History & Timeline

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Founded in 1951, the Birmingham Museum of Art has one of the finest collections in the Southeast supported by a strong educational program designed to make the arts come alive for children and adults throughout the region. More than 25,000 objects represent a rich panorama of cultures, including Asian, European, American, African, Pre-Columbian, and Native American. Highlights include the Museum’s collection of Asian art, considered the finest and most comprehensive in the Southeast, and its collection of Vietnamese ceramics, one of the finest in the world; a remarkable Kress collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts from the late 13th century to the 1750s; the collection of 18th century European decorative arts, which includes superior examples of English ceramics and French furniture; and the Museum’s world-renowned collection of Wedgwood, the largest outside of England.

The Museum connects with the community through educational programs and curatedexhibitions that engage, entertain, and enlighten visitors. Programs are designed around the Museum’s permanent collection and changing exhibitions, and provide opportunities for all ages and levels of experience to connect with art.

wells museumThe Birmingham Museum of Art is located in the heart of the City’s cultural district. Erected in 1959, the present building was designed by architects Warren, Knight & Davis of Birmingham, with a major renovation and expansion by Edward Larrabee Barnes of New York completed in 1993. The facility encompasses 180,000 square feet, including a splendid outdoor sculpture garden.

The generosity of the City of Birmingham and other private and municipal funders has allowed the Museum to remain free of charge to visitors since its opening.

