Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) was founded in 1930 as the first fine arts museum in the state of Alabama. The museum’s state-of-the-art facility is part of Montgomery‘s 250-acre Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park, which also houses the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The museum is a department of the city of Montgomery and has an annual operating budget of approximately $3 million and some 40 full-time employees. The museum’s operations and programs are also supported by more than 120 volunteers and docents and the private, not-for-profit Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association, which is managed by a board of trustees.
The current building comprises some 80,000 square feet, housing spaces for permanent installation of the collection, temporary exhibitions, a 240-seat auditorium, and more than 5,000 square feet devoted to educational programming and the ArtWorks galleries. The museum holds a collection of more than 4,000 works of art that are enjoyed by approximately 100,000 visitors annually. It regularly schedules temporary special exhibitions, educational tours, lectures, symposia, public events, and programming available in person as well as digitally through its website and social media.
Original Entrance to the MMFA As with many grassroots institutions established during the Great Depression, the museum’s original purpose was practical as well as philanthropic. The original founders sought a community sponsored space to exhibit works by Alabama artists and to promote the cultural, artistic, and educational life of the people of Montgomery and surrounding central Alabama. A Montgomery-based group known as the Morning View Painters, which included painter John Kelly Fitzpatrick from Wetumpka, Elmore County, founded the Alabama Art League on April 2, 1930. After several successful exhibitions, the group approached Montgomery mayor William Gunter to request a home for a museum. On June 24, 1930, the first board incorporated the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association, and the museum opened to the public on November 9 in a renovated schoolhouse on Lawrence Street in downtown Montgomery. Municipal funds, membership dues, and gifts provided the $1,000 budget for the first year of operation. The first exhibition consisted of objects borrowed from or donated by the community.
The MMFA’s earliest exhibitions and acquisitions included paintings by local artists (including Fitzpatrick), Native American artifacts, period clothing, furnishings, and archival materials. In the 1930s, the museum operated an art school under Fitzpatrick’s direction and hosted small exhibitions of primarily local interest. By the next decade, however, the collection had grown to more than 300 paintings. One of the earliest significant contributions to the museum’s permanent art holdings occurred in 1936 when Margaret Freer, widow of American artist Frederick W. Freer, donated 96 works of art. The gift included paintings by prominent American artists William Merritt Chase, Frank Duveneck, Frank Currier, and Freer himself. This gift was pivotal in establishing the direction of the early collections toward a focus on American art. Acquisitions in the 1940s and 1950s were primarily works by regional artists, including Anne Goldthwaite and Richard Blauvelt Coe, who were affiliated with the Dixie Art Colony in Elmore County, and Maltby Sykes and Margaret Law.
Monday Morning On April 17, 1958, the City Commission approved plans to relocate the museum and the city library to a building at the corner of High and McDonough Streets designed by the architectural firm Sherlock, Smith, and Adams. The museum’s new home featured larger gallery spaces, improved climate control and security, and storage space for the expanding collection. Groundbreaking took place on July 17, 1958, and the new building opened on September 27, 1959. In 1960, the museum became a department of the city of Montgomery, and the city government assumed responsibility for the building’s upkeep as well as most staff salaries. The private Museum Association continued to acquire, own, and maintain the art collection as well as fund special exhibitions and operational initiatives through membership fees and development efforts, a practice that continues today. The museum was first awarded accreditation by the American Association of Museums in 1978.
Circus With the fiftieth anniversary of the Museum Association in 1980, the board of trustees and members saw the need for a larger, more up-to-date facility to accommodate the museum’s collection and expanding educational mission. They began exploring options for a new facility. The resulting building, designed by the architectural firm Barganier, McKee, Sims, opened on September 18, 1988, in the existing Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park, which was established in 1985. The first addition to the building came swiftly. In the fall of 1993, its fifth anniversary in Blount Park, the museum opened the Young Gallery, a 5,000-square-foot addition funded by Montgomery County rancher and landowner Ida Belle Young and devoted to the installation of the museum’s expanding permanent collection of contemporary and twentieth-century art. Then, a brief 10 years after its opening, the museum converted an underutilized storage space to create the Weil Graphic Arts Study Center, named in honor of cotton broker and philanthropist Adolph Weil, Jr. The Study Center doubles as a classroom for the study of works on paper as well as an exhibition space for works on paper.
The final major expansion of interior space occurred in the spring of 2006, when the museum opened the largest addition to the building to date. This included the Education Wing expansion of the ArtWorks interactive gallery, art-making studios, and the Margaret Berry Lowder Gallery, named for philanthropist and wife of investor James K. Lowder. With this addition, the museum made tangible its substantial commitment to arts education and lifelong learning opportunities for the entire community. Finally, the museum expanded beyond its physical walls, taking art into an outdoor setting with the opening of the John and Joyce Caddell Sculpture Garden on September 25, 2018; this space spans more than two acres and honors the founders of a local construction company.
Weil Graphic Arts Study Center Tour On October 18, 1972, the MMFA board of trustees adopted an acquisition policy to better guide the growth of the museum’s permanent collection toward a collection of fine art focused on American art from the Colonial Period to the present, with smaller collections of European Old Master prints and historical glass. Objects of material culture then in the collection, such as the Native American artifacts, furniture, and period clothing, were subsequently transferred to more suitable not-for-profit cultural institutions whose holdings provided better context for the interpretation of these works. These institutions included Old Alabama Town, the Alabama Department of Archives and History, the Alabama Historical Commission, the First White House of the Confederacy, Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson Historical Park, and others.
