The Gadsden Museum of Art (GMA) is located in downtown Gadsden, Etowah County, in a remodeled nineteenth-century building. The museum’s permanent collection consists of approximately 1,000 objects that include paintings, sculpture, and prints, with a particular emphasis on southern artists. The museum, sometimes referred to as the Gadsden Museum of Art and History, also documents the local history of the city of Gadsden and the Etowah County area. To this end, GMA collects local antique properties, artifacts, and furniture.
Miles Preston Hughes Exhibit The GMA was founded by the Gadsden Art Association (GAA), which was organized in the late 1950s to promote artists in the Gadsden area. In 1963, Gadsden mayor Leslie Gilliland offered the GAA space in the basement of Gadsden’s City Hall, and the GAA, led by patrons John Argyle King and Lewis and Annie Fowler, established a board that began soliciting local officials and citizens for financial support to create the museum space. Having acquired funding, the GAA crafted bylaws, with Annie Fowler serving as the board’s first president. The museum’s inaugural exhibit opened in January 1965.
The GMA quickly outgrew the space allotted and relocated to the Elliott Community Center. It moved again in 2003 to its current location at 515 Broad Street. Since that time, the GMA has undergone three major renovations financed by a variety of resources: a year-long project in 2007 that repurposed space and included significant technology upgrades; another expansion and revitalization project in 2009; and a two-month long renovation to update and add additional display space in 2013.
Collections, Exhibitions, and Activities
Emma Sansom Exhibit In addition to helping found and fund the museum, the Fowlers also donated paintings, porcelain, decorative pieces, and Victorian furniture. These works, along with historical pieces contributed by other Gadsden families, such as the Hannah Snellgrove Case family, formed the museum’s core collection. Pieces in the permanent collection date from the Civil War to contemporary acquisitions. Some notable items include two pastel drawings by nineteenth-century artist Frederic Remington and prints by German printmaker Käthe Kollowitz and Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí. When located at the Elliott Community Center, the Fowler Collection was housed as a permanent exhibit, but since the move to Broad Street, the majority of the objects in the permanent collection have not been regularly displayed. However, the GMA has recently begun to exhibit parts of this collection and plans to add other pieces into the rotation in the future. Some highlights of recently exhibited pieces include a Civil War-era dress and a saddle with connections to local heroine Emma Sansom, a sculpture by Yugoslavian artist Anton Weiss, and an oil painting by Spanish artist José Guevara. Collections are arranged by floor, with the first floor housing a temporary exhibit gallery, the permanent Leo Reynolds gallery, and an education classroom; the second floor contains art exhibits and meeting space; and the third floor is devoted to local history.
Since its inception, GMA has joined with the Gadsden Art Association to host the annual Juried Art Show, first held in 1958. The show features two- and three-dimensional works of art from local artists as well as national participants who exhibit in a number of categories, including acrylic, dry media, oil, mixed media, three-dimensional, and watercolor. The museum also holds an annual photography exhibit in the summer, as well as the Southeastern Plein Air Art Festival, in which artists from across the Southeast gather in Gadsden to paint outdoor scenes of city architecture and events. Also, since 2008, the museum has held the “Alabama’s Finest” show, which celebrates the most outstanding artists from the state of Alabama and exhibits their work. In addition, the museum sponsors the annual fall “Stitching Across Alabama” show, which includes historic heirloom quilts as well as recently made signature and appliqué quilts, samplers, and wall hangings.
Special exhibitions are held regularly at the museum. One notable example was the “Howard Carter Expedition to the Discovery of Tutankhamen’s Tomb,” held in 2008. More recently, the “I Remember” exhibit highlighted military-related items loaned by local veterans and their families to honor their military service and bring attention to the wars in which they fought. The museum also sponsored the 24/7 Virtual Museum, a partnership with local businesses on Gadsden’s Broad Street in which storefront windows displayed exhibit reproductions and other pieces and provided passers-by with 24-hour access to art and historical objects. The glass storefront of the Fuller Medical Building, for instance, showcased an assortment of antique medical instruments.
Untitled Work by Fred Barclay The museum also frequently features exhibits to coincide with a local event known as First Friday and extends its hours to enable attendees to visit the facility on those evenings. First Friday takes place on the first Friday of each month, and Broad Street in downtown Gadsden is blocked off to make way for displays of classic cars and other vehicles, musical performances, vendors, and events attended by the local populace. Other activities also are held at the facility in order to engage the local community. Art classes for both children and adults, as well as classes and activities tied to specific exhibits (for example, quilting lessons to coincide with the “Stitching across Alabama” show) are offered regularly. In addition, museum officials have formed partnerships with local arts and historical groups, notably a project with the Etowah Historical Society to digitize historic issues of The Gadsden Times and other northeast Alabama newspapers. Future plans include partnerships with regional academic institutions, such as Jacksonville State University and local high schools, to exhibit student works. Museum officials also plan to repurpose its Leo Reynolds Gallery to showcase more contemporary exhibits.
Governance and Funding
Gadsden Museum of Art The Gadsden City Council oversees the museum’s funding and staffing. The museum receives $175,000 to $275,000 from the general fund annually, with the majority of the funds covering salaries and benefits for museum employees. Supplementary revenue includes money allocated from a county sales tax and grants from various entities, such as the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Alabama Tourism Department. In 2003 the GMA created the Gadsden Museum of Art Foundation, a 501(c) 3 charitable organization that accepts tax-deductible financial donations. The board, which is comprised primarily of business and civic leaders, consists of eleven members, four of whom are residents of the city of Gadsden and have an advisory role. The director of the Gadsden Public Library also oversees the museum. The GMA’s curator, a position that was added in 2013, reports to the library director. The curator is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the museum and supervises a full-time staff of three: an exhibit coordinator, an office and special-event manager, and an education and outreach coordinator, as well as various part-time volunteers. The museum is located next to the Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts in the Gadsden Downtown Historic District. It is open Tuesday through Saturday except holidays, and admission is free. Approximately 6,000 people visit the facility annually.