caesar Stair who embraced the idea of a new building and simply refused to let go until it was accomplished. There were voices that talked themselves hoarse, raising money on the phone and voices that spoke wistfully of exhibits they’d seen in Atlanta or Chicago or Washington and longed to see them here. These are the voices that triumphed, drowning out the rumble of doubt” (The Knoxville Museum of Art Archives).

On March 25, 1990, the Knoxville Museum of Art opened its doors to the general public for the first time, and more than 7,000 people turned out in that single day to visit the museum. For the opening, the building was covered in “Balloon Scape,” as multiple balloons, large to small, enveloped the museum’s roof. Though some areas, like the North Garden sculpture court and the educational South Garden, were not yet completed, the Knoxville community as a whole received an influential cultural venue with the opening. A Knoxville News-Sentinel editorial printed that “Knoxville’s cultural identity will take a significant step forward,” and Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, in a keynote speech at the opening, called KMA “the crowning jewel of the World’s Fair Park” (The Knoxville Museum of Art Archives).

Balloon Scape and KMA upon opening; Knoxville News-Sentinel, March 26, 1990, “Building itself most popular exhibit at museum opening,” accessed through the McClung Historical Collection

After opening, the museum cycled through several administrative changes but always retained the themes of enhancing Knoxville’s cultural characteristics and presenting the work of local artists from Knoxville and surrounding areas. It also emphasized the importance of volunteers to its viability as a local museum; art education to visitors; and accessibility to all visitors. In 1993, the Board of Trustees made the landmark decision to eliminate admission charges, and within a year, attendance increased over 100%. With the removal of any financial barriers to visitors, KMA became truly an egalitarian cultural resource, available to all who visit Knoxville.

Within recent years, KMA has attained several honors. In November 1996, it was awarded accreditation by the American Association of Museums, making it ranked in the top 10% of all museums throughout the US. As of February 1998, Knoxville Museum of Art officially gained ownership of the Clayton Building and held a public “mortgage-burning ceremony.” KMA gained their first “signature piece,” Dragon II, in 2005 included to the sculpture garden in honor of Dr. Alan Solomon, one of the trustees who made a significant impact on the fund-raising effort. And, after being unable to display due to needed restoration for nearly half a century, in 2006, the Thorne Miniature Rooms were added to the museum collection permanently and remain one of the largest displays of its kind in the United States.

Dragon II, as shown in the Sculpture Garden

Today, the Knoxville Museum of Art acts not only as an art museum for the city of Knoxville, but also as a cultural venue — it frequently hosts the Alive After Five programs, recently presented musical guests in the Big Ears music festival, and has an annual immensely successful “L’Amour du Vin” wine auction and dinner, as well as art auctions and interactive art programs. The museum’s location, connecting campus and downtown, has also been a factor in the revitalization of downtown Knoxville and frequently brings in visitors and potential buyers for local businesses. Being an accessible cultural asset and venue to the city of Knoxville, the museum is much of the reason for the recent downtown recovery.

History Works Cited

The Knoxville Museum of Art Archives. “Time Line History for April 15, 2000 Installation.” Not published, 2000. Print. Sources used: Knoxville News-Sentinel, 1960-1990; The Knoxville Journal, 1960-1990; The Daily Beacon, 1960-1990; researched the McClung Historical Collection.

Mcrary, Amy. “Fusing bright future, storied past; Knoxville Museum of Art: Celebrating 15 years.” Knoxville News-Sentinel. 6 May 2005. 25 Apr. 2010.

“Miniature Thorne Rooms Reinstalled at KMA.” Art Knowledge News. Art Appreciation Foundation, 6 Aug. 2006. 25 Apr. 2010.

