The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts was founded in 1930 as the first fine arts museum in the state of Alabama. Today, the museum's collections contain more than 4,000 works of art, which are enjoyed by more than 165,000 visitors annually. The museum's state-of-the-art facility is located at the center of Montgomery's 250-acre Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park. The museum is a department of the city of Montgomery and has an annual operating budget of $3.7 million and some 60 full-time and part-time employees. The museum's operations and programs are also supported by a private, not-for-profit organization, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association, the activities of which are managed by a board of trustees, and the efforts of more than 150 volunteers.
As with many grassroots institutions founded in the midst of the Great Depression, the museum's original purpose was practical as well as philanthropic. The original founders sought a community space to exhibit works by Alabama artists and to promote the cultural, artistic, and educational life of the people of 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. In November 1930, the first board incorporated the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association, and the museum opened in a renovated schoolhouse on Lawrence Street in downtown Montgomery. City government funds, membership dues, and gifts provided the $1,000 budget for the first year of operation. The first exhibition opened on November 9, 1930, and consisted of historical artifacts, furniture, china, and other objects borrowed from or donated by the community.
The museum's earliest acquisitions included paintings by local artists including John Kelly Fitzpatrick, Native American artifacts, period clothing, furnishings, and archival materials. In the 1930s, the museum operated an art school under the direction of Fitzpatrick and hosted small exhibitions of primarily local interest. By the next decade, however, the collection had grown to more than 300 paintings. In 1936, Margaret Freer, widow of American artist Frederick W. Freer, donated 96 works of art that were one of the earliest significant contributions to the museum. The gift included paintings by Munich-school artists William Merritt Chase, Frank Duveneck, Frank Currier, and Frederick Freer himself.
Acquisitions also included the purchase and gift of 26 paintings in 1939 from collector Isaac M. Cline. Cline, a colorful figure who began as a collector in New Orleans, assigned famous artists' names to the portraits that the museum acquired from his collection, but later research showed that he was incorrect about most of them. The balance of the acquisitions made in the 1940s and 1950s were primarily by southern artists such as Anne Goldthwaite, Richard Coe, Maltby Sykes, and Margaret Law.
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 of Sherlock, Smith, and Adams. The museum's new home featured larger gallery spaces, improved climate control and security, and space for the growing collection and education programs. 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 physical plant as well as most staff salaries. The private Museum Association continued to own and maintain the art collection and to fund special exhibitions and operational initiatives through membership fees and development efforts and still does so.
Beginning on October 18, 1972, the board of trustees adopted an acquisition policy to more specifically guide the growth of the museum's permanent collection toward expanding its holdings of fine art, focusing on American art from the Colonial period to the present, with smaller collections of European Old Master prints, and historical glass. Since that time, objects of material culture such as the Native American artifacts, furniture, and period clothing have been placed with more suitable cultural institutions. The museum was first awarded accreditation by the American Association of Museums in 1978.
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 increasing membership, growing collection, and expanding educational programs and began the process of planning for a new building. Also in 1980, Adolph and Jean Weil endowed the Weil Print Fund to continue the development of the museum's Old Master collection by enabling the purchase of works created before 1900. The museum's works on paper collection also includes American prints, including popular engravings by Currier and Ives and works by major modern printmakers such as James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and many others.
The current museum building, designed by the architectural firm Barganier, McKee, Sims, in the Blount Cultural Park, opened on September 18, 1988. The now 80,000-square-foot building features galleries for permanent collections, temporary exhibitions, the Weil Graphic Arts Study Center, the Wilson Auditorium, and the ARTWORKS interactive educational gallery. The facility provides an optimal environment for storing and exhibiting works of art and meets the highest standards of the American Association of Museums for the responsible preservation, care, and management of its collections. The opening of the facility featured the installation of the Blount Collection, which is the core of the museum's collection of American art. The collection was officially given to the museum by Blount Incorporated on February 28, 1989. Originally assembled by Winton M. Blount as a corporate collection, the Blount Collection contains 41 historically significant paintings by 33 American artists, including John Singleton Copley, Thomas Moran, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O'Keeffe.
On May 16, 1990, the museum board adopted the current acquisitions policy, which defines the primary collection focus as American art, Old Master prints, and works by artists from Alabama and the Southeast. This policy defines "the quality of the work" and "its relationship to the existing collections" as the major criteria for accepting new works into the collection.
Jean Weil, widow of major print patron Adolph Weil Jr., made a major gift of more than 200 important Old Master prints in 1999 from the estate of her late husband, adding to a print collection that now includes more than 1,500 outstanding impressions. These works span various printmaking techniques and demonstrate the scope and quality of the print collection. In 2007, the museum established the Ida Belle Young Art Acquisition Fund using a bequest from Ida Belle Young (1917-2004), a Montgomery County rancher and landowner, to create an endowment supporting acquisitions for the American art collection; to date, paintings by artists including Mary Cassatt and William Sidney Mount have been purchased. Complementary collections of photography, Studio Art glass, decorative arts, and works by self-taught artists of the South are developing, particularly in the areas of works by southern photographers and quilt makers of Alabama.
As the museum has entered the twenty-first century, emphasis has been placed on using the museum's collections to enhance
varied educational programs for all ages, as well as improving accessibility of information through digital technologies.
A central focus of the museum's strategic plan for 2010, created cooperatively by the board and staff, was the need to increase
the museum's visibility in our community and the art world. To help accomplish this goal, the museum's digital presence online
and in social media now provide extensive information on its programs, events, and other activities, and it hosts an interactive
searchable database cataloging the museum's collections for public and remote access.
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. American Paintings from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. Montgomery, Ala: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 2006.
Margaret Lynne Ausfeld
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts
Published June 1, 2011
Last updated March 5, 2013