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    By Elizabeth Kramer 

    On a warm Saturday afternoon in June, a steady trail of cars stirs dust on the nearly mile-long path of crushed gravel leading to the home of art collector and philanthropist Al Shands. Dozens of artists arrive at the sprawling Crestwood property, which he and his late wife Mary Norton Shands named Great Meadows when they built the home in 1988 to accommodate their growing art collection. As visitors approach the home, parts of the collection — including a large sculpture of rectangular concrete blocks titled Progression, by the famous American artist Sol LeWitt — come into view. Shands’ collection includes works by Anish Kapoor, whose Cloud Gate (aka “The Bean”) rises in Chicago’s Millennium Park, and Maya Lin, whose design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., brought her national recognition through a competition in 1981. In 2014, Architectural Digest described the house as an “art-world landmark.”

    Shands invited these artists, who have received travel grants from his Great Meadows Foundation, so they could get to know one another.

    Through Great Meadows, regional artists can apply for grants for $500 to $5,000 to travel anywhere in the world to see artwork, meet with other artists and curators, and experience new environments to inspire or shape the way they perceive and create their own work. Since the first round of grants in August 2016, 105 artists have received 130 grants totaling $354,668, and they’ve traveled throughout the United States and in other countries, including Brazil, Cuba, Finland, Greece, Iceland, South Africa, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. In 2017, Great Meadows began providing travel grants to curators too. These grants, for $500 to $3,000, allow recipients to see how other curators work and consider ways to showcase regional artists. So far, 15 curators have received grants totaling $23,997.

    Artist Tiffany Carbonneau in Soweto, South Africa.

    Louisville artist Britany Baker traveled to Amsterdam for 12 days to attend a conference on representational art and another on decorative art. Dave Caudill went to a four-day sculptors’ conference in Pittsburgh and to Brazil for 10 days to visit the art park and museum called Inhotim. Other artists have travels ahead, including photographers Mitch Eckert, who is traveling to England for nearly 10 days, and Bud Dorsey, who will spend two weeks in Senegal. “I think often artists work and feel isolated and alone; they feel no one really cares and they aren’t important,” Shands says. “Today, many are making important statements about what it means to be a human being.”

    Shands began collecting in the early 1980s when he purchased a sculpture by Kentucky ceramist Wayne Ferguson. In subsequent decades, he and his wife began buying art from all over the world. Shands has continued attending notable exhibits, including the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel, Germany. He often discovers works and new artists at such fairs, as well as through exhibitions in major cities. Since Shands’ wife died in 2009, he has continued to collect. The 89-year-old plans to give the collection to the Speed Art Museum when he dies. (He declined to disclose its value.)

    Shands says he is grateful for his opportunities to travel, and that with his foundation he wanted regional artists to have the same chances. “Al was thinking about setting up a foundation,” says Great Meadows director Julien Robson. “He said, ‘Why don’t I have more regional artists in my collection?’”

    Robson was the Speed Art Museum’s first full-time contemporary-art curator, from 2000 to 2008, and he has helped Shands manage his collection for the past six years. Robson says Great Meadows is ultimately interested in “improving the quality of art being made throughout the state.” He stresses that the foundation doesn’t fund the making of art in any way; instead, it helps artists see great art up close. Robson dedicates considerable time to artists who apply, helps them with their applications. “We want this to be a hands-on, friendly foundation,” he says. (Shands and Robson do get outside advisors to review applications and choose grant recipients.)

    Mary Carothers, a photography professor at U of L who also does installations, traveled to the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard in the Arctic Circle for a four-week artist residency. While there, she thought often about coal and carbon-based fuel as she saw impressions from an abandoned mining community, watched glaciers melting and saw other signs of global warming. She began thinking about what indicators might lie in wait in Kentucky. While she has no concrete plans for artwork related to this trip yet, she says, “It’s given me new perspectives on Kentucky. It’s allowed me to consider myself more of an international artist more than ever before.”

    Artist Gaela Erwin in Venice. 

    For portrait painter Gaela Erwin, a trip to the Venice Biennale led to an encounter with a gondolier named Giovanni, who offered her a ride for a fee that exceeded her budget. He proposed that she draw him in exchange for a ride. The Italian men flirting with her as she worked gave her an idea. “It made me think about the objectification of women,” she says. “I thought, Why don’t I turn this on its head — quite literally.” She has been working on a series of several small portraits: Giovanni, her mechanic, a glass artist.

    In February and March, Robson brought internationally known curator Dan Cameron to Kentucky to provide feedback to artists. “I had as advanced and as wonky conversations in Lexington and Louisville as I would have had in Vienna or L.A.,” says Cameron, who is drafting a proposal for a show based on work he saw in Kentucky.

    Shands, for his part, is on his way to reach what he calls his “ultimate goal” — to “make Louisville a regional center of visual art” at a time when New York and other major cities are so expensive. Robson says that the smaller cities are becoming more important in the art world than they once were — as long as the artists are making art of quality. “There is a greater interest in what actually is being produced in regions outside of the so-called centers,” Robson says. “Al and I joke about all the new flowerpots, but no one is watering the flowers” — a reference to Great Meadows providing metaphorical nourishment for the region’s artists.

    The artists see it coming.

    “This is a benchmark in Louisville’s art history,” Caudill says. “It’s going to change everything.”

    This originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine on page 100. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo: Dave Caudill at an art park in Brazil.

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    Part of "33 Reasons We Love Our Arts Scene."

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