History of the MMFA
The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts was founded in 1930 and is the oldest fine arts museum in the state. Begun by artist John Kelly Fitzpatrick, Mrs. Harry S. Houghton, and the “Morning View Painters” in an abandoned school building provided by the City of Montgomery at an annual rent of one dollar, the Museum has always had an abiding interest in American art. The original museum building may have been small, but our programming was adventurous. Early loan exhibitions featured furniture, silver, china, pictures, and historical relics, often on loan from local or regional collectors. Special traveling exhibitions included such important collections as English and American Portraits from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and two presentations of Renaissance paintings from the Kress Collection. Even from the earliest years of existence it was clear that Montgomery’s new art museum was committed to exhibit artworks of national and international significance, as well as the work of its most talented area artists.
Fitzpatrick greatly influenced the Museum, his painting Negro Baptising, 1930 (1930.23.1) has been considered as one of the jewels of the collection since it was acquired in 1930. Followers and students of Fitzpatrick, such artists as Warree Carmichael LeBron and Mildred Nungester Wolfe are represented in the museum’s permanent collection.
Also counted among the earliest acquisitions were assorted historical items, Indian artifacts, and geographical materials, along with works by regional artists. However, one extraordinary gift propelled the Museum’s permanent collection more deeply into the realm of American painting. In 1936 the Museum acquired the 96 piece Margaret C. and Frederick W. Freer Collection of American paintings, watercolors, and prints. This momentous gift included works by Frederick Freer, and others by his friends and colleagues, great American painters and teachers such as William Merritt Chase, Frank Duveneck, and J. Frank Currier.
By the 1940s the Museum’s collection had grown to more than 300 paintings, incorporating the Dr. Isaac Monroe Cline Collection of early American portraits and an assortment of paintings by Southern artists. Not all the acquisitions were by American artists, that direction had not yet been put in place; however, the focus was overwhelmingly regional and national, and as such, the foundation for an encyclopedic American painting collection was firmly set in place. The creation of this foundation set in motion the first of the physical moves for the museum.
In 1959 the MMFA became a department of the City of Montgomery and moved to what was considered then to be a state-of-the-art museum/library complex on McDonough Street. This new facility elicited excitement and growth in attendance, support, and acquisitions. The Museum Board further shaped the Museum’s future by determining that its mission should be to collect fine arts and deaccessioned its historical artifacts collection. The private Museum Association, as it does to this day, continued to own and maintain the art collection, and, through membership fees and development efforts, provided funds for special exhibitions and selected operational expenses. With a more stable structure and source of annual support, the Museum was finally able to fund most basic professional positions including the director, curators, a registrar, a librarian, education staff, a development department, business, security, and maintenance personnel. In recognition of the Museum’s overall professional quality and growth, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts was the first museum in Alabama to be awarded accreditation by the American Association of Museums (now American Alliance of Museums) in 1978. Subsequently, the museum was re-accredited in 1992 and 2003.
A watershed event for the Museum occurred when the board of trustees ultimately changed the collecting policy to concentrate on building a first class collection of American art. For the first forty years of its existence, between 1930–1970, the museum’s collection included decorative arts, crafts, historical objects, and archeological items in addition to fine art. On October 18, 1972 the Museum board formally adopted a restricted acquisitions policy to collect paintings by 18th, 19th, and 20th century American artists, works on paper by American and European artists, both Old Masters and contemporary, and Southern regional art, both historical and contemporary. Since that time the Museum has only expanded its collecting interests modestly to include European 19th century paintings, Southern folk and outsider art, and certain forms of decorative arts.
As the Museum celebrated its 50th birthday in 1980, it was also honored with the establishment of the Weil Print Fund ensuring a first rate and growing collection of European historical works on paper from Mr. Adolph “Bucks” Weil, Jr. and his wife Jean, who gave the Fund in honor of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Adolph Weil, Sr. Mr. and Mrs. Weil, Jr. continued to augment the Museum’s holdings with gifts of old master prints from their personal collection throughout their lives.
By 1980 it became apparent that the museum/library configuration was increasingly limiting the growth and capability of the Museum. Building a new facility would require unprecedented vision, leadership, and cooperation. Numerous dedicated arts supporters undertook the project to build a new state-of-the-art museum. Robert S. Weil, Mayor Emory Folmar, and Ida Belle Young, were visionaries in the inception of the campaign. With a commitment from the Montgomery County Commission to share equally with the City in the Museum’s future operational expenses, a gift of land for the site, and $1 million in pledges from private individuals, the Montgomery City Council passed a $3 million bond issue in 1984 for the construction of the Museum that opened in 1988. Later, a gift of forty-one American paintings from Blount, Inc. and 35-plus acres of land from Mr. and Mrs. Winton M. Blount allowed the Museum an opportunity to significantly expand the size and quality of its permanent collection and to become the visual arts component to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in the existing Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park. With the addition of more than $3.4 million in contributions from individuals and businesses, the Museum’s magnificent facility became a reality.
