Expanded and reimagined version of Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee opens at the Knoxville Museum of Art November 3

October 17, 2023

Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee, the Knoxville Museum of Art’s flagship permanent exhibition, has been completely reimagined, expanded, and relocated to newly renovated galleries. The 70+ works in the exhibition are drawn mostly from the KMA’s growing holdings and showcase works dating ca. 1860-1980 by artists with ties to the region.   

The new installation opens at 10am on Friday, November 3, with the public invited to a special opening celebration and reception from 5:30-7:30pm. Cash bar. 

Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee first opened in 2008 as a tangible expression of the KMA’s mission “to celebrate East Tennessee’s rich, diverse visual culture.” In the years since, understanding of the development of the visual arts in Knoxville and its environs has grown dramatically, as has the museum’s collection of works by artists from or connected to the region. The new installation is housed in two freshly renovated galleries flanking the museum’s entry lobby, with space to accommodate a more dynamic, engaging, and inclusive presentation, and allow for a greater representation of notable artists. The enlarged and enhanced Higher Ground presents a fuller and more detailed picture of an important phase of our region’s development and supports the proposition that Knoxville and its Appalachian environs are far more culturally sophisticated, diverse, nuanced, and connected—in short, more interesting–than many people assume.   

“The reopening of Higher Ground in newly refurbished, larger galleries represents a big milestone in the museum’s history,” says KMA Executive Director David Butler. “As the world’s only ongoing display devoted to the art history of East Tennessee, it has been enthusiastically embraced by our community, who can see themselves represented in it. We’re pleased that we can now show more of the quality and diversity of our region’s rich visual arts legacy.”   

The new installation is organized around several broad themes. The first, “Grand Ambitions: Forging an Arts Community,” addresses the formation of the region’s first community of professional artists and their dialogue with contemporary currents of American art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This section is built around pioneering Impressionist Catherine Wiley, who trained in the Northeast and returned to Knoxville to encourage the development of a true artistic community here with Hugh Tyler, Lloyd Branson, and other local artists and patrons and organized some of the largest art exhibitions in the South.   

 The second section, “Defining a Regional Identity: Mountain Vistas and Urban Life,” is dedicated to some of the ways a diverse and complex region has been represented by artists. Mountain landscapes by Charles Krutch, Rudolph Ingerle, and Ansel Adams celebrated the wild beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains, while renowned photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Danny Lyon documented the hardscrabble reality of twentieth-century city life in Knoxville. 

The third section, and the centerpiece of the installation, celebrates the achievements of Beauford and Joseph Delaney, who left their Knoxville hometown to achieve national and international prominence. Thanks to the depth and richness of the KMA’s holdings by Beauford Delaney, arguably the most important artist East Tennessee ever produced, visitors can assess a broad segment of the painter’s evolution with particular emphasis given to the atmospheric abstract paintings of his fertile Paris years of the 1950s and 1960s, works once described by protégé James Baldwin as evidence of the painter’s “metamorphosis into freedom.”  

A fourth major segment, “Reshaping Reality: East Tennessee’s Dialogue with Modernism,” focuses on The Knoxville 7, a progressive group of disparate artists united by their common interest in anchoring Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and other modernist movements in local soil in the 1950s and 60s. This fourth section includes a permanent display of work by Black artist Bessie Harvey, an East Tennessee visionary who later in the 20th century rose from poverty to achieve national recognition. Self-taught, but knowledgeable about contemporary art, she created spiritually-charged figures from found objects, usually religious subjects intended to educate, edify, and cleanse a world she saw as plagued by prejudice and deceit.  

Higher Ground is accompanied by a book-length, color-illustrated catalog published by the University of Tennessee Press, and features cell-phone audio tours in English and Spanish (with a special edition for vision-impaired visitors) and a video tour in American Sign Language.   

Major sponsors of Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee include the Henry Luce Foundation, Aslan Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, Terra Foundation for American Art, and National Endowment for the Arts.    

Normal operating hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, 1-5 p.m. The KMA will be closed on Saturdays, Nov. 4, 18, and 25, due to the home University of Tennessee games.