For the Love of Art: An Appreciation of Al Shands

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Al Shands’ passion for collecting art was ignited in the early 1980s at a Berea craft fair in the company of his wife, Mary, who helped found the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation, now the KMAC Museum in Louisville. “Mary would have to drag me to craft fairs,” Shands recalled, a bit sheepishly, in a 2010 video interview with the Kentucky Arts Council, which was giving him an award for service to the arts in the commonwealth. “One time at the Berea fair, after I’d looked at too many whirligigs and quilts, I saw a ceramics piece by [Kentucky artist] Wayne Ferguson. I’d never heard of Wayne Ferguson, so I met him, and I bought the piece, sort of quickly. As I walked back to the car … I turned around and bought two more pieces.”  Telling the story on camera clearly delighted him. “And that was the beginning of my addiction,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “After that, it was just downhill all the way.”

It was the affable Shands’ way to frame his love affair with the visual arts in comic terms, but it couldn’t have been more serious or more consequential, both for him and for the commonwealth. Before he died last week at the age of 92, Shands and his wife – and, since her death in 2009, Shands alone – amassed one of Kentucky’s largest and finest private collections of contemporary art, housing it at Great Meadows, the sprawling, David Morton-designed home they built in 1988 in Crestwood, just north of Louisville. More than 150 works from the Shands Collection will now become visible to the public as part of the holdings of Louisville’s Speed Art Museum; a second group of art and crafts will go to KMAC. The grounds at Great Meadows in Oldham County, featuring outdoor sculptures by Monika Sosnowska, Eva Rothschild, Maya Lin, and others, will become the Mary and Al Shands Art Preserve, open to the public on a limited basis. 

Perhaps Shands’ greatest legacy is the philanthropic Great Meadows Foundation, which he founded in 2016 “to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world,” in the words of its website, greatmeadowsfoundation.org. To that end, the foundation gives professional development grants to artists, curators, and other art professionals in Kentucky, and also supports arts journalism, including coverage of contemporary art and artists in this magazine. “The Great Meadows support of UnderMain’s mission began in 2019 with funding to grow our Kentucky-based programs, particularly those that bolstered critical thinking in the visual arts,” says Christine Huskisson, a director of the magazine. “That support continues today, allowing UnderMain to expand into a wider geographical region. May his vision live on and our work live in honor of his generosity.” 

Julien Robson, the Great Meadows Foundation’s director, agrees that in a long career of philanthropic support for the arts, Shands’ creation of the foundation stands out as unique. “Whereas most arts patronage in Kentucky is directed to supporting institutions, organizations, and education, Al recognized that without those imaginative individuals who create art, there is no culture,” Robson says. “He wanted to support artists directly, not in the usually cited marketplace way, but by helping them broaden their engagement with art, art theory, and art philosophy globally, to enrich their thinking and the quality of their work.”

Shands’ own thinking about art evolved almost continuously throughout his life. He became fascinated by modern art during childhood visits to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.  With Mary at his side in the early ’80s, they began to collect ceramics from Kentucky and the surrounding region before casting a far wider net, collecting paintings and (especially) sculpture by national and international artists. After his early impulse-buying at the art fair in Berea and elsewhere, Shands developed into a slow, deliberative art buyer, preferring to educate himself thoroughly about an artist’s work – including, in some cases, through studio visits, during which he came to know the artist personally to some extent – before pulling the trigger. “Mary makes very quick decisions about things,” he recalled in a 2007 interview with Roger Smith News. “I tend to think about it too much, and a lot of times that stuff is gone by the time I get around to deciding, yeah, that’s what I really want.” Gregarious and lively well into their later years, the Shandses would often invite artists from around the world to Great Meadows for visits during which they became familiar with the space before going off to create a commissioned work for a specific location in the house, then returned later to install it. “Maybe it’s not exactly what you had in mind,” he said, “but it would be boring if it were.”