On May 16, 1990, the MMFA board adopted the current acquisitions policy, which defines the primary collection areas as American art, Old Master prints, and works by regional artists from Alabama and the Southeast. Smaller focused collections such as photography, African art, and decorative arts round out the collections and are rotated on view in the museum’s permanent galleries.
Mrs. Louis E. Raphael (Henriette Goldschmidt) The Blount Collection of American Art was officially given to the museum by Blount Incorporated on February 28, 1989. The opening of the facility in the Blount Cultural Park inaugurated the installation of this collection, which is the core of the museum’s collection of historical American paintings. Originally assembled by businessman Winton M. Blount as a corporate collection, the Blount Collection contains 41 paintings by 33 American artists, including icons John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Thomas Moran, Georgia O’Keeffe, and John Singer Sargent. In 2007, the museum established the Ida Belle Young Art Acquisition Fund by using a bequest from Ida Belle Young whose philanthropy had funded the Young Gallery expansion. The endowment created by the bequest supported the purchase of nine notable American works of art by such painters as William Sidney Mount, George Innes, Mary Cassatt, Edmonia Lewis, and Thomas Hart Benton. Another important collection in the early history of the museum is the Old Master Prints, which originated under the leadership and scholarship of cotton broker Adolph “Bucks” Weil Jr. He and his wife, Jean Weil, endowed the Weil Print Fund in 1980 on the fiftieth anniversary of the museum to continue the development of this collection of works created before 1900. In 1999, Jean Weil made a gift of more than 200 prints from the estate of her late husband, adding to a collection that now includes more than 500 works by artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacques Callot, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and many others.
John and Joyce Caddell Sculpture Garden Since the late 1990s, as the museum expanded physically, the collection grew in scope as well. Local philanthropists James L. and Joan Loeb donated a collection of more than 100 pieces of eighteenth-century English First Period Worcester porcelain. (James Loeb, who had a cotton merchandizing firm, also helped establish the Landmarks Foundation of Montgomery historic preservation organization.) In 1991, a small collection of Chinese Export porcelain was donated by the estate of William Francis McCall Jr., adding context to the growing connections between the arts of Europe and Asia in that dynamic era of international trade.
The MMFA also now owns a substantial holding of historical as well as American Studio Art glass; a movement that challenged the traditional associations and functionality of glass by focusing on artistic ideas and concepts. The museum’s glass collection consists of works by Sonja Blomdahl, Dale Chihuly, Harvey Littleton, Ginny Ruffner, Lino Tagliapietra, Louis Comfort Tiffany/Tiffany Studios, Cappy Thompson, and others.
Man, Woman As the museum entered the twenty-first century, its collecting mission increasingly reflected its origins, focusing on state and regional artists and how this art has taken on new importance in the canon of American art. The core of the museum’s collection of work by self-taught artists of the American South is a group of drawings by Montgomery artist Bill Traylor, given to the museum in 1982 by Eugenia and Charles Shannon, a painter who is credited with seeing Traylor and his work on a Montgomery street corner and saving it for posterity. This gift was followed by the addition of works by other Alabamians, including Thornton Dial Sr., Ronald Lockett, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Mose Tolliver, Yvonne Wells, numerous west Alabama quiltmakers, and the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Wilcox County. These artists are placed within the larger context of works that have been made within Alabama since the nineteenth century and make the museum’s collection one of the richest and most comprehensive holdings of Alabama’s historic artistic tradition.
Education and Outreach
ArtWorks Center Interactive Exhibit The original founders of the museum identified educating the public about the importance of art and culture as a factor in the development of a museum for Montgomery, and the role of education was central from its earliest years. John Kelly Fitzpatrick was the director and a teacher in the Museum Art School until his death in 1953, and with the help of funding from the Junior League of Montgomery, the Junior Program was established in 1966 to provide a tour-based experience for elementary-school children. For decades, an active education department and volunteer docent corps have provided Montgomery residents of all ages with art education activities.
ArtWorks Visitor With the relocation to the new facility in the Blount Cultural Park in 1988, the museum introduced ArtWorks, an innovative interactive gallery for experiencing and learning about art. Since its inception, ArtWorks has welcomed generations of children through its doors with the goal of building a lifelong appreciation of art and creativity. The museum’s educational efforts have evolved with technological advances to embrace digital access, thereby reaching people far beyond the boundaries of Alabama through a myriad of programs via social media and through its interactive, searchable collections database, which provides information on the museum’s art holdings to scholars and the general public.
As the museum draws near to its 100th anniversary of service to the state of Alabama and Montgomery, it is preparing for the next 100 years and new generations to serve. As most museums now understand, the role of this institution is changing from that of caretaker, repository, storyteller, and preservationist, to one of more active participation within and for the community to fully engage the past with the present. Additionally, the institution is also discovering and promoting the richer narratives that have, for many generations, lain hidden beneath the surface of one-dimensional storytelling and making them come to the forefront so that all members of the community can participate in their heritage and understand the importance of the legacy that all Alabamians have inherited.
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. American Paintings from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. Montgomery, Ala: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 2006.