The history of the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale is the story of a number of community volunteers who care deeply about the arts. And, as with most Florida histories, it is also a story about real estate.
In 1958, the Junior League founded the Fort Lauderdale Art Center as a gathering place where the public could come to enjoy exhibitions and participate in art classes for children and adults. In November of that year, the Center opened its doors in a former hardware store at 625 East Las Olas (now the site of Johnny V’s restaurant) for its first exhibition,Florida West Coast Abstract Painting. The first director, Schubert E. Jonas, was an artist with a background in art education and thus the ambitions were set. Katherine ‘Tinker’ McCauley served as the first volunteer Head of Education and first docent. The Hortt Competition, named for M. A. Hortt, who had bequeathed $5,000 to the Junior League to start the Art Center, was one the Center’s first major activities and one of the first regional art competitions in Florida.
Beaux Arts, the fundraising arm of the Museum, was established by the Junior League in 1959. Its major annual project was Promenade. This outdoor carnival of arts and crafts, presented in conjunction with the help of Las Olas merchants, was the Museum’s primary fundraising event over 40 years. A juried outdoor art show, the Las Olas Art Festival, was established in 1970 and continued under Beaux Arts and Friends until 1999.
In 1963, the Art Center amended its bylaws and incorporated as the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, Inc.
The Friends organization was established in 1964 to provide volunteers in the galleries, hostesses for Museum openings, and an annual fundraising tea. It has become a very active volunteer and fundraising organization with about 65 active members.
After a fire in 1967, it was necessary to move. Building a new facility would become the focus of the Trustees for the next 24 years as they considered locations throughout the city – South Federal Highway between 21st and 22nd Streets, George English Park, the War Memorial Auditorium, and the Bartlett Estate.
Through the assistance of James Farquhar and Mary McCahill, the Museum moved in 1969 to 426 East Las Olas, which had been an annex to Nova University. Plans were drawn by architect William Crawford to transform the former Ocean Sciences laboratory into galleries. George Bolge, Executive Director from 1970 to 1987, lead the Museum to a new level of professionalism. Under his leadership, the Beaux Arts Education Program was established to help with docent training and established our Museum Docent program, which now has about 70 active members. The American Association of Museums awarded accreditation to the Museum in 1974.
In 1981, one acre of land at the corner of Andrews Avenue and Las Olas Boulevard was bought for $365,000, and the Museum broke ground in 1984 for the present building. Designed by American architect, Edward Larabee Barnes (1915-2004), the Museum opened its present facility to the public in 1986 with great acclaim. The London Times stated that this Museum “may have succeeded best of all…where the single sweep of a big white wall is itself a picture of sculpture.”
A new bar of excellence was established with the opening of the new Museum and the acquisition of works by leading contemporary artists such as Frank Stella, Tom Wessleman, and Philip Guston. The Museum has also been the beneficiary of some unique and focused collections, including the Meyer and Golda Marks collection of CoBrA art, and the M.A and Sarah Lipschultz collection of constructivist reliefs, both donated in 1986.
During his years of service from 1990 to 1997, Executive Director Kenworth Moffett oversaw new curatorial achievement when, in 1991, Ira Glackens bequeathed to the Museum his collection of works by his father, William Glackens, an important early 20th century American artist. This extraordinary gift and the subsequent wing were arranged through Museum Trustee Richard C. Hilker and the Samson Foundation.
In 1991, Bernie Bercuson donated his collection of Picasso ceramics to the Museum. The Museum began collecting art by Cuban exiles in 1993. Recently broadened to include Latin American art, this area of collecting continues to be the Museum’s most active collecting effort.
From 1999 to 2001, Executive Director Kathleen Harleman supervised the construction of the 10,000-square-foot wing that is home to the William Glackens Collection and Archives, which opened in 2001.
Former Executive Director Irvin M. Lippman took the helm in 2003 following a period of changing leadership. Since then, the Museum has achieved unprecedented success by presenting exhibitions of exceptional caliber, international importance, and broad appeal, including Saint Peter and the Vatican, Diana, A Celebration, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, and Cradle of Christianity: Jewish and Christian Treasures from the Holy Land. Since 2003, these programs have brought more than a million visitors through our doors and generated more than $200 million in economic impact to our region.
At the same time, the Museum has remained intent on originating exhibitions of artistic significance. Our Artist- in- Residence program has provided a critical platform for us to focus on the creation of new work. Since launching this program in 2004, the Artist- in-Residence Program has new work and installations by Edouard Duval Carrié (2004), Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock (2005), Matthew Schreiber (2006),Carlos Luna (2008).
Also launched in 2004, our Studio Arts Program, now known as The AutoNation Academy of Art and Design, is an educational initiative that supports individual development in the visual arts and design for all ages and ability levels. The Studio School brings the Museum’s goal of becoming a cultural nexus full circle – and returns us to the core values of our founding organization.
At our 50th Anniversary benchmark in 2008, the Museum found itself poised on a new institutional threshold. A newly – forged association with Nova Southeastern University once again brings the Museum and Nova together for intellectual exchange and cross-disciplinary collaboration.
We look forward to our next half-century with stellar exhibitions and exciting programs. The best is yet to come.