After more than 40 years at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Gail Andrews recently announced that she will retire in the fall. Andrews, who has served as director of the museum since 1996, oversaw the growth of the museum’s holdings from 13,000 to over 27,000 pieces, a dramatic expansion of the building, and the establishment of the Art on the Rocks series in 2004.
Andrews worked to ensure that admission to the museum remained free and brought world-famous works, including drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, to Birmingham.
Andrews herself came to Birmingham in 1976 after earning her master’s degree in American Folk Art and Museum Studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program. She also worked in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia.
“The opportunity in Birmingham seemed great,” Andrews said of her decision to leave Virginia for Alabama. “There was a great sense of possibility, a very supportive community, and the beginnings of very good collections, especially in decorative arts.”
Andrews was hired as the museum’s first curator of decorative arts, putting her in charge of the BMA’s famous Wedgwood china, silver, and German cast-iron collections, as well as their porcelain, plastic, and furniture holdings. In 1991, Andrews served as the interim director when then-director Douglas Hyland left the museum, and managed the construction of a 50,000 square foot expansion to the facility. After the project ended, Andrews served as assistant director before becoming director in 1996.
“I really thought I’d come here for a few years, but there continued to be aspects of the museum and the city that were compelling and exciting, and I really wanted to stay,” Andrews said.
Andrews said that the city has always been very supportive of the museum, explaining that half of the museum’s budget comes from the city and half of the staff are city employees. The community has also been supportive, she added, and she is optimistic about the future of the arts scene in Birmingham.
The museum’s collection more than doubled under Andrews’ leadership, although she said that she did not intentionally set out to expand it so dramatically. The growth happened naturally as she increased the numbers of the museum’s staff and created new two new curator positions overseeing European and American art.
“At the time I became director, there were four curators: the arts of Africa and the Americas, which is Native American or pre-Columbian; Asian art; decorative arts; and painting, sculpture, and works on paper. Within painting, sculpture, and works on paper, that person was taking care of American, European, modern, and contemporary [art]. That’s a lot, especially with the way professions are changing with more and more specialization,” she explained. “When the opportunity presented itself, I did create the position of [curator of] European art, and that naturally starts adding to that collection, because that curator comes in and starts seeing opportunities and gaps and areas where we can strengthen the collection, and so that kind of naturally grew at that point.”
As director, Andrews was intimately involved in bringing traveling exhibitions to Birmingham as well as managing exhibits originating in the museum. She recalled the museum’s hosting of a collection of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci in 2008 as a particularly difficult but rewarding project to oversee.
“It was just at the time of the economic downturn,” she said, noting that the museum didn’t charge for that exhibition. “I can remember seeing a woman in the parking lot not long after that had opened,” Andrews said. “She came up to me and said, ‘I want to thank you so much for not charging for the Leonardo drawings. It would have been really difficult for me right now to do that and it’s been so meaningful for me to come back at least once and spend time with those drawings.’ It’s moments like that that really resonate with you.”
Though the museum does usually charge for special exhibitions, Andrews ensured that general admission remained free in Birmingham, even as museums across the country began charging for tickets.
“It’s important, as much as museums can, to keep access available, to keep admission free and find other ways, either through membership or other kinds of fundraising, sometimes ticketed events if we need to, to keep ourselves available and open,” she said. “The arts and the humanities should be accessible to everyone. I think it’s really a core value to who we are as a democratic society and who we are as a people.”
Andrews said that the annual Art on the Rocks events held by the BMA each summer have been far more successful at raising awareness of the museum than she and the staff expected. Andrews explained that Art on the Rocks, which allows attendees to explore the museum after hours with live music and cash bars, was a conscious attempt to attract a more diverse and younger audience and to dispel the image of the museum as a “stodgy” place.
After her retirement in the early fall, Andrews plans to remain involved with the museum. She and Emily Hanna, the Museum’s senior curator and curator of the arts of Africa and the Americas, are putting together an exhibition of Alabama folk art that will open next May to celebrate the state’s bicentennial.
Throughout her tenure at the museum, Andrews has ensured that Southern artists are well-represented. Beyond overseeing exhibitions of Birmingham artists and acquiring a collection of art by self-taught folk artists throughout the Deep South, Andrews also commissioned a piece by internally renowned painter and Birmingham native Kerry James Marshall, School of Beauty, School of Culture, which she regards as another highlight of her career.
The museum is currently conducting a national search for Andrews’ replacement.
Editor’s note: The print version of this article incorrectly described the Art on the Rocks series as a “fundraiser.” The series is intended to raise awareness of the Museum and attract new visitors, but it does not raise funds. Weld regrets the error.