Headley-Whitney Museum selling house, some art to survive

January 27, 2013

The Headley-Whitney Museum includes a building known as the Shell Grotto, decorated with shells and other objects.  Photos by Tom Eblen


George Headley had the money and talent to create his own little world of art. He did it with jewelry and curios he designed for the rich and famous, and with the gem he left Lexington, the Headley-Whitney Museum.

The designer, collector and socialite died in 1985. His museum now faces some real-world money troubles, just as many other museums have since the 2008 financial crisis reshaped the economy.

Before the Headley-Whitney reopens in March after its annual winter break, the museum’s board is taking steps to shore up finances. It is putting Headley’s home, named La Belle, up for sale and is deaccessioning — that’s museum-speak for selling — several pieces from the collection that are rarely displayed or are costly to conserve.

The goal is to pay off debt incurred when two wings were added to the museum in 2009 and build up operating cash reserves, said Linda Roach, the board chairman.

“There’s no question it is tough,” Roach said of the museum’s situation. “If selling La Belle, deaccessioning and paying off the wings doesn’t work, the museum may not make it.”

George Headley studied art in New York and Paris before going to work for Paul Flato, the first celebrity jeweler in Beverly Hills. Headley then set up his own boutique in the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, designing jewelry for movie stars.

In 1949, Headley moved back to the family farm on Old Frankfort Pike. He lived at La Belle, a house designed by the noted local architect Warfield Gratz and built in 1936. Headley married Barbara Whitney, a sister of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney.

Headley continued designing jewelry and bibelots, small curios made of gems and precious metals with intricate craftsmanship. Dozens of bibelots became the core of Headley’s personal collection, and in 1968 he built a “jewel room” and library of art books beside his house.

He then opened his collection as the Headley-Whitney, adding a museum building in 1978. The grounds also contain the quirky Shell Grotto, a small building whose interior is covered with seashells and other decorative materials.

In addition to being an artist and designer, Headley was quite a character, famous for his personal style, gregarious personality and lavish parties. Roach said she got to know him shortly before his death, when he was hospitalized.

“His robe was a fur coat,” she recalled. “And he would open the bar at 5 o’clock, and the doctors would all make him their last visit of the day.”

The museum suffered a crisis in July 1994, when burglars broke into the jewel room and stole 103 pieces worth $1.6 million, including most of the bibelot collection. The biggest art heist in Kentucky history remained a mystery for five years, and then a group of Ohio thieves was caught and convicted.

Unfortunately, the bibelots apparently had been dismantled and sold as scrap for a fraction of their value. Since then, the Headley-Whitney has commissioned several artists to create bibelots for its jewel collection.

The museum has broadened its scope in fine and decorative arts, said Amy Greene, curator and administrator. The new museum wings have played host to some first-class exhibits, such as a recent display of Chinese woodblock prints.

The museum’s permanent collection also includes huge, elaborate dollhouses commissioned by Headley’s sister-in-law Marylou Whitney.

Like many museums, the Headley-Whitney has faced pressures to cut costs, focus its collection and reach beyond its core audience and financial supporters.

A big step in that process will be the sale of La Belle. The house, along with several outbuildings and 8.42 acres of land, will be put up for sale soon with an asking price of $1 million.

“We hope someone will fall in love with the property and be good neighbors,” Roach said.

The museum bought La Belle after Headley’s death. In recent years, it has been a decorator showcase house and a venue for weddings, receptions and other events. All current bookings will be honored, Roach said.

The Headley-Whitney has contracted with Neal Auction Co. in New Orleans to sell some Asian textiles, Chinese porcelain, a Kentucky coin silver pitcher and a few “politically incorrect” art objects made years ago from such things as endangered animal tusks. They will be auctioned Feb. 23 and 24.

The Headley-Whitney has been an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution since 2003. It also has formed several other partnerships, such as with the Confucius Institute at the University of Kentucky, and is seeking more relationships to broaden its range of exhibits and public appeal, said Christine Huskisson, a board member who teaches museum studies at UK.

