Celebrating 60 Years of the Hunter Museum
With three buildings representing 100 years of architecture, a growing permanent collection and exciting exhibitions and public programs, the Hunter Museum is a key part of Chattanooga’s history, its present and its future.
Since the Hunter Museum of American Art opened its doors on July 12, 1952 as the George Thomas Hunter Gallery, the Museum been central to Chattanooga’s cultural life.
The Early Years of the Hunter
George Thomas Hunter arrived in Chattanooga in 1904 and worked as a clerk in his Uncle Benjamin Thomas’ business, the Coca-Cola Thomas Bottling Company. Mr. Hunter inherited the company from his uncle and began a tradition of philanthropy which continues to have a positive impact on Chattanooga to this day. One of his finest achievements was the creation of the Benwood Foundation, a charitable trust still in operation. Hunter was unmarried and following his death in 1951, the Chattanooga Art Association approached the Benwood Foundation to ask that the Faxon-Hunter mansion be donated to their organization in order to found an art museum.
The association transformed the home into a space suitable for Chattanooga’s first art museum and named it the George Thomas Hunter Gallery of Art, in honor of its benefactor.
The fledgling Museum needed strong leadership and several Chattanoogans stepped in to help. Scott Probasco, a graduate of Dartmouth and a leader in the area banking industry, became involved with the Hunter. Joe Davenport, an insurance executive, had become interested in art. He and his wife, Hedy, also supported the Museum. And Ruth Holmberg—the granddaughter of Adolph Ochs, past owner of The Chattanooga Times and The New York Times—came to Chattanooga in the 1950s and took an active interest in the Hunter. Other notable city leaders joined the team including: E. Y. Chapin III, Jack Lupton and Robert Maclellan.
The 1970s Brought Growth and Change
In 1973, Hunter Museum leaders presented the idea of a modern expansion for the Museum. The new building, designed by Chattanooga architects Derthick, Henley and Wilkerson, was built of concrete with a dramatic central atrium space and won several prestigious architectural awards. The new building and renovated mansion opened to the public in September of 1975 with the new name, Hunter Museum of Art, and a gift of 40 astounding American paintings from the Benwood Foundation.
After the opening of the 1975 building, the museum grew rapidly. With consistent funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, Allied Arts and the Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations, the museum set about to build its collection of works by American artists. A collections department was established and the collection was professionally documented with a 300-page catalogue. Programming efforts were expanded and studio classes were offered in co-sponsorship with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
In 2000, a number of internal changes took place to improve operations and an operating endowment campaign was underway. The Hunter was poised to move to its next level of development and become even more involved in the Chattanooga community.
The 21st Century Waterfront and Beyond
When Chattanooga’s $120 million 21st Century Waterfront Plan was unveiled in 2002, the Hunter Museum became an active partner with the City of Chattanooga, the Tennessee Aquarium and the Creative Discovery Museum to complete this public/private venture in less than three years.
The Hunter Museum portion of the project included a $22 million expansion and renovation, designed by architect Randall Stout, that was completed in April 2005. The project included 28,000 square feet of new construction, 34,000 square feet of renovation, a new entrance and temporary exhibition space, restoration of the 1905 mansion, the creation of an outdoor sculpture plaza and a complete reinstallation of the Museum’s permanent collection.
Now, as the Hunter Museum celebrates 60 years on the Bluff, it is poised to move forward as a nationally recognized cultural hub that inspires personal and community transformation through American Art. The Hunter Board of Trustees and staff have recently completed a strategic planning process and creating plans to move the institution forward. With new technology, community-focused programs and a growing collection, the Hunter looks forward to the next 60 years.