  • 1908    The Birmingham Art Club is formed, stimulating interest in art and a permanent art museum in the young city.
  • 1927     New Birmingham Public Library provides a gallery for the display of art.
  • 1933    Library hosts exhibition of Italian Renaissance paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. After the exhibition, two paintings are placed on long-term loan to the Library.
  • 1935    The Art Club receives a bequest of $19,000 to be held in trust and eventually used for the creation of a city art museum.
  • 1948    Birmingham Age-Herald endorses city museum concept. Art Club pursues the project with support of city government.
  • 1950    City government passes ordinance that creates the Museum Board of the City of Birmingham.
  • 1951    The Birmingham Museum of Art is officially opened in City Hall. Collection begins to grow with gifts of Chinese ceramics, textiles, and Japanese prints, Old Master prints, costumes, glass and oil paintings. Established with the mission to be a comprehensive Museum, its aim is to provide an educational experience for the community.
  • 1952    The Museum receives long-term loan of 29 Italian Renaissance paintings from The Samuel H. Kress Foundation. This collection remains one of the most popular today and becomes the nucleus of the Museum’s collection.
  • 1954    Fund bequeathed by Mrs. Helen Jacob Wells to be used for construction of a permanent Museum building.
  • 1955    Land acquired as future site of the Birmingham Museum of Art.
  • 1956    Museum begins purchasing art for the permanent collection including Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast and Plains Indian art.
  • 1958    Ground is broken for the Oscar Wells Memorial Building to house permanent collection.
  • 1959    New permanent art museum building designed by Warren, Knight and Davis opens to the public (May 3, 1959). Red Mountain Garden Club opens museum garden designed by William Kessler.
  • 1961    Kress collection of Italian Renaissance paintings officially deeded to the Museum.  Trusteeship of the 37 works included those on loan since 1952.
  • 1962    Lamprecht Collection of German decorative cast iron placed on long-term loan to Museum by the American Cast Iron Pipe Company. Collection given to the Museum in 1987.  This is the largest collection and only one of its kind in the United States and one of the fourth largest in the world.
  • 1963    Dr. and Mrs. Harold E. Simon donate first of many objects to form the Art of the American West Collection, which later included the popular Remington bronzes and 19th-century American paintings.
  • 1964    The Museum acquires collection of Peruvian gold for growing pre-Columbian collection.
  • The Museum Education program begins as the Museum Art Education Council (MAEC) is incorporated and begins to offer art history slide programs in the schools, and art classes and workshops at the Museum.
  • 1965    Addition of galleries on the second floor west wing completed and opened.
  • 1966    Museum art library opens. In 1993 named the Clarence Bloodworth Hanson Library, in memory of Museum Trustee, Mr. Hanson. Museum Education Council creates the Artmobile to take artifacts and art lessons to the public schools.
  • 1968    Bond issue for the acquisition of additional Museum property approved by voters raising $400,000.
  • 1969    Official docent (tour guide) program launched. Tours of the collections and exhibitions have been made available since 1951. Land acquired for future building additions.
  • 1973    R. Hugh Daniel endowment established to fund position of Museum Director.
  • 1975    Collecting of Asian art begins in earnest. The Asian Collection has become the largest and most comprehensive in the Southeast. Asian Art Society is established.
  • 1978    Early donations of Wedgwood and other English ceramics given by Dwight and Lucille Beeson form the nucleus of Beeson Wedgwood Collection, the finest collection of Wedgwood in the United States.
  • 1979    New east wing featuring library, offices, conservation lab, loading dock, and additional entrance/lobby is completed.
  • 1980     Opening of the new wing with eight special exhibitions. This addition of 28,000 sq. ft. makes the Birmingham Museum of Art the largest municipal museum in the Southeast (116,000 sq. ft.). Museum forms endowment fund for acquisitions. Fashion Group International, Birmingham, establishes costume collection.
  • 1983    Museum receives accreditation from the American Association of Museums.
  • 1984    Museum begins to collect African art. This growing collection has become one of the finest in the Southeast.
  • 1985    Armand Hammer Collection attracts over 160,000 visitors to the Museum.
  • 1986    Long Range Planning Committee formed, resulting in decision to expand facility.  Edward Larrabee Barnes selected as architect for expansion. Museum begins to collect large-scale outdoor sculpture for eventual placement in the proposed sculpture garden.
  • 1989    City bond issue approved by voters; $5 million designated for Museum expansion project.
  • 1991    Ground broken for a new expanded Birmingham Museum of Art begins. Two new wings totaling 50,000 sq. ft. and a multi-level sculpture garden are part of the new plan. Extensive collection of 18th-century French paintings and decorative arts bequeathed by Eugenia Woodward Hitt, one of the finest collections of French decorative arts in the United States.
  • 1992    Birmingham Museum of Art closes its galleries to the public as the $21 million expansion/renovation to the existing Museum building begins in earnest.
  • 1993    Newly renovated and expanded Birmingham Museum of Art, designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, opens to the public, comprising a total of 180,000 square feet.  New facility includes the multi-level Charles W. Ireland Sculpture Garden, designed by sculptor Elyn Zimmerman in close collaboration with Barnes. Site-specific installations by Zimmerman and Valerie Jaudon installed, as well as sculpture by Botero, Lipchitz, Rodin, and Hepworth. Masterpieces East and West published as guide to the collection.
