Birmingham Museum of Art: Stewart Perry has been a corporate partner with the BMA for 14 years. Why is it important for you to support arts and cultural institutions in our community?
Merrill Stewart, Jr.: The simple answer is that the arts add to the quality of our lives. To me, the arts can create powerful emotions in our being that might not be unlocked were it not for sitting in front of a wonderful painting, observing a piece of sculpture, or enjoying the culture of a theatrical production. While I’m not an expert, I also suspect there is an improvement in literacy and the overall educational well being of our children when they are given the chance to take part in the arts, no matter the shape or venue.
BMA: Many other organizations in our community benefit from Stewart Perry’s philanthropy, as well. How do you choose which nonprofit organizations to support?
MS: The number of organizations we support differs from season to season and year to year. It is always tough to determine the mix. If we spread ourselves too thin, I’m not sure we’re doing anyone much justice. To me, individuals and corporations need to take a stand and be realistic about their resources, choosing allocation wisely. If we all follow this strategy, the worthy nonprofits will be taken care of. Having said this, here in Birmingham, my goal is first to help the community and our city, and then do what I can to continue to attract employers. We have many smart millennials in our midst who are entrepreneurs growing their businesses here. Many of our existing companies are continuing to grow. If we teach corporate philanthropy, we will be able to spread the load among our nonprofits.
BMA: Our staff has had the privilege of visiting your corporate headquarters and seen the beautiful quilts you have on view. What draws you to this particular art form?
MS: Several years ago, I was at the BMA when you were displaying some wonderful works by local artist Bettye Kimbrell, who unfortunately passed away recently. Bettye was indeed a talented artist, and beyond all of this, a dear friend. During our friendship, she and I shared many conversations about life and her work. Beyond those in the quilt world, not many people know that Bettye was a National Endowment for the Arts fellow, where only about a dozen are selected each year in the U.S. Her daughters were kind enough to trust me with their mother’s quilts, and over the years, I accumulated a number of them which we rotate on display at our offices. Beyond the physical beauty, each quilt has probably 8,000 to 10,000 stitches hand sewn by Bettye. Selfishly, I also did not wish for her quilts to leave Alabama.
BMA: Stewart Perry began operations over 30 years ago. In your opinion, what is the secret to sustaining a successful business?
MS: Many thanks for the compliment, but to me, success is a point in time not a destination. Things can always change. That said, anyone who has been in business this long gets there through hard work, and not taking many shortcuts. While cash assets are important to sustaining a successful business, to me, our most important assets are good people and the willingness of management to listen and change. To be honest, we’ve gotten a fair amount of scars along the way. I wish we had “do overs” but that’s not the way it works, is it?
BMA: Stewart Perry is an integral part of the ongoing renaissance that Birmingham is experiencing downtown with projects like 20 Midtown and the renovation of the historic Lyric Theatre. What excites you most about our changing landscape?
MS: That’s pretty simple: For me, the payoff of these projects is seeing the people who come in contact enjoy the finished product. It is nice to see people coming back to the Central Business District with smiles on their faces, and families with young children enjoying downtown. It is gratifying to know we had a small part. Many people are responsible for what’s happening downtown, and I’m just glad we had a seat at the table.
BMA: What’s next for Stewart Perry?
MS: We’re going to continue to grow in a controlled way, enjoying the process and what we do (at least most days). Our geographic footprint has always been fairly large, and only recently has Birmingham begun to notice us by what we’re doing downtown and close by. I see our footprint continuing to be broad, but I would like to do more work in Birmingham. We as a city have much to offer, and we will get our due. We are thankful for those around us and for our wonderful arts and culture venues. We will continue trying our best to contribute.