Situated in downtown Birmingham, Jefferson County, the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA) offers the largest comprehensive art collection in the Southeast. The museum features more than 24,000 objects including painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from 3,000 BC to present. The museum has eight major collection areas: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Modern and Contemporary Art, Europe, European Decorative Arts, Native American Art, and Pre-Colombian Art. The facility also sponsors or hosts numerous programs for children and adults, including lectures, concerts, spoken-word performances, dance, film, workshops, studio classes, and tours. A successful public-private partnership, the museum has remained free to the public throughout its history.
The museum's roots date to January 1908 and the establishment of the Birmingham Art Club (BAC), whose 57 charter members gathered regularly to promote interest in the arts and drive an effort to establish an art museum in the city. Over time, civic and business leaders joined with BAC in the effort, and on August 1, 1950, the City Commission created the Museum Board of the City of Birmingham and committed to providing partial funding for a museum facility. The city also donated space in the newly constructed City Hall. On April 8, 1951, the Birmingham Museum of Art opened with five galleries featuring 75 paintings borrowed from major museums across the United States. It had no permanent collection other than a few inaugural gifts of paintings, textiles, and glass. The following year, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation loaned and later agreed to donate 27 Renaissance and Baroque paintings to the fledging institution if they could be properly housed.
In response, Helen Jacobs Wells, widow of banking executive Samuel Wells, stipulated in her will that upon her death (in December 1954), the bulk of her sizeable estate would go to construct a building that would provide the proper display, temperature, and humidity requirements for paintings and other works of art. Wells also bequeathed her print collection, which included masterworks by Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer, and James McNeill Whistler, to the facility. Named for her husband, who also was an avid supporter of the arts, the Oscar Wells Memorial Museum building opened in May 1959. During the museum's first decade, however, there were no dedicated funds to support acquisitions, and the institution's collections grew primarily through gifts from numerous donors. These were largely concentrated in the areas of Asian, American, and European paintings, and decorative arts and set the focus for future acquisitions.
Over the next 30 years, the museum board actively collected works, created exhibitions and education programs, and made four additions to the 1959 building to house the expanding collections. The most recent and largest was a renovation of the existing building and a 50,000-square-foot addition that was completed in 1993. The new construction added a 24,000-square-foot sculpture garden, 7,000 square feet of new exhibition space, state-of-the-art storage facilities, public spaces, studios, and an interactive education gallery. Currently at 180,000 square feet, the museum now has greater flexibility for temporary exhibitions, expanding its art collection, and exploring new opportunities to engage with the community. The three-tiered garden expanded the museum's original Red Mountain Garden Club Memorial Garden. It serves as a place for reflection, a space for social functions, and an exhibit area for the museum's collection of outdoor sculpture, with works by George Rickey, Sol LeWitt, Fernando Botero, and Jacques Lipchitz, among others. In 2010, the sculpture garden was named one of the "Great Public Spaces" by the American Planning Association.
In 1975, the Asian Art Society was established as the museum's first collection support group. With the guidance of Sherman Lee, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the museum began building a collection of Southeast Asian ceramics and now has one of the most significant collections of Vietnamese ceramics in the United States. The Asian collection also includes works from China, Japan, Korea, India, and Tibet and consists of more than 1,000 Japanese woodblock prints; lacquered funerary objects and vessels from third-century B.C. China through nineteenth-century Japan; and significant Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu, and Jain sculptures and paintings. On the strength of this collection, the museum has become the primary center for Asian art studies in the region.
The museum may be best known internationally for its important collection of English Wedgwood ceramics. Built upon a 1976 gift of approximately 1,400 pieces from Lucille and Dwight Beeson, the collection ranges from the earliest products of the Wedgwood factory from the time of its establishment in 1759 through the death of its founder, Josiah Wedgwood, in 1795. More recent acquisitions, including the Catherine Collins Collection of eighteenth-century English ceramics and the Buten Collection of Wedgwood, have improved the collection, establishing the museum as a center for the study of English ceramics. In addition, the museum holds a significant collection of European cast-iron decorative art that is one the largest and most comprehensive of its kind and the only such collection in the United States. Its collection of eighteenth-century silver illustrates the artistic range of silver production in that period.
