Platow’s Vision: The JB Speed Museum

Cynthia Osborne Hoskin

Built in 1927, The Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky was founded by Hattie Bishop Speed as a memorial to her husband, James Breckinridge Speed, a Louisville businessman and philanthropist. A non-profit arts museum, The Speed, as it is called by locals, is the largest museum in the state. It shares the University of Louisville Belknap campus but is not directly affiliated with the University. Collections span over 6,000 years of human culture, and traveling exhibits reach around the country and displays are widely shown in Kentucky.

The duties of a museum director are vast, complex, and persistent. From 2007 until 2021, Raphaela Platow, the new Director of The Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, was the Alice and Harris Weston Director of The Contemporary Arts Center, a non-collecting museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. She upgraded visitor spaces, introduced free attendance, and increased both revenue and private support by 400%. 

I met recently with Raphaela over Zoom, and after a brief ‘hello’ and explanation, she went off video, echoing my own belief that staring into a screen without moving for an extended period is stultifying. She went off to pace about, and the conversation followed in a lively and engaging manner. 

“After 14 years I was ready to do something different,” she started, “and to go back to an institution with a collection. You need variety in your life, and I think the Contemporary Art Center was ready for a new leader with a fresh perspective as well.” The Speed provided the impetus by offering her their directorship. 

In summarizing the difference between the two cities and the two museums, Platow says, “I think that as a city overall Cincinnati may be a bit more conservative than Louisville. We did have a lot of support for the Contemporary Art Center; it was not a small grassroots place. Instead, from small beginnings, it was the oldest contemporary Art Center in the country, so I’m not minimizing its importance, but its place among museums in Cincinnati was as a niche organization.

“In Louisville, it’s different, because The Speed is its major arts organization. Of course, we also show contemporary art and are committed to contemporary issues, so in that way it’s also a progressive organization, but we further represent the past as we have a huge collection. Just by The Speed’s nature, you have many more people aligned and affiliated with the organization than at the CAC. It is simply a different kind of institution.”

The thrust for the museum recently has been a comprehensive review of all of The Speed’s collections and displays. “It’s been a journey backward in time and should be complete in the next few months. Some of the galleries will take longer such as the Native American and African collections, because we are embarking on a much deeper phase of research and carefully thinking through how to best present those objects and materials. So, especially with the Native American collection, we’re doing it in close collaboration with the tribes whose objects we own.” 

Since it was an expanded initiative, Platow saw the need for a new position at The Speed. “We hired Dr. fari nzinga as the inaugural Curator of Special Projects and Academic Engagement to work on those Native American and African collections. She will move on to some big exhibition projects and has already established relationships with the tribes from the plateau region—so mostly the Dakota tribe.” 

In reviewing Platow’s ambitions for museums, and in fact life itself, the concept of inclusion emerges as her aspirational beacon. A year of strategic planning has gone into thinking through how The Speed can reflect that purpose. 

“How can we shape spaces of belonging for our visitors and be an institution that is deeply ingrained in its community in an inclusive way? How would that manifest itself? We need to make sure we have all the systems and processes in place that allow people to equitably participate culturally. How can we make people feel they belong and can show up as who they are programmatically? How do we bring our collections to life? How do we share different kinds of stories so that people have different access points to the work? What does the temporary exhibition program look like? Can people from all across Louisville identify with the works of art when they come into the institution? There are many ways to do that. We need to bring everybody along with us including our donors so we all share the same values of what the institution should be for the community. So far, we are pretty aligned. Of course, we always need to be asking for donations from the different types of people that make up the city, and that’s part of the equation.”

Platow grew up in Munich, Germany, and has a melodic accent and a fluent and colorful command of English. In discussing issues of cultural sensitivity manifested recently in activities like toppling confederate statues, she had this to say: “I grew up in a Germany that was divided, and I was a teenager when the wall came down. I experienced a lot of Soviet statues being toppled, because people were ready for a new regime, and the old regime had maybe some good ideas but didn’t work for the majority of the population, so yes, they toppled a lot of statues. It seemed right, and at the same time, it was a complicated discussion. 

“I lived in Berlin when they decided to tear down the Palace of the Republic, a big building that the Eastern regime had built in the middle of the city, and there were very vivid conversations about whether it should be kept or torn down. I think there’s also wisdom in leaving certain monuments as a reminder, not so much about good things in these regimes but as a reminder of where we’re not going to go ever again as a society. Of course, we never want to forget the Holocaust, and we have lots of monuments mourning the lives that were lost, because we don’t ever want another Holocaust to happen or another regime like the Nazi regime, so you leave enough for people to look at and say ‘never again’. Humankind is capable of terrible atrocities, so it is a nuanced conversation. The question is always, like the monuments that were still around the United States, why do we celebrate these leaders when they brought so much pain and suffering to so many people? On the other hand, perhaps a statue might be a great work of art. Yes, it’s a challenging conversation.”