  • 1995    Made in Alabama opens at the Museum prior to a statewide tour. Endowment for operations established. Over 300 Alabama-made quilts from the collection of Helen and Robert Cargo are given to the Museum. The collection was included in the “Top 100 Treasures” by Art & Antiques Magazine in March 1997.
  • 1996    The First Emperor exhibition, which traveled nationally, organized by the Museum, attracts 125,000 visitors to the Museum during a two-month period that coincides in part with the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
  • Birmingham Persian Wall by Dale Chihuly, America’s premier glass artist, installed in Eighth Avenue Lobby.
  • 1998    Museum received its first grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in support of Chokwe: Art and Initiation among the Chokwe Peoples.
  • 2000    Asian Art in the Birmingham Museum of Art published. Matisse from The Baltimore Museum of Art opened at the Museum on July 16, heralding the Museum’s 50th Anniversary.
  • 2001    Museum hosts a city-wide celebration of 50th Anniversary on April 29. First-ever audio guide to Museum’s permanent collection created and Museum’s redesigned website introduced. The 50th Anniversary sparked the reinstallation of five galleries in the Museum: the Native American, Contemporary, Kress Italian paintings, American and Korean Galleries. In celebration of 50th Anniversary, Museum Trustee Mrs. John Harbert III endows the Margurite and John Harbert III Curatorship of Decorative Arts; Museum Trustee William Spencer establishes the William M. Spencer III Curatorship of Asian Art; and Mr. and Mrs. William J. Rushton III endow the annual Rushton Concert Series. Museum received as a gift the collections of the Merton Brown Estate and the Thelma Brown Trust.
  • 2002    Museum hosts European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Paintings from the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. Department of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic arts divided into two separate departments, European Art to 1900 and Modern and Contemporary American. Korean Gallery reopened, sponsored by the Korea Foundation. Sankofa Society formed.
  • 2003    Lonnie Holley Part I: Perspectives 8 exhibit opened.  Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio: Community Architecture exhibition was organized by the Museum and traveled nationally. Friends of European Art formed. The Hugh Kaul Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art position endowed. Art on the Rocks begins.
  • 2004    Kamisaka Sekka: Rimpa Master – Pioneer of Modern Design co-organized with National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto opens and travels internationally. Museum publishes Kamisaka Sekka: Rimpa Master – Pioneer of Modern Design.
  • 2005    Henry Luce Foundation awards Fellowship in American Art creating two year position for curatorial fellow.
  • 2006    Museum receives the Mortimer B. and Sue Fuller collection of African ironwork and ceramics and the Sondra Milne Henderson Library on Japanese paintings.
  • 2007    Museum opens annex with exhibition of Alabama Folk Art for Alabama’s Year of Art at the Young & Vann Building. Pompeii: Tales from an Eruption exhibition opens. Friends of American Art formed.
  • 2008    Opening of Leonardo da Vinci: Drawings from the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, organized by the BMA, which also published catalog by the same name. This exhibition was the first time this group of Leonardo drawings had left Italy as a group. William C. Hulsey Curator of American Art position endowed. Museum acquires the Buten Collection of Wedgwood, Alabama pottery collection, and the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel gift.
  • 2009    Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from Yale University Art Galleryopens. An African American gallery is designated. UAB Fellowship established. Indian Cultural Society began partnership with Museum. Purchase of Artemis Library on European prints and drawings. Museum published European Cast Iron.
  • 2010    American Planning Association designates Museum garden as one of the Ten Best Spaces in America. Museum receives the Spencer collection of Vietnamese ceramics.
  • 2011    Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present opens. William M. Spencer III Terrace opens. Museum receives Mellon Foundation award for fellowship in African-American art. Museum receives the Richard Jemison collection of African ceramics gift/purchase. In honor of the 60th Anniversary, Museum publishes the Birmingham Museum of Art//Guide to the Collection. Museum publishes catalog Dragons and Lotus Blossoms: Vietnamese Ceramics from the Birmingham Museum of Art, in preparation for January 2012 exhibition.
  • 2012 The 60th anniversary of the Birmingham Museum of Art, celebrated with exhibition Future Perfect: The Birmingham Museum of Art at 60. Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection opens. Warhol and Cars: American Icons opens, with Art On The Rocks series themed on Warhol and pop art. Norman Rockwell’s America opens. Bart’s ArtVenture family gallery opens.
  • 2013 The Museum held its first Bunting Biennial Ceramics Symposium. The Dick Jemison Collection of African Ceramics opens. The BMA’s first family exhibition, Hip, Hippo, Hooray!, opens. The Museum takes part in the city-wide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. The Museum commemorated this historic year with a series of contemporary art exhibitions: Theaster Gates and The Black Monks of Mississippi’s performance, ‘Tis So Sweet Or I Need Sugar Lawd; Etched in Collective History; Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project; and Question Bridge: Black Males.