After having the pleasure and honor of working for over 40 years with this museum, I am announcing my retirement. I arrived in Birmingham to begin work as the Museum’s Assistant Curator for Decorative Arts in 1976, became Assistant Director in 1980 and Director in 1996. Initially, I viewed the curator position as a great opportunity and adventure, never having been in the deep south.The Museum’s decorative arts collection was already stellar – the Wedgwood, English silver and German cast iron – and was accompanied by a passionate group of Museum supporters and a community that was warm and welcoming. The staff was very slim, but we were undertaking ambitious projects, organizing and mounting 20 changing exhibitions a year, and expanding educational initiatives for the community. It was exciting and had an “all hands on deck” feel. I expected to be here for a few years, and then move somewhere else, but instead found more and more reasons to stay. I developed deep friendships, felt more and more committed to the community itself, and truly fell in love with the Museum. I became dedicated to its growth and success.
The staff and Board have grown, the facility has expanded and changed, and the City has been transformed in profound ways. We have become a much more diverse community, with both the impressive growth of UAB attracting professionals from across the globe and the migration patterns of the South itself. The increasing mix of cultures, backgrounds and traditions is making Birmingham a more vibrant and stimulating environment. The most significant change since my arrival has occurred since the opening of Railroad Park and “rediscovery” of our beautiful downtown and adjacent neighborhoods. There is an new optimism and sense of possibility that is palatable and energizing.
I often point out that this “renaissance” did not happen in a vacuum, but in a context of an urban landscape that was ready to receive. As the Park and the ballfield, and the pioneer businesses and restaurants were planting their flags, there was an existing cultural fabric providing a solid foundation – the art museum, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the McWane Science Center, the School for the Fine Arts, the Birmingham Public Library, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and Carver Theater, Sidewalk Film Festival, and Space One Eleven – along with the stellar late-nineteenth-century and art deco buildings, thankfully spared from demolition and ready to be transformed into the entrepreneurial start-ups and eateries lining many of the streets today. When the Museum developed Art on The Rocks, our goals were to expand our audience, introduce a younger demographic to the Museum and to help activate downtown after dark on a Friday night. Thirteen years later, we continue to successfully engage thousands of visitors at each Art on The Rocks event with the backdrop of a bustling downtown Birmingham.
Over the years, the Museum’s collection has also become more diverse. The founders of the Museum had the goal of an encyclopedic collection, and we value the global collection we have built, the only museum in the state with this breadth of world cultures. Yet today, there is a greater awareness and intentionality about collecting works of art by a plurality of voices and backgrounds which can engage a broader and more diverse audience, but also help inform, provoke and enlighten each of us. Most art museums across the United States are intent adding works by African American and women artists, along with looking to South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and we are doing the same. We are fortunate to hold a collection broad enough that we may demonstrate the ways modern and contemporary artistic expressions can be viewed in relationship to traditional cultures like those of India, West Africa or Japan.
All of this to say, our true purpose lies in our relationship with our community. We are here to provide a stimulating and enjoyable place to learn, to look, to have a good experience alone, or with a group. We want to provide those moments of wonder and joy, or seeing a work of art that gives you goose bumps up your spine. One of those moments for me was when the commissioned painting School of Beauty, School of Culture by Kerry James Marshall arrived and was installed. It took my breath away with its power and its layers of meaning for Birmingham, of course, but also within a much broader context of American history and culture. The embrace of our Museum that we continually strive for was exemplified when, not long after its arrival, a beautiful young bride and groom appeared around noon one day and had their minister marry them in front of the painting. She a hairdresser, he a barber, they had come to the Museum on a date, and returned to make this the backdrop for their vows. Granted, we don’t encourage “pop-up weddings” but this inspired sense of belonging of “this is my museum” is what every single one of us here seeks to accomplish.
Finally, I have received incredibly warm words of appreciation since I made the announcement of my retirement, for which I am enormously grateful. But I want to emphasize that our Museum is exceptional, for the art, for the programs, but most of all because of the people. The staff of this institution are smart, passionate individuals who consistently go above and beyond, for which I am incredibly grateful. The joy I have had working with them, as well our boards and support groups and this community in general has been invaluable and an experience I will treasure always. In addition, the leadership of the City of Birmingham has been a constant and essential partner throughout our history. I want to particularly acknowledge Mayor William Bell and the current City Council for their support and confidence.
So, it is my turn to say thank you. I want all of you to know how very much I personally appreciate the friendships, the support, and the relationships that have flowered over these many years.
I will cherish my last few months as director and will remain in my position until a new director is in place. Please refer to a letter from our Board of Trustees Chairman, James Outland for those details. In the meantime, I hope to see you at the Museum soon.
Gail C. Andrews,
The R. Hugh Daniel Director,
Birmingham Museum of Art