From a young age, Platow loved museums and looking at pictures, always drawn to visual information and specifically to works of art. 

“I still see museums as gathering places where you can look and learn about yourself, about other people, about life, and about history and politics. These spaces have always been a great lens for me. People can come into a museum like it’s a library where they spend time and are in the community even if they don’t engage with each other. We are now looking at how we can make that more comfortable—things as simple as sitting opportunities. On an ongoing basis, we present a variety of workshops, community programs, and exhibition openings. We have a very full weekly calendar.”  

Returning to her growing up in Germany, Platow adds, “Maybe I could have been a great lawyer or a good chemist. I was good at chemistry. I was always good at math and the sciences, but in the end, I wanted to be in museums and work with art. Education in Germany means that in the fourth grade you have to choose a path of either higher education or trade school, and I chose the higher education path partially because my best friend did, and I had support at home to do that, so I went to what’s called the gymnasium, a very broad education. I chose the science track, because I was good in chemistry, physics, math, and biology. I’m not very good in languages—I mean foreign languages. I loved art, but it wasn’t so obvious, since we had art throughout our high school career, and it was just part of the curriculum as was music. I chose AP art classes in the 13th grade, which we had at the time, but my path became clearer as soon as I started university. The system, again in Germany, is a little bit different. I did art history and economics, so those were the two things that really interested me, a perfect combination and indicative of what I was passionate about.

“Living and working in Berlin I began to want to live in another country with my partner at the time,” says Platow, “and I had a great opportunity to work in Raleigh, North Carolina (The Contemporary Art Museum) as a curator, so I put everything in storage in Berlin and went on this great adventure. I thought I would do that for two or three years, but then I never left.” She moved on to the Rose Museum in Massachusetts before moving to the CAC in Cincinnati. 

Recently The Speed had the bequest of the late Alfred R. Shands III (1928-2021) and Mary Norton Shands (1930-2009) collection, over 150 artworks. 

“I had literally arrived at the CAC in Cincinnati,” says Platow, “and word about his collection sort of spread, so it was within the first few months that I drove down to Oldham County to visit him. I was inspired by how he collected and how he situated works of art in this beautiful home that he had built on an incredibly vast and gorgeous farm he and his wife Mary lived on,” says Platow.

“Later, when contemplating this new job, I was aware that a big bequest would be coming from Al Shands at some point, but he was still alive at the time. I talked to Al about the Speed opportunity. It’s a unique collection because it’s all contemporary, and further, it was his focus to have personal relationships with the artists, so that will be the emphasis of the works we show outside. I also asked him if he thought I would be a good fit for the organization and if I could make a difference, a conversation that led me to take the job, but I hadn’t arrived yet. 

“This was May or June of 2021, and I actually started late in August, but he passed just before I began officially, and that was very sad and heartbreaking. Since then, we’ve been working with the estate lawyer and the director of Great Meadows Foundation which Al and Mary founded. I worked through the logistics of the estate and with the Collections Committee at The Speed, and now we are getting ready to mount a significant, large-scale exhibition of the Al and Mary Shands collection. It opens in March, so at the same time we are transitioning most of the collection to the museum. There are a lot of different objects—some beautiful ceramic pieces too; it’s pretty well balanced between sculptural objects and paintings, about 170 pieces. Of that group, nine are outdoor sculptures destined for another big project, the construction of a sizeable park around The Speed, about 6 acres. It’s an opportunity for us to bring back a beautiful green space where people can visit, linger and be in touch with nature. We are also installing outdoor pieces that we already own, and of course, we can expand the collection in the future.”

Most museums with collections have active acquisition programs, and The Speed is no different,” says Platow. “New works comprise a combination of objects and collections gifted to us and acquisitions paid for out of the endowment and selected by curators who then make proposals to the collections committee. It’s a variety of approaches but very active.”

Museum governance varies, and The Speed has two boards. The first is the Board of Trustees responsible for fiduciary matters and governance oversight. “Then there is the Board of Governors, triple the size of the Board of Trustees, and it’s unique. They recommend new trustees and new governors, so they serve an important nominating function. They also populate the Governance Committee. This forms healthy checks and balances, like the Senate and the House. The Board of Governors also has an important role in advocacy and getting the word out, helping us think about new programs.”  

There was a time when museum boards were composed solely of white males. No longer, and The Speed is exemplary in this respect, Platow says, with white people, people of color, a cross-section of sexual orientations, businesspeople, and artists. Fulfilling Platow’s ideals, anyone with something to offer The Speed regardless of how they identify is welcome.

After an hour of lively conversation, time was up, and I disconnected from ZOOM with the confidence that I had been in the company of an open-hearted, intelligent, and hugely determined force for the good of art. Lucky Louisville. 

Raphaela Platow