Art Works Blog

Blue Star Museums Spotlight on Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts

Established in 1930, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is the oldest fine arts museum in Alabama. The museum boasts a wide range of holdings, including several centuries of work by American master artists, an extensive collection of modern American studio art glass, and a trove of work by so-called "Outsider" artists. One of the MMFA's unique offerings is the ARTWORKS gallery, which features more than three dozen, artist-designed, interactive exhibits that allow visitors to explore and learn about art history, materials, techniques, and other elements of art-making.

Visitors to the MMFA can enjoy a show of African Art including religious and ceremonial objects (through September 13), a collection of watercolors by Jazz Age "It" Girl and writer/artist Zelda Fitzgerald (wife of F. Scott), and an exhibit of work by Southern painter-turned-printmaker Maltby Sykes.

We spoke with Cynthia Milledge, the museum's director of marketing and public relations, to learn more about the museum's history, get tips about visiting the museum with kids, and to find out about the MMFA's annual Military Open House.

an exterior view of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts

An exterior view of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo courtesy of the museum

NEA: Why is Blue Star Museums an important program for the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts?

CYNTHIA MILLEDGE: We consider the Blue Star Museums to be a crucial part of our success as a non-profit organization. The MMFA is among the more than 2,000 museums across the United States that offer free admission to active, reserve, and retired military members and their families all year long. The Maxwell and Gunter Air Force base communities are not only a vital part of the capital city but the River Region as a whole.

It’s estimated that Maxwell AFB alone is home to nearly 13,000 active-duty, reserve, civilian, and contractor personnel providing a significant economic and cultural impact to the Montgomery area.

NEA: What do you want people to know about the MMFA?

MILLEDGE: Noted for its outstanding survey collection of American paintings and sculpture, the museum also boasts an impressive collection of Old Master Prints, Southern regional art, and decorative arts. The museum’s permanent collection is complemented by an exciting array of traveling exhibitions and stimulating educational programs that examine the diverse facets of the world of fine art.

The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts was founded by a group of local artists and patrons under the name of the Alabama Society of Fine Arts. The museum’s home for the first 29 years was the former Lawrence Street School. The state-of-the-art museum opened in the Blount Cultural Park on September 18, 1988, featuring galleries housing 41 American paintings given by Winton M. Blount. Expanded in 1993 and 2006, the now 73,000-square-foot facility features grand galleries that host more than a dozen special exhibitions annually, expanded interactive family space in ARTWORKS, and two art studios, complementing the previous installation of the Permanent Collection Galleries, the Wilson Auditorium, Café M, and the Museum Store.

Our newest project is the creation of a three-acre Sculpture Garden that will enhance the museum experience for visitors of all ages and due to be completed in Spring 2017.

an Impressionist-like painting of a rural town backgrounded by trees and foregrounded by a small lake

Max Weber (American, 1881-1961), View of Roslyn, New York, ca. 1922-1925, oil on canvas, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of the Ida Belle Young Art Acquisition Fund. Image courtesy of Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts

NEA: What's your favorite piece in the permanent collection, and why?

MILLEDGE: My favorite piece would be Orange Triple Movement, 1983, by Harvey Littleton (American, 1922-2014), the man internationally recognized as the “Father of the Studio Glass movement.” This inventive work comes from one of the best-known series: Topological Geometry.  In this piece Littleton utilized gravity to pull, bend, and shape the glass into elegant layers of flowing orange tones—a hue that is difficult to control in glass. In fact, the success Littleton found with the challenges of this piece made it one of his favorites.

Recently the museum had the chance to acquire this work that greatly expands and enhances not only our collection but also the understanding of the history of contemporary glass.  

NEA: What is a must-see when visiting the museum and/or what's one of the unsung treasures at the MMFA?

MILLEDGE: The Museum’s Decorative Arts Gallery is a must-see. It houses two beautiful installations of historical porcelain. An outstanding survey of Worcester porcelain, which has been collected and treasured since its first appearance in mid-18th century England is permanently installed. The Loeb Collection, generously supported by Mr. and Mrs. James L. Loeb since 1990, focuses on the First Period of the Worcester production, between 1751 and 1783. Also, the Decorative Arts Gallery features a display of Chinese Export Porcelain, a gift of the Estate of William Francis McCall Jr. in 1991.      

NEA: One of your current exhibitions is African Art from the Collections of Martha and Dileep Mehta and the MMFA. What are some interesting or important things that you want visitors to know about the exhibit?

MILLEDGE: What most people don’t realize is African art was not made for museums. Most African masks and statuary were made for religious purposes. The masks on display in the MMFA today were usually part of elaborate costumes that cloaked danceRs from head to foot. The masks were animated by the spirits of ancestors and deities. They responded to drumming and songs to perform community rituals to praise and/or placate those spirits. Likewise, most African sculpture had a religious purpose. Items in this exhibit were either donated by or are currently on loan from Martha and Dileep Mehta.  

NEA: The MMFA Military Open House is coming up. What prompted this event, and what are some of the activities that takes place during it?

MILLEDGE: Military Open House is an event the museum hosts annually. The Board and staff of the MMFA feel it’s crucial to express our gratitude for the commitment and sacrifices made by our military neighbors and friends. We invite all active, reserve, and retired military personnel and their families the third Thursday in August every year. It’s our way of saying thank you for their service.

The event includes art-making activities in the studios, dinner catered by Wintzell’s Oyster House (who is also the co-sponsor of Military Open House), and live music. We also have docents on hand to give tours of the temporary exhibitions and permanent collection. ARTWORKS, our interactive family galleries, is also open.

NEA: How can families prepare to visit the museum? What are one or two tips for getting the most out of a visit to the MMFA?

MILLEDGE: I would advise everyone to go our website, mmfa.org, and take a virtual tour so they can see firsthand what the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts has to offer prior to arrival. We also encourage families to come by and tour our permanent and temporary collections. ARTWORKS, our interactive family galleries, are also highly recommended. The museum also offers cellphone tours to individuals and groups. The unique tour allows them to access various recordings by curators, artists, and educators who provide information about works in our collection. Lastly, I would suggest they take advantage of our program First Sundays. It’s offered the first Sunday of every month at 1:00 pm.  Docents are on hand to give our visitors a free one-hour tour about artwork in the museum. 

NEA: What's your favorite Blue Star Museum (next to your own museum, of course) and why?

MILLEDGE: First of all, I would pick the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. I often say it’s Montgomery’s best-kept secret. Every time someone walks in he or she is often amazed at what we have to offer. I feel we are a family-oriented facility that not only offers educational opportunities, but lunch (and a Saturday Brunch) at our Café M, and shopping opportunities at our museum store too.

My second favorite Blue Star Museum is the Civil Rights Memorial Center (Southern Poverty Law Center). I feel like it’s an eye opener to people who genuinely want to know about history here in the South. It literally brings history to life through video, pictures, and a Civil Rights Memorial. There’s nothing like hands on learning!   

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