If you’re like me, 1990 may not seem all that long ago. You may have noticed, as I have, that as we get older, the period of time we think of as “recent” gets longer and longer. For me, the 1980s does seem like a long time ago, but the 1990s seems like the beginning of the present time. And despite the hundreds of times I’ve visited, this clean, modern museum still seems new to me. To those of us who remember the complicated Japan Pavilion, with its painting robot and bullet train experience–it was right here in 1982–the KMA will probably always seem new.
Since the museum was built, a lot of things haven’t changed much. Although Knox County has grown by about 100,000 since 1990, the city population is not much bigger than it was then.
Knoxville’s street layout is about the same, our buildings are about the same. Our big four hotels are the same as they were then, though some have different names. Our larger entertainment venues were the same: The newest of them, Thompson Boling Arena, was already familiar to most by 1990. Our major downtown office buildings are the same. Our tallest buildings then are our tallest buildings now. Knoxville’s skyline has changed little.
A Rip Van Winkle returning to Knoxville after a quarter century and viewing the city from a distance might be surprised at how familiar it looked.
Of course, we’re all subject to nostalgia, and we all miss some things about Knoxville in 1990, like Saturday morning breakfast at Harold’s Deli, slow summer evenings watching minor-league baseball at Bill Meyer Stadium, late-night jazz at Lucille’s.
Still, I think if any of us were transported back to Knoxville of 25 years ago, we’d be in for a bit of a shock.
Consider our appetites. In 1990, Knoxville didn’t have a single Thai restaurant, or a single Indian restaurant. There was one small, obscure sushi place in West Knoxville, but most people didn’t know about it.
We had no creperie, no brewpubs, no gastropub, no Scottish-themed pub. We had no cigar lounge, no gelato parlor, no high-gravity bar, no restaurant that specialized in locally sourced food.
We had no brewery and no local winery. It’s even harder to contemplate that in 1990, Knoxville didn’t have a single espresso coffee shop. In most cafes, coffee was coffee, and Knoxville coffee was thin and cheap. Some of us had heard of Starbucks, but it had never opened a store here. A couple of the fancier restaurants offered espresso drinks, but there was a rumor back then that one of them made its cappuccino from a mix.
Just a couple of restaurants had outdoor patios, with fences around them, but we had no sidewalk cafes. We had no non-smoking restaurants.
We had no Barley’s, no Preservation Pub, no Square Room, no Pilot Light. Nightclubs with live entertainment were unusual, and almost no nightclub featured different music every night.
In fact, I don’t remember any pubs, in the now-familiar sense of a common gathering place where you were likely to see almost anybody. We spent a lot of time in the malls, but we all experienced Knoxville separately.
In 1990, bicyclists were rare, and almost always they were just people out exercising, returning to where they started. Even at the university, very few of us used bicycles for transportation. There were no bike lanes, and the city’s only greenway was the same one it had had since the ’70s, a couple of miles along Third Creek between West High and Tyson Park. Volunteer Landing was just the muddy shoulder of Neyland Drive. Ijams Nature Center was a small, modest place of about 17 acres, and not a place that attracted many young people. There was no such thing as the Knoxville Botanical Gardens, and Fort Higley was just an interesting ruin in the deep woods that was known to only a few intrepid trespassers. We’d never heard the paradoxical term Urban Wilderness.
There was no history museum in Knoxville. We had no WDVX, no public radio station that wasn’t associated with the university. We had no Blue Plate Special, no Tennessee Shines.
The city had no big weekly farmer’s market. Knoxville grocery shoppers had their choice of mainstream corporate supermarkets. The city’s only food co-op was so small it fit in a little house on Broadway.
And in 1990, we had few festivals. Today we’re used to several big, genuinely Festive festivals every year, some of which get national attention–and several small ones, seemingly every weekend or two on Market Square.
But 25 years ago, Dogwood Arts was a very sober daytime craft fair. We did have the brief annual noisy storm of Boomsday, and of course six or seven Vol football games a year. But we had no Rossini Festival, no International Biscuit Festival, no Hola, no Rhythm’n’Blooms, no Brewers Jam, no jazz festival, no East Tennessee History Fair, no Scruffy City Soiree or Summer Suppers, no Knoxville Brewfest, no Outdoor Knoxfest, no Knoxville Marathon, no Vestival, no First Night, no First Friday, no Big Ears music festival. And, of course, we had no Alive After Five.
These have become so much part of our culture it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have any of them.
The lack of them in 1990 wasn’t for lack of trying. I remember one frustrated festival organizer after another, disappointed at the turnout at a public event—and, perhaps worse, at the apparent reluctance of attendees to ever seem like they were having fun. In the early 1990s, one organizer confessed to me a dark suspicion that Knoxvillians were an inherently Unfestive people.
