Social Animal / Spiritual Guide
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Long before Reverend Al Shands bought his first contemporary artwork, he founded an Episcopal church that met weekly at a Washington, D.C. seafood restaurant. “I find the wholesome, institutional nature of the church rather boring. But I do not find religion boring. To pray, I do not find boring,” he said. For six years during the 1960s, Shands was able to maintain this unusual congregation. “The only place we could afford to start meeting was in the restaurant. We used the mixing bowl as the baptismal font, the wine came from the bar, our bread was the rolls they served and our altar was the table.” For Shands, “The religious encounter is like a dinner party.”
Shands’s collection of contemporary art that will be bequeathed to Louisville’s Speed Art Museum upon his death is, similarly, and provocatively, idiosyncratic. The entire collection is housed at his estate Great Meadows in Crestwood, Kentucky, a pastoral dreamland of rolling hills, blue grasses, wild flowers, and roaming cows. This is the American heartland, where conservative social and religious values thrive. Shands and his late wife Mary Norton Shands built the house as an ode to the landscape, and as a stage for their large collection of ceramics, glass, sculpture, photography, and painting.
The Shands collected significant work by Sol LeWitt, as well as pieces by Richard Long, Alice Aycock, Anish Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson, Petah Coyne, Judy Moonelis, Elizabeth Murray, David Nash, Ernesto Neto, Alfredo Jaar, Javiar Perez, Judy Pfaff, Jaume Plensa, Siah Armajani, Kibong Thee, Arturo Sandoval, Ursula Von Rydingsvard, Joel Shapiro, Vik Muniz, Alyson Shotz, Kiki Smith, Donny Tolson, Peter Shelton, Mary Miss, Jim Dine, Scott Burton, Andy Goldsworthy, Eric Fischl, Maya Lin, and the list goes on.
“The gallery system is like a church in how congregations are drummed up and cultivated,” Shands notes. “I have always been leery of institutions in general. The church has been captured by the institution, but the church is much more than the institution.” Likewise, the lives of artworks are much more than their tenure in a museum.
Like the environment at his early restaurant church, Shands creates casual moments at home for artists to gather and for objects to speak amongst themselves. “What it [the restaurant] did was put the whole emphasis on the group experience, the people, interacting with the secular life that they already knew. Yet it suddenly had a religious meaning that they had never picked up on before.” Shands’s own spirituality is informed by a core belief: any attempt to reify faith whether through repetitive ritual, doctrine or institution is doomed to failure. His art collection reflects a similar sensibility.
The big question is, what will happen when his collection is transferred to the museum site? The Speed is undergoing a massive expansion and will reopen in three years with abundant new gallery space for contemporary art. Upon Shands’s death, the museum will have to absorb and contextualize objects that were purchased from the standpoint of two people committed to individual artists and the cultivation of a spirited, intimate home life. Due to the size of the Shands’s collection, it will certainly galvanize, if not entirely redefine, the Speed’s contemporary holdings.
After running the restaurant church, Shands’s congregation moved into a regular building, and with it came the usual institutional struggles of financial sustainability. Suddenly, the questions were not about people gathering to exchange ideas and experiences but rather, how many were in attendance and was there enough money to pay utilities. The primary mission had been compromised. He reflects, “For 35 years I ran the church there. I told people it has a back and a front door. Some stayed, others didn’t.”
During this period he met his wife, the heiress Mary Norton. Together they learned about collecting, both craft and fine art. Mrs. Shands was from Louisville, Kentucky as was Al’s mother, making it an easy move from D.C.
By positioning their home as the ideal space for gathering with friends, peers, and family, and exchanging ideas and sharing experience, they created a free and intimate space to encounter art. And the artworks that he lives with, “speak to each other and know each other.”
Shands and his wife built their home at Great Meadows in 1988 with the explicit desire to design a sanctuary for their art and their friends. They had been living at Foxhollow, the neighboring farm belonging to Mrs. Shands’s family, when one evening they meandered off into the fields and found themselves resting with a view across the landscape and surrounded by fireflies. They had found their spot.
“In the last several years, I’ve felt that in the house and its whole setting, there is a true sense of place. When I am in New York people want a place of peace, quiet and beauty. I am looking for something similar. It is a sense of enchantment. Every time I walk back in the house, I think this is such a wonderful place. Aren’t I lucky to live here. It is curious—part of it is Mary and me, and part of it is the artists we picked. Part of it is taking certain risks and creating an environment that is very engaging, emotive and different. It is a distillation of many things that are appealing to me. It is an aggregate of what appeals to me. It is a healing place. It is restorative. It engages you and pushes you. And I think that the art won’t leave you at the table.”
