The Knoxville Museum of Art (KMA) today announced the planned retirement of Executive Director David Butler in December 2023. A national search for his replacement is currently underway.
Butler began his role as KMA executive director in 2006. Under his leadership, the Museum has sharpened its focus, raised its profile, and increased its engagement with the community and the entire East Tennessee region. The permanent exhibition Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee opened in 2008 to present the compelling story of the visual arts in Knoxville and the region. At the same time, the Museum instituted its policy of free admission. Higher Ground was soon joined by the permanent exhibition Currents: Recent Art from East Tennessee and Beyond to bring the story up to the present and introduce a more global perspective. The 2014 unveiling of Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity by acclaimed Knoxville artist Richard Jolley, affirmed the KMA’s focus on artists with ties to the region. In preparation for the installation of Cycle of Life, the world’s largest figural glass assemblage, the KMA underwent a comprehensive renovation at a cost of nearly $6 million, supported by a successful community capital campaign. Butler was also instrumental in the ambitious effort to build the museum’s collection of paintings by Knoxville native Beauford Delaney; the KMA now holds more works by this great twentieth-century painter than any other public institution.
Over the course of Butler’s long tenure, the Museum has consistently operated in the black, and its annual operating budget has doubled, to just over $2 million. Butler has been active in the museum field at the state, regional, and national level, serving as a board member of Tennesseans for the Arts; a panelist for the Tennessee Arts Commission; and a peer reviewer for the American Alliance of Museums, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. He was president of the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC) from 2014 to 2016 and received the James R. Short award for service to the museum profession from the SEMC in 2022.
KMA board chair Julia Bentley noted, “David has worked diligently and collaboratively to develop the KMA as a vibrant civic asset and make it a place where everyone feels welcome. We are grateful for his years of service and deep commitment to the organization, and his vision for how an art museum can have a real and lasting impact in the community and the region.”
Before he came to Knoxville, Butler was executive director of the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University in Kansas. Previously, he served in a similar capacity at the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, and at the Emerson Gallery at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida State University and a Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis.
“It’s been the honor of a lifetime to serve this community as director of the KMA, and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together since 2006,” Butler said. “I am extremely optimistic about the KMA’s future under new leadership, and more excited than ever about the KMA’s potential. The Museum is in a solid financial position and has a strong sense of identity and mission, outstanding staff, loyal supporters, dedicated Board of Trustees, and beautiful facility in excellent condition.” A committee chaired by longtime KMA supporter, current board member, and former board chair Steve Bailey is leading the search for the Museum’s new director, with the assistance of Appleton Arts Consulting. Butler will continue to reside in Knoxville and be active in the community upon his retirement.