The museum has increased education programs, including sponsoring adult and family how-to workshops ranging from woodblock printing to tie-dying. It also has sponsored a faux bibelot competition for middle school students. The best ones this year, which showed some amazing creativity, were displayed at the museum.

“One of the problems we have had is that people look at this as an elitist museum,” Roach said. “We’re trying very hard to be engaged with the community and have the community engaged with us. This isn’t some snob place. This is a place where people can come and learn about the arts.”

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Living Arts and Science Center begins $5 million campaign to renovate, expand and grow

November 15, 2011

Lexington’s Kinkead House is much more than just another historical home. For nearly a century and a half, its occupants have been on the cutting edge of progress.

The mansion was built in 1847 by Abraham Lincoln’s local lawyer, abolitionist George B. Kinkead. After the Civil War, he realized that former slaves would want to own their own homes, so he bought land for them behind his estate. Kinkeadtown became the heart of what is now the East End neighborhood.

A century later, Kinkead’s descendants shared the dream of residents who thought Lexington’s young people needed more exposure to science and the arts. In 1971, they loaned and later donated the mansion and surrounding 1.5 acres to become the Living Arts and Science Center.

The next chapter of the story begins Wednesday, when the LASC launches a $5 million capital campaign to renovate the Kinkead House and more than double the center’s size and programming capacity with a beautiful contemporary addition.

LASC will add a 65-seat planetarium/auditorium, a digital arts center, a recording studio, a children’s art gallery, more classroom and meeting space, and a guest artist’s studio. There also will be a “teaching kitchen” for uses as varied as teaching neighbors to prepare and preserve food they grow in their gardens and classes in chocolate sculpture. A “magic carpet” walkway, which includes outdoor sculptures, will tie the campus together.

The campaign begins with $300,000 in grants and donations, plus a $1 million matching grant from the W. Paul and Lucille Caudill Little Foundation. The LASC board hopes to raise the rest of the money by summer 2013.

“It’s hard to raise $5 million in this environment without some credible reasons,” said downtown developer Phil Holoubek, who with his wife, Marnie, is leading the campaign. “But this project can be a game-changer. We can better serve the community and improve the neighborhood and downtown.”

The LASC’s mission is to use art and science to inspire children and adults. During the past year, more than 6,000 school children from 21 Kentucky counties took field trips to the center, executive director Heather Lyons said. The LASC offered more than 400 classes and workshops, plus frequent community events.

The expansion already is creating buzz, because the Kinkead House addition promises to be one of Lexington’s most exciting pieces of contemporary architecture. It is the work of Louisville’s De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop, which two weeks after receiving the LASC commission last year won a prestigious Design Vanguard Award from Architectural Record magazine.

Architect Ross Primmer said the design is based on extensive conversations with the board, staff and neighbors of the LASC, which faces North Martin Luther King Boulevard between Campsie Place and East Fourth Street.

“It’s like they were hearing everything we were thinking,” said Kathy Plomin, the LASC’s development director.

The 11,000-square-foot addition is really a separate building, tucked along the south side and back of Kinkead House, complementing the scale of the 7,000-square-foot mansion and surrounding homes. An outdoor classroom separates the two buildings, which are connected by a glass walkway. Parking will move away from the front to create a larger lawn.

Primmer said the addition will have walls of dark-green wood siding and clear glass to visually connect with the outside and allow people to see inside. It will meet environmentally friendly LEED Silver standards and minimize energy use.

Steve Kay, an Urban County Council member who lives on Campsie Place, is excited about the LASC’s expansion and the new programming it will make possible. “We’re thrilled that such a good neighbor is investing in the neighborhood,” he said.

The design follows a trend of modern-style additions to classic old buildings. When designed well, these additions both honor the integrity of the historical structure and become a more functional piece of contemporary architecture.

“The goal is to create something that fits with it, but doesn’t mimic it,” Primmer said of the Kinkead House.

“I think it’s just brilliant,” Mayor Jim Gray said of the design. “This project is an example of great urban planning and great architecture that respects the character of the historic neighborhood and lifts it up. This is extremely exciting.”