It is standard for an art institution to have a close relationship with its founder, but employees of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, are in the unique position of apparently extending that relationship beyond the veil. Though Hattie Bishop Speed established the institution in 1927 and subsequently passed on in 1942, some workers at the Speed say they continue to feel her presence.

Mostly, supernatural occurrences are limited to feelings of a presence, shadowy figures, or unexplained movements in one’s peripheral visions. However, a more undeniable incident, and one with many witnesses, appropriately took place during the member’s preview for the exhibition Supernatural America in October of last year — an event that seems to have been attended by more than just living patrons of the arts.

“While Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art originated in Minneapolis, the first venue was Toledo, followed by the Speed,” Erika Holmquist-Wall, curator of European and American Painting and Sculpture, told Hyperallergic. She continued that on the opening night of the show, a small bottle of “spirit water” collected by artist J. B. Murray “seemed to jump on its pedestal in front of a guest.”

“Within 30 minutes this new ghost story had spread widely across the museum,” Holmquist-Wall said. “It definitely indicated that there were otherworldly visitors with us that evening.”

Of course, Hyperallergic could not independently verify these testimonies, nor claims of the museum’s haunting by its founder. (And we could not find a contact email for Hattie Bishop Speed’s ghost, either.)

A bronze life mask of Abraham Lincoln, made by Leonard Wells Volk in 1860, is one of the objects in the Speed’s collection that fuels rumors of supernatural activity. (image courtesy the Speed Art Museum)

Another worker recalls a dramatic incident that took place when he first began at the museum in 2012, in the midst of packing for a $60 million dollar expansion that disrupted business as usual at the Speed.

“We were closed down for about three and a half years, and we moved a lot of the offices off-site,” said Steven Bowling, the museum’s marketing officer. “We were packing up, and two elderly ladies — an accountant and her assistant — had huge file cabinets filled with accounting documents. They came in one morning and went to open their door, which opens into the room, and there was a file cabinet that had been pushed in front of the door, about four to six inches, which is weird, because there’s only one way to get in there.”

Bowling and a construction worker on hand had to push their way into the room, and could find no explanation for the cabinet’s movement.

“I still to this day wonder, how did that happen?” he said.

Perhaps, as is conventional among spirits, the ghost of Hattie Speed was disturbed by changes to the museum, and decided to register her complaints with the ladies of accounting. But reports of supernatural activity at the Speed have not been limited to the office staff.

“I have heard stories about Hattie’s ghost interfering with installs in the past from employees who had been at the Speed longer than myself, like labels that continued to illogically fall off the wall,” Exhibition and Project Coordinator Adrienne Miller told Hyperallergic. “However, I think after the 2016 renovation of the building, we have shaken off any remaining spirit presence.”

Morris Kantor, “Haunted House” (1930), included in Supernatural America (image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY © Estate of Morris Kantor)

Though spirit activity seems to follow the exhibition Supernatural America wherever it tours — Bowling mentions disruptions reported by security staff at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where the exhibition traveled in February of this year — the folks at the Speed seem to regard most of their unusual goings-on as the presence of their founder.

“Sometimes the elevators will open up on its own and no one is there,” Bowling said. “And we always make a joke and say, ‘Come on in Hattie, it’s fine. We hope you like it.’”

“I firmly believe Hattie Bishop Speed would have a genuine interest in ensuring that things are going well for the museum she founded and directed for many years,” said Holmquist-Wall. “I’d like to think she’s checking in on us every now and then.”

“We do verbally thank Hattie sometimes when things go well or we take staff out to lunch,” Miller added. “I think we all superstitiously think she’s still watching us carry out the work she started.”

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

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