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Gail Andrews Reflects on 40 Years at the BMA

/ Interviews - Staff Updates

After 40 years of service to the BMA, Gail Andrews retired as R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art in September. During her 20 years at the helm of the Museum, Andrews grew the collection from 13,000 objects to 27,000 objects, raised the endowment by $21 million, expanded the staff and programming, and greatly increased the Museum’s holdings of work by women and African American artists. In May, she was presented the Jonnie Dee Riley Little Lifetime Achievement Award by the Alabama State Council on the Arts for her significant leadership, service, and support of the arts in Alabama.

Birmingham Museum of Art: In the early years of your four decade tenure at the BMA, you served as Assistant Curator for Decorative Arts. How did that experience influence your role as Director?

Gail Andrews: For years, mission statements for art museums were fairly consistent and straightforward stating our role to collect, care and interpret works of art. In other words, our work centered on the objects in our care and the curator, obviously working with other staff, was central in that mission. I still believe our work centers around the object and few things give me more pleasure than looking at works of art. So I come from that mindset, that passion, that thrill of connecting with an object, and where it can take you. I also love research, finding out as much as possible about the object, the maker, and the period in which it was made, and then sharing that information to hopefully excite and inspire others. So, I share that with curators, and understand their perspective in both building the collection and what tools and time are necessary in their work.

BMA: Have you seen museums evolve over the past few decades?

GA: Museums have certainly changed over the years, I believe in healthy ways, with increased focus and desire to engage more deeply with the public. It is now the task for the curators and director, as well as the entire staff, to focus their attention not only on the objects, but also with how our objects connect with the public. Assuring the care and understanding of our collection must be coupled with expanding our communication and educational strategies to better serve our patrons and the public at large. There is greater emphasis on presenting multiple points of view, having more voices and perspectives around the discussion of a work of art. These changes have affected every department and aspect of our work, with cross-departmental teams standard in the planning and implementation of exhibitions and gallery installations.

BMA: You grew the collection by thousands of works of art, but if you had to pick just one acquisition you are most proud of, which would it be?

GA: That is such a hard question! Well, museums want to acquire masterworks by individual artists, and we also want to distinguish ourselves by having depth in certain areas, both of which we have done. In addition, the BMA is the only museum in the state, and one of the few in the region whose mission is to have a global collection, so we work to strategically build in that way, as well. We have been so fortunate to have exceedingly knowledgeable, generous donors that allow us to carefully develop our collection. A few years ago, Jeannine O’Grody, our former Curator of European Art and Deputy Director, came up with a new strategy for acquisitions, and that was to have each curator propose a significant addition for their area. So now, as a curatorial team, we would decide which of those to recommend to the Committee on Collections and the Board for purchase. This approach has worked very well and has resulted in many outstanding acquisitions which have nicely complemented our collection. All that said, I have many favorite acquisitions, but I will share one that is especially dear to me.

In 1980, I organized an exhibition of Alabama-made quilts drawn from the collection of Helen and Robert Cargo of Tuscaloosa. That not only began a great friendship for me with them, but took me all over Alabama doing research and meeting quilters, talking to them about their work (the Freedom Quilting Bee in Alberta was still active at that time and coming from a background in American history, folklore, and oral history, that was very exciting for me). I dived into the Alabama State Archives and Birmingham Public Library and read every diary written by a woman looking for information about textile production in Alabama in the 19th and early 20th century. I felt very connected to those objects, so when Robert and Helen decided to give a significant part of their collection to us, of course I was thrilled.

BMA: As you reflect on the last two decades, what do you see as the BMA’s most important contribution?

GA: The Museum’s most important contribution is also, in a way, its ongoing challenge. We play a vital and important role in cultural education and in the attraction and retention of our community’s work force, and we have been a crucial part of the fabric of downtown Birmingham for 65 years. In order to continue to be influential, it is critical for the Museum to be responsive to the needs of our community in thoughtful and productive ways. So much about how we live, interact, and receive information is changing and, like many other institutions, the Museum must learn to continually adapt to those advancements. I’m proud that our collection is increasingly reflective of Birmingham and all its citizens. We celebrate diversity through our global collection, but also through our many programs like our Heritage Festivals and affinity groups, such as the Indian Culture Society. 

BMA: From city leaders to corporate partners, you’ve built a vast network in Birmingham. How have those relationships bolstered your leadership of the Museum?

GA: Building networks is incredibly important for the sustainability of the Museum and it is only by working together that we will be successful in forwarding our community. Personally, one of my great joys has been my interactions with many people in our community from so many walks of life, and I believe I have learned and benefited from them all in one way or another. The overarching lesson being: listen to people, pay attention, and be open-minded to new ideas.

BMA: What will you miss most about serving as director?

GA: I will miss my friends and colleagues, in our museum and across North America. I love our museum and have such enormous regard and affection for our incredible team and will miss their creativity, intelligence, humor; and I will miss knowing and watching the process of our work. Having had the privilege of serving as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which includes Canada and Mexico, I had the pleasure of meeting people who share our passion, frustrations, successes, and failures, and I have benefited from these conversations over the years. I know I will still see staff, board, volunteers, and supporters of our museum, but it will be different. I will also miss being “in the mix.” It’s fun to know things—especially in our growing community. To be in conversation with our directors of other cultural organizations, artists, Board members, city department head meetings, REV Birmingham, and other planning organizations is exciting and I will miss those regular interactions. I do, however, look forward to reconnecting with my curatorial work and having more time to research and write about the folk art and quilts in our collection as Emily Hanna and I work on our exhibition, The Original Makers, scheduled for June 2018.

BMA: What does the future of the BMA look like?

GA: The Museum is in a prime position to continue to excel, and we have an excellent strategic plan to guide us, one that has buy-in from both Board and staff. We have several larger considerations on the horizon as we work to become a more modern, more responsive museum for our community. For example: what should we do about our aging facility? Initiate a major renovation with a complete gallery redesign or should we make slower changes over time? We know we need to make advances to our learning practices that incorporate technology and new approaches to visitor engagement. Is there a way to install our collections across cultural and geographic boundaries using stories and a historical narrative to bind them in new and perhaps more intriguing ways for our visitors? And of course sustainability is always a concern, so increasing endowment will remain a priority.

So there will be many big changes ahead. Fortunately, we have an incredibly devoted group of patrons and donors, a supportive city government, a smart and talented staff, and, in my opinion, the finest collection of art in the Southeast, so I feel confident in saying that BMA’s future is very bright, and I look forward with pleasure and anticipation to see the next chapters unfold.