Future Perfect: The Birmingham Museum of Art at 60

May 13, 2012 - August 05, 2012

The final feather in the Museum’s 60th anniversary cap is an exhibition of more than 150 works that have been purchased or gifted in honor of our diamond anniversary. The works, spanning all collecting departments and periods, range from a superb 3rd-century Gandharan head—to an intricately carved German ivory hunting horn—to a voluminous 18th-century Aubusson rug—to a 2010 sculpture by the Alabama-born, internationally recognized artist William Christenberry. This vast panorama of gifts underscores the Museum’s strong commitment to collecting broadly and in depth, as the state’s only comprehensive art museum. The exhibition installation is organized chronologically, which provides a horizontal view across cultures at any given moment, and opens unusual opportunities for dialogue between works that are otherwise generally separated by region.

With this exhibition, we recognize the fundamental role that gifts play in the ongoing effort to build the finest collection in the southeast. Since the Museum’s inception in 1951, the generosity of our patrons has grown the collection to more than 24,000 objects in just sixty years. Quality and excellence remain twin criteria as we consider each and every work of art.

So what does the title, Future Perfect mean? Grammatically, the future perfect tense talks about the past in the future—a fitting tribute to this moment in the history of your museum, as we reflect on the collection we have built and strive to make it even greater in the future.

INTRODUCTION

Visitors often ask, “How does the Museum decide which artworks to collect?” This exhibition provides both a glimpse into that process as well as a preview of our plans. Future Perfect celebrates the gifts and purchases made to honor the sixtieth year of the Museum, and reveals how and why it acquires artworks. The wide variety of art in these galleries underscores the Museum’s strong commitment to build on our existing strengths, by collecting broadly and in depth.

The works, spanning all collecting departments and periods, range from a superb 3rd-century Gandharan head – to an intricately carved German ivory hunting horn – to a voluminous 18th-century Aubusson rug – to a 2010 sculpture by the Alabama-born, internationally-recognized William Christenberry. The exhibition is installed chronologically, across geographical regions, which allows for interesting and unusual juxtapositions.

So what does the title – Future Perfect – mean? Grammatically, the future perfect tense of a verb refers to an action in the present that will be complete in the future: a fitting description of this moment in the collecting history of the Museum. Join us to reflect on the collection we have built as we strive to make it better for the future.

Receiving Gifts

Gifts are one way that art collections grow. Each of the Museum’s curatorial departments – American, the Americas and Africa, Asian, decorative arts, European, and modern and contemporary – develops a five-year plan and works with collectors and foundations to help fulfill it. Types of gifts include:

  • Unrestricted gifts, granting full ownership to the Museum
  • Fractional gifts, transferring ownership gradually to the Museum over a period of time
  • Promised gifts, expressing the owner’s intent to give an artwork to the Museum at a future time
  • Bequests, bequeathing artwork to the Museum through the owner’s will or estate

On occasion, the Museum and a donor make a gift-purchase agreement, in which the owner donates a percentage of an artwork’s value; the Museum purchases the balance.

Building the Collection

The Museum builds its collections through purchases, gifts, or a combination of the two. Before curators add an object to the permanent collection, it must successfully pass each step of a demanding approval process.

First, the curator researches the history of an artwork, assesses its quality, and considers how it fits into the collection, what gap it fills, and how it furthers the Museum’s mission. If the artwork stands up under scrutiny, then he or she proposes to the Museum’s director and curatorial staff to acquire it. Next, the curator defends the object to and answers questions from the board of trustees’ subcommittee on collections, a group that meets six times each year. If approved, the curator presents it to the entire board of trustees, after which the Museum’s registration department assigns it a permanent object number.

Looking to the Future

Each of the Museum’s curatorial departments develops a strategic collecting plan every five years.  These plans establish the collections’ strengths, identify potential new artworks that could build on those strengths, and pinpoint gaps. Below are some priorities for each collection:

American

  • Sculpture
  • 20th-century Modernism and design

The Americas and Africa

  • Contemporary Native-American art
  • Islamic, Christian, and Jewish art from Africa
  • A major work of African contemporary art that reflects upon traditional African art

Asian

  • Hindu art from India
  • Buddhist sculpture from Japan
  • Indian miniature paintings

Decorative Arts

  • 18th-century English ceramics
  • Wedgwood ceramics
  • 19th- and 20th-century European decorative arts and English silver

European

  • 16th-century Mannerist art
  • 16th- through 18th-century Italian, Dutch, and French sculpture
  • 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings

Modern and Contemporary

  • African-American and Latin-American art
  • Alabama masterworks

TRACING OUR HISTORY

1951

  • April 8: Birmingham Museum of Art opens in five large galleries in City Hall.
  • The Samuel H. Kress Foundation loans 27 Renaissance and Baroque works.
  • Progress Study Club donates first Asian artwork, a pair of women’s shoes from China.
  • American Cast Iron Pipe Company places the Gustav Lamprecht collection of 19th-century European cast iron on long-term loan. ACIPCO donates the collection in 1986.