Exterior and Interior

A venue with such importance, however, must have a powerful exterior and interior to house its cultural attractions. The exterior of the building is comprised of Tennessee pink marble, a rare building material, to reflect its location and Southern heritage. The building is designed in the Bauhaus style, which is defined by almost entirely perpendicular angles and a focus on clear geometry rather than intricacy. The Bauhaus movement developed in Weimar Germany as a reaction to the revival of neoclassical architecture in the 1900s; this neoclassical architectural style is even seen in the Dulin House, with grand columns and intricate detailing around windows and doors. In contrast, the Knoxville Museum of Art building is symmetrical, and the undecorated square blocks of marble and large square panes of glass used on the exterior emphasize this theme of perpendicularity. On the sides of the building, a long set of blocks of marble are arranged in a staircase pattern guiding the eye down from the raised entrance to the sculpture and education gardens below. The juxtaposition of the two opposing styles seen in the Dulin House and the Knoxville Museum of Art acts as a representation of the two venues and their ability to change the cultural context of Knoxville: because the Dulin’s beauty is ornate and antiquarian, as was the audience it seemed to appeal to, it appears conventional and plain compared to the imposing unambiguous design and size of the Knoxville Museum of Art, able to appeal to a broad set of audiences and still be progressive.

Perpendicularity of the building's exterior

The interior of the building even reflects this attitude of embracing change. The interior is defined by a contrast between wide open expanses, in central areas like the Great Hall area or staircases, and smaller, enclosed gallery spaces with asymmetrical walls which break the galleries down into smaller sections based on the nature of the artwork. These smaller areas give the visitor a more intimate viewing experience and allow the viewer to interact with the artwork, approaching it from different angles, considering it from different gallery areas, and in some cases, physically touching the work, like in the recent weaving exhibit where the visitors were invited to make their own spools of thread which were added to a wall of multicolored thread.

Thread exhibit

Interior gallery

But the open spaces also provide an important role in contributing the museum. They can act as exhibition space, like the staircase area in the upper floor, displaying massive paintings and sculptures, or in the downstairs Great Hall, as a performance venue. This area is frequently used for musical performances, such as Alive After  Five, the recent Big Ears Festival, or jazz and classical musical festivals; wine or art auctions; or receptions and private events. These events allow the museum to expand its audience from simply art museum visitors to guests of all ages who might visit the museum after seeing a concert at the venue. It also broadens KMA’s role from an art museum to an advanced cultural attraction, hosting almost every type of art imaginable — performing, visual, or gastronomic. The unique interior of the Knoxville Museum of Art allows for expansion in its role of a cultural attraction in Knoxville.

Staircase from the upper floor

KMA's Great Hall

Another distinctive aspect of KMA is the Sculpture Garden on the north side of the museum, between the museum and the Candy Factory. Many visitors might walk past this, not realizing it is one of the most beautiful places in the entire museum. Populated with many native East Tennessean plants, trees, and flowers, it displays many striking sculptures in a setting which could make a visitor forget their location within the city if it wasn’t for the view of the World’s Fair Park, the Sunsphere, and downtown Knoxville. Furthermore, many “hidden” aspects of the architecture, such as the staircases on the side, becomes visible from this vantage point, and the benches placed strategically around the garden gives KMA yet another cultural role within Knoxville: a park. Though not a park in the most traditional sense — one certainly could not throw a football in the area — it is a place of natural beauty yet embracing its urban location, much like Parisian parks, meant for resting one’s feet and reading a book or engaging in quiet introspection. The Sculpture Garden adds another dimension to KMA’s role within Knoxville.

Architecture visible in the Sculpture Garden

View of World's Fair Park from the Sculpture Garden

KMA’s design, relative to the Dulin and other venues in Knoxville, makes it a clear cultural attraction in Knoxville. Its architecture makes it feel progressive and welcoming to many different groups of people, as does its interior. Its interior also gives it versatility, allowing it to host a wide range of artistic events and performances. Furthermore, the Sculpture Garden lends it another role: a peaceful Parisian park, sophisticated and relaxing, educational and individual.

Theoretical Approach and City Context

The city theorists of Walter Benjamin, Rem Koolhaas, and Walter Gropius are appropriate for analyzing the museum, and, by applying a theoretical approach to the Dulin and the Knoxville Museum of Art, a better understanding of both venues and their roles within Knoxville, can be gained.

