Art and the City

We like the logo

At Design Review this morning, KPS Group presented a design for a new outdoor seating balcony for the Birmingham Museum of Art‘s restaurant, Oscar’s. While it’s exciting that this newly branded restaurant is opening up to the outdoors (facing the landscaped walk between the museum and Boutwell Auditorium), it is less exciting that–for various reasons–the Museum has not been able to move forward with expansion, either onto the adjacent Boutwell site or otherwise. Our amazing collection, considered one of the finest in the country and perhaps the best in the southeast, deserves better.

Imagine Boutwell–or perhaps the Alabama Power Steam Plant facing the Railroad Park–becoming our own version of the Geffen Contemporary in downtown Los Angeles (below), really putting Birmingham on the map for contemporary art. The soaring space, flexible layout, and “un-museum” feel would be exhilarating. Not to mention the ability to spawn other development nearby, all while increasing our tourist base and allowing more of our collection to be shown.

Murakami needs high ceilings

Or, think of the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, where an old factory building was transformed into a cutting edge exhibition, performance, and gallery space, with artists-in-residence brought in from around the world. We looked at this for a model at our Phoenix Building development, but we’re still searching for a way to bring this sort of vibe to Birmingham. The picture below proves that yes, appreciation of contemporary art can begin at a very young age.

Training the eye

Our Museum is City-owned and open to the public at no cost–a rarity in this country. Despite the economic woes of both the private and public sector right now, here’s hoping that in the near future we’ll have a cutting-edge expansion of this institution that’s so essential to the City’s culture.

It can be done here too

[thanks to Matt Niemi for the Mattress Factory kid; beastandbean for the Murakami exhibit at Geffen; and Mattress Factory for the exterior shot]

17 responses to “Art and the City

  1. Thank you for this. I really look forward to reading your comments. This should happen here.

  2. You’re not the only person I’ve heard suggest the steam plant as a home for a contemporary art branch of our museum. I think it’s a fantastic idea. It would be great if the museum could keep all of its collection under one roof, but unless they get the Boutwell property at some point, their expansion options at that site are limited.
    That plant would also make a good Alabama folk art museum–perhaps a permanent version of the exhibit the museum held at the Young & Vann Building a few years ago. (Or heck–combine the contemporary and folk art in that space. They’re strikingly similar in many ways, and it would be fun to see how they’d play off each other.)

    Would it surprise you to learn that I still recall the Night of 1,000 Posters at the Phoenix Building? I loved the letterpress posters covering every inch of the walls and ceiling!

    • No–it’s not a new idea. Some sort of creative/art use of that building would be phenomenal–our own Tate Modern, if you will!

      And thanks for remembering that night–we wish we could have figured out a way to salvage one loft for a permanent gallery, but it just didn’t work at the Phoenix. You just can’t beat letterpress from floor to ceiling though, right?

  3. Steam Plant @ the Rail Road Park is a terrific place for a contemporary art museum. Boutwell, too. All those wrestling tournaments & family reunions could be held at the expanded BJCC, or Fair Park Arena. I think our art collection is so big both Boutwell & the Mid Town Steam Plant could be converted to art venues.

    • I agree that both sites could be filled with art. And yes, it would make so much sense for an expanded BJCC to serve part of the purpose of aging Boutwell. There has got to be a way to make that work!

  4. And don’t forget about The Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA.

  5. Didn’t Langford float something like selling Boutwell to the Museum during his tenure? I assume it was just words, but at least the idea is circulating.

    • Yes–that was floated early in his tenure. Like a lot of other things that were floated by him, this one did not progress. The idea certainly continues to circulate, and I believe the City continues to lose $1 million a year just keeping up Boutwell. With more expensive repairs looming on the horizon.

      • Food for thought: The cost of maintaining and powering an art gallery in a converted steam plant probably wouldn’t come any cheaper Boutwell’s tab, plus you’d have the debt service on the capital project, additional professional staff, higher insurance costs, and fewer opportunities for generating revenue.

        I wouldn’t say that Boutwell is the end-all and be-all of municipal auditoria, but I solid upgrade to its appearance and infrastructure, along with an increase in fees and better marketing, would probably make it a profitable and viable venue — and capable of hosting occasional art exhibitions if the museum’s resources prove insufficient for a particular blockbuster show.

        Potentially a renovation could make room for some full-time daytime use of the front lobby area (a Birmingham visitor’s center? A coffee-shop? A year-round MCAC gallery? Even just an exhibit of Boutwell’s own history could be worth dropping in.

      • John, this is certainly food for thought. My understanding is that the current facility is so woefully outdated in terms of mechanics, structure, and ADA compliance, and is so purpose-built as an auditorium, that any renovation to make it truly multi-functional as you describe may be more costly than a new structure. Whether the shell is preserved and added to, or demolished altogether for a new structure—I think either could work. And the most exciting project would be one that does indeed combine multiple functions (including a fabulous museum condo tower to help pay for the art space below, similar to MOMA in NYC?) so it’s a mixed-use project with lots of activity on the street.

      • Yes, that’s why my suggestion is to renovate and update it for its original purpose. (They do keep busy, and, so far as I can discern, could probably stay busy even if they raised the rates, so long as the equipment was up to par).

        Without knowing the place inside and out, It was my understanding that the lobby addition was designed to house exhibition and meeting space. So that’s where I was proposing to add more full time functionality.

        I suspect Birmingham has enough space already built for the next wave of downtown high-rise condos (Cabana, Brown-Marx, Chamber of Commerce…) and new mid-rise development would likely cluster near the RR Park.

  6. Pingback: Thoughts about the Birmingham Museum of Art | The Red Mountain Post

  7. I agree (and BMA has determined) they cannot afford a second venue. It would be best if Powell Ave. Power Plant (originally built to power the streetcar system) could be an interesting arts venue that also produces revenue. Saving the original Romanesque facade of Boutwell inside a new structure (if anything is left) would be a good move and allow for historic interpretation.

    • I still hold out hope that BMA–whether itself or in partnership with another entity–can create a new, vibrant space that activates the surrounding urban area and provides room for the collection, performances, large-scale installations, etc. that our current, somewhat staid (and inward-turning) facility can’t handle. Saving the original facade of Boutwell and doing something really innovative beyond is an excellent idea!

  8. I’ve been thinking that the old Birmingham Trust and Savings building would be a good location for a BMA outpost… it is a large space, lots of skylights, and most importantly, it is on 20th street, which really needs the investment!

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