1954

  • Oscar and Helen Wells bequeath their collection of European and American prints, including etchings by Rembrandt and Whistler.

1956

  • The Museum purchases its first important American painting, Childe Hassam’s Building the Schooner, Provincetown.
  • The Museum acquires a large group of Native American art of the Pacific Northwest Coast from the Rasmussen collection.

1959

  • The Museum moves to its present site, the Oscar Wells Memorial Building, built with funds from Helen Jacob Wells in memory of her husband.
  • The Kress Foundation donates the 27 paintings on loan since 1951, as well as 12 additional works.

1962

  • Dr. Harold and Regina Simon begin to give their nationally known collection of art of the American West. They eventually established the Simon Fund for the acquisition of American art, ensuring the growth of the collection for generations to come.

1970

  • The Museum acquires Frank Stella’s Flin Flon VI, its first major work of contemporary art.

1972

  • Frances Oliver bequeaths her collection of English silver and ceramics and continental porcelain.

1974

  • The Birmingham Public Library lends Albert Bierstadt’s Looking Down the Yosemite Valley, California. The Library donates the painting in 1991.

1973

  • The Museum makes its first purchase of Asian art, a Korean jar.

1976

  • Birmingham natives Dwight & Lucille Beeson begin to give more than 1400 pieces of early Wedgwood pottery, establishing the Museum as a major center of Wedgwood ceramics.

1983

  • The Museum purchases Georgia O’Keeffe’s The Green Apple with funds from the 1981 and 1982 Museum Dinners and Balls and Mr. & Mrs. Jack McSpadden.

1984

  • Eleanor Lee Brakefield bequeaths her collection of approximately 32,000 late 19th- and early 20th-century postcards. They are accessioned as a single object.

1987

  • The Museum acquires the monumental Chinese wall fresco The Pure Land of Amitabha.

1991

  • The Museum receives the Eugenia Woodward Hitt collection, comprising more than 500 18th-century French paintings and decorative arts.
  • Silvia Pizitz bequeaths her collection of modern art, including works by Josef Albers, El Lissitsky, and Charmion von Wiegand.

1992

  • The Museum purchases the Elizabeth Chellis Wedgwood Library.

1993

  • A 50,000-square-foot addition, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, opens.

1996

  • Robert & Helen Cargo donate their collection of more than 300 Alabama-made quilts and an accompanying library, which chart the state’s rich quilt history.

1998

  • The Museum receives the Catherine H. Collins collection of 18th-century English ceramics.

2000

  • The Museum purchases an important Creek bandolier bag with funds from the annual Museum Ball.

2001

  • Rita Judge Smith gives 56 works of Pre-Columbian art.
  • Funds from the Merton Brown Estate and the Thelma Brown Trust enable the purchase of Bonjour Julie, a major work by Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell.
  • Funds provided by Dr. & Mrs. John Poynor and the Bluff Park Art Association, in honor of the Museum’s 50th anniversary, enable it to commission Bands of Color in Various Directions from Sol LeWitt.

2003

  • Eivor and Alston Callahan donate the Indian sculpture Sarasvati.

2005

  • The Museum purchases the John Stevenson library on Vietnamese ceramics, one of the most extensive of its kind.

2006

  • Mortimer & Sue Fuller give 256 works of African iron and ceramics.
  • The Museum receives the library of Walter & Molly Bareiss, consisting of approximately 350 volumes on African art.

2008

  • The Museum acquires the Buten Wedgwood collection, comprising more than 8000 ceramics from the 18th through mid-20th centuries. The Museum also receives the Buten Wedgwood library and archives, consisting of approximately 600 rare or unique books, photographs, slides, and archival materials.
  • The Museum receives a large collection of Alabama folk pottery from the Weissman-Sellers family in honor of Nancy Stone.
  • The Museum is the one institution in Alabama selected to receive 50 works of modern and contemporary art from the Herbert & Dorothy Vogel collection’s Fifty Works for Fifty States initiative.

2009

  • The Museum purchases Robert Seldon Duncanson’s A Dream of Italy.
  • The Museum’s European Art Society purchases the Artemis library, comprising over 5800 volumes on prints and drawings.

2010

  • A major gift from the estate of longtime city council member Nina Miglionico enables the purchase of an early sculpture by Mino Da Fiesole and Italian Renaissance pottery.
  • Birmingham native Robert Kaufmann, longtime decorative arts librarian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequeaths his library of more than 2000 books on art history, Victoriana, and food culture and history.
  • William M. Spencer III bequeaths major collection of Vietnamese ceramics.
  • William Hull donates a large collection of 20th-century Danish pottery.

2011

  • Birmingham artist and collector Dick Jemison gives his collection of more than 400 works of African earthenware.
  • Birmingham collector and longtime Museum volunteer Guy R. Kreusch gives the Museum a collection of more than 200 pieces of Roseville Pottery.

2012

  • The Birmingham Museum of Art’s collection totals approximately 24,000 works of art.