The Open Museum

Great cities have flourishing museums, a defining place for their community.

By Gail Andrews

Gail Andrews

The Birmingham Museum of Art opened in 1951 in five large galleries in what was then the new City Hall, welcoming 1,500 visitors on an April afternoon. In the 1950s Birmingham’s economy was faltering, and as one historian has written, “it was time for Birmingham to reinvent itself.” From 1951 to 1957 Birmingham business and civic leaders met and discussed strategies for addressing the city’s problems. The success of the fledgling museum was not overlooked. In the spring of 1957, downtown merchants and businessmen formed the Birmingham Improvement Association (today ONB) with a list of 14 goals, among them “cultural development of the central business district.”

Birmingham was not unique in looking to the cultural community as a measure of a city’s maturation. Our leaders understood and appreciated the sentiment, “Unimportant cities have no museums; great cities have flourishing museums.” There are some interesting parallels between the city’s recent history and that time of the Museum’s birth. Blueprint Birmingham, created by a dedicated core of Birmingham’s leadership, stakes out an ambitious plan for progress in key areas including the cultural sector at a most opportune time. The downtown is thriving in ways it has not in decades. New restaurants and bars, galleries, housing and of course, the magnificent Railroad Park are evidence of this vitality. This is an exciting moment for our community, and there is great energy coming from so many sectors.

We intend for the Birmingham Museum of Art to be a vital partner and catalyst in this ongoing growth and development. I have now worked at the Birmingham Museum of Art for half of its 60-year history. Yikes. How did the Museum get to be so old? I can still remember the palpable level of excitement I had during my interview—feeling the opportunity that existed within the young institution and appreciating the absence of hierarchy and inertia. Coming from a very large and long-established institution, Colonial Williamsburg, I looked forward to the freedom to work with minimal encumbrance.

I need to remind myself periodically to encourage the freedom I felt when I arrived. It pays off in so many ways. It’s the energy and fresh ideas of staff, especially the younger ones, that conceived Art On The Rocks, BMA Speaks, Tai Chi in the sculpture garden, installations by contemporary artists and most recently the hip and thoughtful ad campaign for our next exhibition, Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present. This exhibition is exciting for us in several ways—it is the first major museum show devoted to the photographers who captured the icons of rock music, creating the visual record of a movement that continues to have such a powerful effect on our culture.

“A love letter to rock’s finest photographers and performers” is the way Dwight Garner of The New York Times described this monumental show. Rock and Roll is also celebrating its 60th anniversary. It continues our tradition of presenting a diverse series of visiting exhibitions that bring to Birmingham works of art not in our collection (think Matisse, Leonardo and Pompeii), expand our thinking through new ideas or juxtapositions between works of art, and create times for quiet reflection as well as active conversation. Fittingly, Who Shot Rock is an exhibition that offers an opportunity to attract a large and diverse crowd to our galleries, a goal since the Museum’s founding.

While such visiting exhibitions are always special, I would be remiss not to mention that we are incredibly fortunate to have one of the finest permanent collections in the country. We are exceedingly proud of our 24,000 objects ranging from ancient to contemporary and illustrating the astonishing techniques and talents of artists across time and space. And this remarkable resource is always free—we strive, even in tough times economically, to make art accessible to everyone.

We also want the community to look forward with us to the next phase in our life as an institution. To embrace the community fully, we appreciate that we must change with the times, sculpting our mission to reflect the needs of our visitors. For instance, we’re opening the museum at night once a month starting June 2.

Our First Thursdays hours, however, are only one way we hope to open the museum up to more and more people. We hope you will share with us what you think. What should BMA be in the 21st Century? How should our art and our institution impact your life and your community?

As one of the oldest institutions in the downtown, we welcome the new institutions, and the new excitement, new thinking, and new energy that come with them. It’s good for Birmingham and good for us. We will continue to infuse new creativity into our own cultural offerings.  Museums across the country, of all disciplines, embrace the goal of being a necessary part, not just another part, of their community; a defining place.

We have grown tremendously over the last sixty years. As we imagine our future, our dreams include expansion to provide even more space for our large collection and for an increased engagement with the community. We want to make sure everyone knows that this great art and this great institution belong to you. Please come visit and stay a while.•

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