Art for the Ages

October 1964: Dr. Martin Luther King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Ringo Starr passes his driver’s license test, and a Mobile art gallery turns museum.

Fast-forward 50 years. In November 2014, the Mobile Museum of Art (MoMA) celebrates its birthday with ribbon cutting ceremonies, special exhibits, tours and more in just about every inch of the 95, 000-square-foot facility. Yes, 95, 000 square feet.

“People who haven’t been here in a while are often surprised at the size, ” says outreach and public relations manager Mary Lee Montgomery. “Out-of-town guests comment about our collections, ‘I had no idea you had this.’”

The permanent collection of about 9, 000 works includes galleries of American, European, African and Asian treasures. In these chambers rests unblemished 600 B.C. glass bottles, Colonial furniture, fine china, paintings, sculptures and figurines rendered by artists from last year to last millennium.

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“Many art centers begin with concerned citizens, ” notes museum director Deborah Velders. “A community comes together because parents want their children exposed to fine arts, or a city desires an art presence.” The inception of MoMA was all of the above.

It started in 1957 with the Mobile Art Association’s idea for the visual arts institution. Then, in 1963, the group’s dream became reality with construction of the Mobile Art Gallery. In October 1964 the gallery evolved into a museum with a 14, 000-square-foot building in Langan Park. An extra 13, 500 square feet were added in 1976. But the real milestone was in 1993 when plans were made for major growth. In 1997, a $15 million goal was set. Money was raised by donations, fundraising and hard work from everybody: the city, county, art connoisseurs and school kids. The present-day expansion opened September 2002, establishing the museum as a fixture in Mobile’s biggest city park. It is now the largest art museum on the Gulf Coast, from New Orleans to Tampa. In its five decades,  the museum has almost tripled in size, but the change is much more than just physical.

Gone are days of static displays of compendiums collecting dust. Like Mobile, art has evolved. “It is more diverse now than in 1964, ” Velders adds. “We attract a broader range of visitors, and we must continue making our collections and programs accessible and innovative.”

Today, the museum offers panel discussions, workshops, art classes, even night programs. And, school children visit the museum by the busloads. “Years from now, an artist may credit his inspiration from interest discovered as a first-grader visiting us, ” Velders says. “We hope they are inspired by something beautiful they saw here.” Look for more changes in year 51 and beyond. “We want this to be more than a museum, ” says Velders. “It is a community service.”

November 8, 2014 – May 3, 2015

50th Anniversary Event: The Art and Design of Mardi Gras
A collage of events is planned for the museum’s anniversary observance, including this exciting exhibit. “We want to depict all aspects of Mardi Gras, ” notes the museum’s regional and contemporary art curator Stan Hackney. “Floats, parades, beads, royalty and parade-goers will be represented here.” Visitors will find the regal crowns of kings and dramatic trains of queens. The entire second floor is being painted, refurbished and redesigned to house the creative Carnival, depicting everything from MoonPies to mechanical dragons. It is a massive undertaking, with a collaboration between the MoMA, History Museum of Mobile and Mobile Carnival Museum. “It seems particularly important to celebrate something that was born and developed in this city, ” Velders says. Artists, Carnival float builders, stage builders and craftsmen all have a hand in the design and artifacts.

Mobile Museum of Art • 4850 Museum Drive. 208-5200. 

text by Emmett Burnett

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