And while Shands occasionally bought pieces from famous artists such as the American minimalist Sol LeWitt (from whom he commissioned two site-specific works, including one that covers the walls and even the ceiling of his home office), he was going for more than a famous name. “His collection was very idiosyncratic,” says Peter Morrin, former director of the Speed and a close friend. “Yes, he bought from blue-chip artists like LeWitt, but for the most part, Al was the opposite of a collector who buys a Jeff Koons since Jeff Koons is a household name.” Nor was Shands’ collecting of the trophy-hoarding, investment-oriented sort associated with a certain class of hedge-fund billionaires, Morrin says. “If you talked to Al and pinned him down, collecting was not about possession or accumulation, having the work to show off. It was more about living with the work, enjoying its spiritual or transcendental implications, something like interpreting a sacred text.”

Shands’ appreciation of art may well have been part and parcel, or at least a tributary, of the spirituality that fueled his long career as an ordained Episcopal priest beginning in the late 1960s. (He served congregations in the nation’s capital, Michigan, and Louisville, and was deeply involved in the liberal reform of church liturgy, culminating in his work in 1979 as a co-creator of the revised Book of Common Prayer, now widely used in Episcopal parishes throughout the country.) “The word mystery figured a lot in our discussions,” says Robson, who also serves as curator of the Shands Collection. “As a collector, he was not interested in art being literalized – that is, reduced to ‘aboutness.’ It was instead intuitive and open, waxing in the imagination of the viewer, creating multiple channels of thought that could not be neatly tied off. He would talk about how, when you thought you had closed the loop of interpretation, it would escape and become something else, challenging you again. For him, this continuous escape had a relationship to the mysteries of the spiritual life.” Morrin agrees: “Art that appealed to him often had a whimsical element which spoke to some of the confounding but amusing paradoxes in Christian texts. He had a way of treating serious matters of spirituality with a sense of humor and fun, and his enjoyment of art was a kind of profound amusement, like the famous painting of a Buddhist monk laughing at the moon.”

Photo by Julien Robson

Shands could also be dead serious. He was not much interested, as a collector or viewer, in overtly political work, so prominent in today’s contemporary art world. “There’s nothing in the collection that screams about social injustice, that screams that the world is unequal,” Morrin says. “He looked for work that provokes, that asks questions, that makes inquiries, that teaches us new ways to see, or that shows us things we’ve haven’t seen before. But it’s not crusading art.” (Shands seems to have saved his activist inclinations for his filmmaking. He made about thirty documentaries for the Louisville television station WAVE over the years, including one about child abuse, Whose Child Is This?, that won a Peabody Award in 1978.)  And affable or no, he had strong opinions about art, artists and art institutions, the latter occasionally bringing him into conflict, as a trustee at the Speed, with his old friend Morrin. “Al had a strong ego, was very sure of himself, and I don’t think he was a person of much doubt,” Morrin recalls. “Our conflicts were centered around the totality of how museums operated in the 20th century. He was not convinced, for example, that museums needed to dedicate a lot of space to social events.”

In the end, it’s Shands’ infectious, almost boyish delight in visual art, undiminished for most of a century, that stands out in the minds of those who knew him. “For me the most exciting thing about him was the glee he took in living with art, looking at it, talking about it,” recalls University of Kentucky Art Museum director Stuart Horodner, who visited Great Meadows on several occasions. (Shands also bought works by Hunter Stamps and Crystal Gregory that he first saw at UK exhibitions.) “His sheer joy was palpable,” Horodner says. “I would only hope that I could be as open and as curious at that age, that I could have that twinkle in the eye.”

That twinkle was still there a few days before his death.“We had lunch with a group and sat next to each other, and what struck me was his enthusiasm about his recent acquisitions, which included a painting by [the Detroit-based artist James Benjamin Franklin] that he’d seen at KMAC,” Morrin says. “He was excited, he was exhilarated, he was actually ecstatic about those works. He wanted to know what I’d seen lately. He wanted to see more.”

A memorial service will be held on Wednesday September 22, 2021, at 10.30am outside the Shands’ home, Great Meadows, on Highway 1694N in Crestwood, KY. Masks are strongly advised.

Kevin Nance
Kevin Nancehttps://kevinnance.tumblr.com
Kevin Nance is a freelance arts journalist, photographer, and poet in Lexington whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, Poets & Writers Magazine and other publications. He's also the host of "Out & About in Kentucky," an LGBTQ newsmagazine show on RadioLex.
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