An expansive collection of European art includes, most notably, the Eugenia Woodward Hitt Collection of eighteenth-century French art, bequeathed in 1991. With more than 500 objects, it contains drawings, furniture, and gilt bronzes from the eras of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI, as well as significant Meissen porcelains. In addition to the French collection, the BMA also has collections of Italian art as well as Dutch and Flemish art of the seventeenth century that provides an overview of the art of the Northern Baroque. The collection of nineteenth-century European painting illustrates the range of ideas and movements during that dynamic period with works by Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Claude Monet, and Camille Pissarro.
The collection of American painting contains many important works, including significant landscapes by Martin Johnson Heade, Robert S. Duncanson, George Inness, William Louis Sonntag Sr., and Childe Hassam and notable works from the late eighteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries by Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully, John George Brown, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, George Bellows, and Georgia O'Keeffe. American decorative arts include pieces by Tiffany & Co., Frank Lloyd Wright, and William Spratling, as well as many paintings relating to the American West, notably Albert Bierstadt's Looking Down the Yosemite Valley, California, painted in 1865. It was donated primarily by Harold Simon of Birmingham, whose gifts include works by Joseph Henry Sharp, De Cost Smith, Charles M. Russell, and Will Crawford as well as bronzes by Frederick Remington, James Earle Fraser, and Charles Schreyvogel.
The collection contains defining examples by Alabama artists in all media from the nineteenth century to the present, including academic and "folk," or "self-taught," art. Some of these artists, such as William Christenberry and Lonnie Holley, have been collected in depth, giving visitors a deeper understanding of their work. Helen and Robert Cargo of Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, donated more than 300 quilts, creating the most comprehensive collection of Alabama-made quilts and the only public collection that documents a state's entire quilt history. Similarly, several private collectors are helping the museum build the most significant repository of Alabama pottery in the country.
The African collection, begun in the early 1980s, contains about 2,000 objects representing all of the major regions of Africa. The collection consists of a variety of masks, figures, textiles, ceramics, musical instruments, and household and ritual objects from West and Central Africa. The Americas collection contains examples from ancient North, Central, and South America and includes Meso-American and Peruvian ceramic vessels, figural ceramics, several important examples of gold objects from the Sicán culture of Peru, and volcanic grinding stones, called metates and figural works from what is now Costa Rica. The collections also include a number of items from Native American groups of the U.S. Plains, Southwest, and Pacific Northwest Coast, such as a variety of textiles, ceramics, headdresses, ceramics, beadwork, rattles, masks, and baskets.
The Clarence B. Hanson Jr. Library, named for the former Birmingham News publisher, is one of the most comprehensive art research libraries in the Southeast. Holdings include more than 35,000 non-circulating books, magazines, artist files, auction catalogues, databases, and a rare-book room. Most noteworthy are the resources on Wedgwood and other ceramics, the Artemis Library on European prints and drawings, and reference materials on Asian art.
The museum is a department of the city of Birmingham and currently receives approximately half of its $6.2 million budget from the city. Remaining operating support comes from individuals, corporations, and foundations. The 18-member Board of Trustees is selected from a nominating committee and submitted to the city council for approval. The museum also has an Advisory Board with approximately 30 members. The museum has 80 full-time employees and 150 active volunteers. There are six curatorial departments, each managed by a curator: Asian Art, Arts of Africa and the Americas, European Art to 1900, European Decorative Arts, American Art to 1945, and Modern and Contemporary Art. The museum welcomes approximately 140,000 visitors each year.
Gail C. Andrews
Birmingham Museum of Art
Published October 9, 2012
Last updated December 16, 2014