According to Wikipedia’s shorthand in its entry about Knoxville, the city was reinvigorated as a result of the 1982 World’s Fair. As I’m sure you know, it was more complicated than that.
The big Energy Exposition’s long-term effects were indirect. The World’s Fair surprised Knoxville, and reshuffled our municipal deck.
But in the seven or eight years after the Fair closed, most of downtown seemed stuck in a slow decline, as one fair-site redevelopment plan after another fell through. It seemed as if much of the fair’s promised long-term benefits weren’t likely to come to fruition, and the fair site—in those days it was never called a Park—could seem melancholy.
Its lawns were only occasionally used for specific events. I lived nearby, and walked across the Clinch Avenue viaduct almost daily. I rarely saw anyone down on the fair site itself. I remember attending events on the fair site mainly because I was worried no one else would.
The L&N station hosted a restaurant in 1990, but the old L&N Hotel, which had hosted a restaurant before and during the fair, languished, burned, and was torn down. The Sunsphere was closed to visitors, and the U.S. Pavilion, intended to be permanent, was so little used we were soon to tear it down. In the mid-’80s the New York Times ran a short cautionary tale about the fair site’s failure to thrive, with a picture of the Candy Factory, empty and with a fence around it.
The Fair’s momentum may have played some role in launching the Old City, but by 1990 even that one bright spot downtown was going a little dim. Ashley Capps finally closed his wonderful nightclub, Ella Guru’s. Hewgley’s music store closed. Several of the Old City’s original developers cashed out, and a couple of the more prominent ones moved away to other cities.
Since the fair, downtown Knoxville had seen very little new residential development. Some blocks of Gay Street, notably the 100 block and the 400 block, were considered problems almost too big to solve, with giant buildings empty, and with no obvious takers. On Gay Street alone, there were hundreds of thousands of vacant square feet of floor space in old buildings that were still standing mainly because no one could afford to tear them down. The once-famous Miller’s Building, covered with faux-modernist glass since the ’70s and almost forgotten, allowed it to rain inside.
There were a few people living downtown in upscale renovated buildings, like Kendrick Place or the Pembroke, but then again, so few that each of them could probably name all the others.
Market Square could look lively at lunchtime, but all of its restaurants—every one of them—were closed for the day by 2:30 p.m. Except for Watson’s unique department store, Market Square was almost completely empty on Saturdays and Sundays. Few downtown restaurants even tried to keep weekend hours.
We had long since begun thinking of downtown as mainly an office park, and for years, Knoxville had accepted the truism that the main thing about downtown Knoxville, and perhaps its main hope of salvation, was TVA. But TVA had recently laid off more than half its downtown staff.
The fast-growing media company known as Whittle Communications was building its amazingly grand new international headquarters across two blocks of Main Street, and in 1990 the company’s leadership and the hundreds of talented young staffers it brought to town from all over the country promised to be a major player in downtown’s development. It would last only four more years, but gave us reason to hope.
In spite of hosting a World’s Fair, and a few seemingly positive anomalies like Whittle, Knoxville declined in population in the 1980s, losing 10,000 citizens, the second biggest 10-year decline in the city’s history.
In 1990, Knoxville badly needed some encouragement and direction. It took a huge leap of faith to believe that what the city really needed was an art museum.
To people who weren’t directly involved in the effort to build it, the Knoxville Museum of Art arrived as a surprise. It was the permanent art museum Knoxville had been talking about for a century, ever since the Edwardian days of the Nicholson Art League, when Lloyd Branson and Catherine Wiley were introducing Knoxville to impressionism. The earliest attempt I know of was accidentally burned down in 1906 by Christmas fireworks. A second, the Knoxville Lyceum and Art Museum, was torn down in the early 1930s for the federal post-office project.
This is, by my count, the fifth major attempt, in the last 115 years or so, to start an art museum in Knoxville, and by far the largest, most durable, and most successful.
But beyond its obvious contribution to Knoxville’s artistic life, it was also a major investment in Knoxville’s cultural future at a critical time. Probably none of us realized we were at a critical turning point. But the KMA planted a flag in downtown Knoxville that seemed to prove that, appearances to the contrary, much more was going to happen here. Knoxville Museum of Art has witnessed a major positive transformation Knoxville’s municipal spirit. Much of that renaissance, if we can call it that, has roots in the city’s authentic heritage and historic culture and architecture, reused in interesting ways. But these hallmarks of the city, these festivals and restaurants and greenways are things most of us didn’t grow up with, didn’t associate with Knoxville.
Most of what we boast about in Knoxville today are things that emerged and developed in the 25 years, and they happen to be the 25 years since we built the KMA. In 2015 Knoxville is a much better place to live than it was in 1990, and the KMA is one big reason for that fact.