A pair of early American portraits, Erastus Salisbury Field’s Bartlett Doten and Augusta Mason Doten came to the Museum in 1986, given by Mr. and Mrs. James Lucien Loeb. In making this gift, Mr. and Mrs. Loeb continued an established family tradition of exceptional generosity toward the Museum. As a member of the Museum’s board of trustees, Mr. James Loeb’s father, Lucien Loeb, was instrumental in articulating the vision of the Museum for the future in the 1960s and 1970s. He worked actively to raise funds for important acquisitions, to build the Museum’s membership, and to structure private funds to support the Museum’s mission. On April 17, 1974, he was recognized by proclamation of the Museum board for his unwavering dedication and service to the success of the Museum program. Mr. and Mrs. Lucien Loeb also gifted the Museum in 1968 its first pieces of First Period Worchester Porcelain, a tea set from 1775–1785. From that initial gift, Mr. and Mrs. James Loeb developed a collection of First Period Worchester Porcelain that has evolved over the years into a superb collection that is the highlight of the Museum’s decorative arts holdings.
The gift of the Blount Collection of American paintings instantly transformed the Museum’s holdings, making the Museum’s collection one of the finest surveys of American painting in the Southeast. Its forty-one paintings by thirty-three artists span more than 200 years of art history and reflect America’s diverse cultural heritage and history. Ranging from John Singleton Copley to Edward Hopper, the collection is a comprehensive sampling of American painting by some of this country’s more renowned practitioners.
The Museum galleries soon were enhanced by gifts from many more generous community donors. Long serving board and Acquisition Committee member Charles H. Wampold and his wife, Babette gifted a number of American paintings to the Museum including works by Alfred Thompson Bricher, Stormy Seascape, ca. 1883-85 (1989.12), Elliot Daingerfield, Moonlit Landscape, ca. 1915–1920 (2000.13.1), and Walt Kuhn’s Albigs, from 1908 (1997.11). Such generosity as that demonstrated by Red Blount, Mr. and Mrs. Wampold, and Mr. and Mrs. James Loeb was contagious. Many other fine works began to come into the collection as a result of private donations. For example, a beautiful landscape by Ernest Lawson, Inwood, Upper Manhattan, ca. 1918-1922 (2003.18) was bequeathed to the Museum from the estate of long-time board member Fred A. Richard in 2003.
So generous was the Montgomery community that the Museum soon needed even more space, and long-time Museum supporter Ida Belle Young provided it with an unsolicited gift that added a 5,000 square foot exhibition wing. The Young Gallery was dedicated in 1993 primarily to house permanent collection; however, because of the generous scale of the three galleries, the space frequently is used for rotating exhibits of contemporary American art and Southern regional art from the museum’s permanent collection, as well as an occasional loan show.
In 2006, the Museum added a further 23,000 square feet that nearly doubled the size of the ARTWORKS interactive gallery, provided two more studios for classes and enhanced exhibition space. This latest expansion was made possible by the leadership and support of Mayor Bobby Bright, the Montgomery City Council, the Montgomery County Commission, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Board of Trustees, and many generous businesses and individuals. The Museum was also gratified to learn that Ida Belle Young had made provision in her estate for a magnificent, and transformative, gift to the MMFA. In April of 2007, the Board of Trustees established the Ida Belle Young Acquisition Endowment, designated, in accordance with Ms. Young’s wishes, for the purchase of traditional American art. Utilizing these funds has allowed the Museum to purchase outstanding and important examples of American art by artists such as Mary Cassatt, 1844-1926 (2009.6), William Sidney Mount, 1807-1868 (2011.4.2), and Severin Roesen, 1816-ca. 1872 (2012.17) that have significantly enhanced the collection.
This year, as we celebrate our 25th birthday of being in the Blount Cultural Park, it is amazing to think what has happened in this magnificent building. Over 3.6 million visitors have passed through our doors. Hundreds of thousands of children have delighted in ARTWORKS, been introduced to the power of art, and unleashed their own creativity. Our permanent collections have been transformed—from great American art by acknowledged masters in every period, to a spectacular collection of modern American Studio Art Glass, and an impressive collection of Outsider Artists, including a fine quilt collection and greater depth in our holdings of European Old Master Prints—the MMFA has evolved into a collecting institution on par with the greatest in the Southeast. We’ve hosted 360 special exhibitions and organized 180 exhibitions that have shown our friends and neighbors a breadth of objects from Rodin to Stephen Rolfe Powell. We’ve published thirty-four scholarly catalogues and countless other publications. We have hosted twenty-four FLIMP festivals and a myriad of family days, concerts, artist demonstrations, lectures, gallery talks, classes, and tours. We do it all for you and all members of our community, and we like to think, “we’ve only just begun!” Thank you for being a part of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts family. We look forward to our future together.