In Walter Benjamin’s article “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” within his massive Archades Project, he describes the concept of the flâneur, “the explorer of the crowd,” or a sightseer, one who wanders from street to street, from attraction to attraction (Benjamin 21-22). The Dulin’s context within the city — hidden within Sequoyah Hills and West  Knoxville — removes any possibility of a flâneur; to access it, one must drive to the site with the purpose of going to the Dulin. But the Knoxville Museum of Art, located in the heart of the city invites this sort of wandering guests, who, on an impulse decision, are provoked by the strong architecture and presence of the building and decide to visit.

The rear of the Dulin, as taken from across the river; photo credit Architecture: Tradition blog, published by Johnathan Miller Architects; used with permission

Furthermore, the Knoxville Museum of Art’s location, between 11th Street and Clinch Avenue, which bridges the vast gap between the University of Tennessee’s campus, Fort Sanders, and downtown, enables any person visiting Market Square or visiting campus to stop by the museum. Indeed, it is when Cumberland Avenue passes under Henley Street that it becomes Main Street, showing the change in districts from campus to downtown. The museum makes the city more cohesive, as a connected city rather than islands of neighborhoods and blocks. Culturally, it also addresses the “culture gap” between campus and downtown — one associated with parties, young students, and libraries, and the other with banks, commuters, and restaurants. KMA is able to lessen the gap by appealing to both audiences of college students and adult downtown residents by providing an egalitarian and versatile environment, capable of presenting art galleries, musical performances, and wine tastings in one venue. Again, its location acts as a “middle ground” between the two, making it equally accessible to both groups, and its lacking admission fee only reinforces this accessibility.

In another theoretical context, the Knoxville Museum of Art represents a concept presented by Rem Koolhaas in his essay “Delirious New York,” as well as a Bauhausian concept of “form follows function.”  Koolhaas writes, discussing the birth of the Empire State Building, “The Empire State Building is a form of automatic architecture, a sensuous surrender by its collective makers — from the accountant to the plumber — to the process of building” (Koolhaas 139). Applying this definition, the Knoxville Museum of Art can be seen in this light, especially with the intense dedication applied by the fundraisers to the process of construction of the building; time and money were surrendered so the project could occur and Knoxville could have an art museum, even to hire the architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. Certainly, this surrender is seen, pervasive throughout the building, in the accomplishment of the many gardens and galleries, the Great Hall, educational programs, and operation without admission fee. But perhaps this financial surrender was not Koolhaas’s focus, even though it is an important element within KMA’s birth; instead, the architect Edward Larrabee Barnes would probably agree the physical building is constructed with a focus on the Bauhaus concept of “form follow function:” as an imposing and progressive regional art center, the building could not be timid or common. Rather, it acts as a focal point for anyone walking or driving on Clinch Avenue on 11th Street, rising above World’s Fair Park, successful in dominating its locality. Contrasting to this is the architecture of the Dulin Gallery of Art: hidden away off of Kingston Pike and appearing much alike the surrounding homes of affluent Knoxville residents, it is easily driven by, and most drivers that pass the Dulin House are likely unaware of its significance in Knoxville history. The Dulin was not designed with the function of an art museum in mind, but the Knoxville Museum of Art was, and the difference is clear.

The Knoxville Museum of Art as viewed from World's Fair Park

Applying a theoretical approach to the evolution of the Knoxville Museum of Art from the Dulin reveals a new perspective and better understanding of both venues, what they represent, and what they are capable of as cultural attractions.

Theoretical Approach Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” The Archades Project (1939): 21-22.

Koolhaas, Rem. “The Lives of a Block: The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the Empire State Building.” Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. 139.


With its extensive history and location changes, the Knoxville Museum of Art has expanded its role into a compelling cultural attraction in Knoxville and a key driving force for the expansion of downtown. The museum acts as a bridge between campus and downtown and, through its architecture strength, connects the two districts. Furthermore, it acts as more than simply a fine art gallery and exhibits all aspects of fine arts in downtown Knoxville. The Knoxville Museum of Art remains one of the strongest and most influential cultural venues within Knoxville.

Jennifer Dobbins


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