At each step and with every glance sculptural works dominate the house at Great Meadows. Forming a procession towards the dining room you will encounter the following: Descending Heel (1988) by Elizabeth Murray, Elements #19 (1989) by Siah Armajani, 5 Open Bowls (1999) by Ursula Von Rydingsvard, Anish Kapoor’s Untitled (Yellow Wall Disk), Robert Arneson’s Ecstasy of a Mud Stomper (1983) and Olafur Eliasson’s Walk Through Wall, Glass, Mirror, Wood (1989), Javiar Perez’s Cumulo (2001), and Richard Deacon’s Before My Very Eyes #3 (1989). The dining room is brimming with three of Petah Coyne’s wax sculptures. The artworks dominate the house, and the emphasis is experiential not referential. There is no explicit narrative conveyed, and by the same token there is no rigorous conceptual paradigm at play. The works combine to produce a profoundly visceral experience. The materiality of each piece reveals mineral, vegetal, animal, and human worlds, folded into one coherent spatial configuration.
On the Spiritual in Art
The lengthy list of artworks does not reveal a conventional attachment to a specific group of artists or an interest in telling one of the well-worn stories of contemporary art production. Except for Sol LeWitt, Wayne Fergusson, Donny Tolson, and perhaps Petah Coyne, there is no deep dive into any one artist’s work. Each of the artists is represented by a modest piece. Shands candidly describes his acquisitions as reflective of work usually made in mid-career and accessible within a certain budget.
“I like the fact that the collection has so many different artists in it. It has craft artists and conceptual artists. I like difference. But it has to be the right difference. It cannot clash so much that it becomes discordant with the whole.” This collection, therefore, poses an invigorating curatorial challenge to the Speed Museum.
The Shands began collecting craft through their support as founders of what is now the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, long before their first foray into contemporary art. Their approach to collecting craft informed how they attended to contemporary artists. While Mr. Shands has always looked to experts in the field for guidance, particularly curators Julien Robson and Alice Gray Stites, a profound humanism defines his interests.
Shands understands spirituality as sense experience. He has dedicated much of his life to the pursuit of a religiously-based social order, be it fluid, encompassing and always changing. “Since disbanding the house church, I have been going around to churches on Sunday mornings, not because I am particularly looking for a home church, but I am just curious to see what it is like. And it is very mixed. I have been to everything from Quaker meetings to you name it. I think the institutional aspect of the church is petering on the edge. I cannot imagine what I would see 75 years from now, but people are not looking at religion in institutional forms. Still, you have to be able to articulate what is really going on inside of you. I’ve recently been going to a place called the Sojourners. It is a pretty interesting movement. It’s a national movement, very spiritual, very masculine, very young, and organized around social justice issues.
It is very New Testament. You hear the word sin about fifteen times in a service. But I can make translations in my mind with the language. They make no attempt to do that, of course.”
Despite his contemporary collection, Shands is strikingly aware of the importance of historical context. When we first met we discussed his recently published book review. “What I liked about that medieval book is that it reminded me that whatever modernism has done with belief and the Death of God movement, there is still something to compare it to, which is the past. What is very weird about going to the Sojourners is they have no sense of the past at all. I think it is the same with art. It is all about now, and whatever happened yesterday is irrelevant. There is another death of theology happening today, but you can only understand it if you see it in light of the Divine Comedy or something like that.”
The Shands’s collection expresses many different tangents: the metaphysical awareness of, for instance, Kapoor and Eliasson, the social critique of Alfredo Jaar and Jaume Plensa, the phenomenological qualities of Richard Long, Petah Coyne, Robert Arneson, the conceptual work of Sol LeWitt in contra point to Elizabeth Murray’s neo-Expressionist painting. Like Shands’s spirituality, which is anchored and organized by his forays into different religions, this collection is in a constant state of flux, a strategy born out of a deep and abiding intuition and a wariness of convention.
The fascinating task that museums and other institutional repositories of art face as more collectors emerge is how to contextualize collections that are, by their very nature, “a-institutional.” I look forward to watching how museums like the Speed contend with the obsessions of collectors, whose idiosyncratic taste rarely cleaves to the official story of art history.