Knoxville Museum of Art Presents ‘Tools as Art: Work & Play’ Exhibition

April 30, 2024

The Knoxville Museum of Art is pleased to announce Tools as Art: Work & Play, on view from May 3 through August 4, 2024, with an opening reception that will take place on Friday, May 10, from 5:30-7:30 pm. This free event is open to the public with a cash bar. In addition to the exhibition opening that evening, the museum will host its monthly Soundscapes concert series beginning at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20 for KMA members and $25 for non-members.

Jim Dine, Big Red Wrench in a Landscape, 1973, Color Lithograph, 30” x 22” x 2”, courtesy of International Arts & Artists, copyright 2024.

Tools as Art: Work & Play features a selection of more than fifty works from the collection of John W. Hechinger which celebrate the transformation of common industrial objects into extraordinary works of art. Hechinger (1920-2004) was a highly respected civic and business leader, most often associated with the chain of do-it-yourself stores that carried his family name. Once ubiquitous in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, the Hechinger Company was founded by John’s father in 1911 and exemplified a twentieth-century success story: the transformation of a neighborhood hardware store into an expansive chain of home-improvement centers.

Jacob Lawrence, The Builders, 1974, color screenprint on wove paper, photograph by IA&A, © Jacob Lawrence/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Lesser known to the public is that John and his wife June were lifelong philanthropists and art enthusiasts, assembling an impressive collection of artwork that honors the beauty of common tools where form and function are inextricably linked. When Hechinger moved into new corporate headquarters in 1978, he found the building efficient yet sterile: “It struck me that the endless repetition of corridors and cubicles was boring and seemed to rebuke the fantasies that a hardware store inspires. For anyone whose passion is to work with his or her hands, a good hardware store is a spur to the imagination.”

After he hung a suite of Jim Dine prints in his office, Hechinger immediately noted his associates’ enjoyment. Realizing also the thematic resonance with his business, he set out collecting art that championed the company’s very livelihood: “It was the hope that surrounding employees with artistic expressions of the same objects they handled in the tens of thousands would bring a sense of dignity to their jobs.”

By tapping into their metaphoric potential, the exhibition explores tools as icons of labor, labor as a component of creativity, and creativity as a form of play. Some treat tools as a stand-in for the self, often assigning them human attributes and honoring their simple efficiency and sheer elegance. The exhibition also features artists who embrace tools as a hallmark of civilization or use tools for humor and social commentary.

Some of the most influential artists of the twentieth century are featured in the exhibition, including Berenice Abbott, Colleen Barry-Wilson, Jim Dine, Georgia Deal, Richard Estes, Ke Francis, Jacob Lawrence, Hans Namuth, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Lucas Samaras, Aaron Siskind, and Wayne Thiebaud.

Also happening at Knoxville Museum of Art in May:

  • Sunday, May 12, 1:00-4:00 pm: Second Sunday Art Activity; Free
    Children in grades K-6 are invited to drop in for a hands-on art activity taught by a certified art teacher. This will be a special Second Sunday at the KMA! Kickstand Community Bike Shop will be on hand to lead demonstrations on bicycle maintenance.

The Knoxville Museum of Art gratefully acknowledges the generous support of McCarty Holsaple McCarty Architects, Inc. and Marsh Made Designs. The Tennessee Arts Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Arts & Culture Alliance provided additional support. Also supported in part by Knox County and the U.S. Department of the Treasury and by the federal award number SLFRP5534 awarded to the State of Tennessee by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Tools As Art: Work & Play is organized and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C.

International Arts & Artists in Washington, DC, is a non-profit arts service organization dedicated to increasing cross-cultural understanding and exposure to the arts internationally, through exhibitions, programs and services to artists, arts institutions and the public. Visit