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A great idea leads to some questions about our future

11.26.2007 by André Natta · → Leave a comment

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I was standing in line and overheard a conversation between a man that was part of a group of five behind me and the woman that was positioned the entrance to the Pompeii exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art. I was already pleasantly surprised about 20 minutes earlier when we encountered the long line as we purchased tickets to the exhibit. I was surprised again when I heard the woman say that 1,562 people had entered the exhibit as of 3:45 p.m. that afternoon. Based on a pure guesstimate, it’d be safe to say that more than 1600 people went through the exhibit the day after Thanksgiving.

This is only a taste of what could happen if the museum were to be allowed to expand onto the property currently occupied by the Boutwell Auditorium. Our newly elected mayor has announced publicly that he would like to transfer or sell the building to museum for the purpose of allowing them to expand. There are some that would ask why the Southeast’s largest public museum needs to be enlarged. An easy answer is the fact that the current facility only allows for no more than ¼ of the museum’s collection to be on display at any one time. An expanded facility would allow for more of the collection to be on display, adding to the potential of larger traveling exhibits to be available to the people of Alabama and the surrounding region. Those types of exhibits serve as reasons for the development of additional hotel rooms, restaurants and retail businesses in our central business district (probably a better answer), adding to our economy, whether or not a tax or business license increase were to happen.

The museum’s riding high right now with two well-received exhibits as they finish an incredible year. The ability to announce this potential for expansion right now would no doubt also allow the issue of arts funding to stay in the front of many residents’ minds as our Cultural Alliance enters an unknown territory – a year without financial support from the Jefferson County Commission.

Holiday weekends aside, the fact that the museum has seen consistent crowds during the Pompeii and Folk Art exhibits speak to the importance of the arts to Jefferson County in general and Birmingham in particular.

Two questions to consider: First – Does the building really need to come down? That is a question that is up for debate. A simple answer is no; while many may believe that the Boutwell is not an acoustically pleasing venue for concerts and events, the shell could be maintained and the interior gutted for the purposes of serving as a museum/gallery. It would be the least expensive option and it would allow the city to maintain a piece of its urban fabric. A clean slate created by demolition would provide the opportunity to create a world-class edition to a world-class museum, providing yet another reason to visit, much in the same way that Moshe Safdie‘s Jepson Center for the Arts provides an artistic work unto itself at the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia. Something to think about…

The other question that’s seems to be becoming the norm in Birmingham is “How are we going to pay for it?” As optimistic as I am for a city that I choose to live in, I am increasingly nervous about how we’re going to move forward alone. Talk of regional cooperation that emerged from this year’s BIG Trip to Denver seems to have disappeared in favor of the “this is mine, that’s yours” mentality that existed before. Our current per capita income was $15,600 (you can also take a look at the numbers listed in our profile in Money’s 2006 Best Places to Live report). We are a regional hub that can set the example of what can happen if we work together. It will take the region to support the numerous construction projects that are about to take place within our city limits as well as a revamped mass transportation network. There will be a time in the near future where folks over the mountain will end up needing to ride that bus over to the museum thanks to $4/gallon gasoline prices.

Before we set out on our own and become even more isolationist than we’ve been already been, let’s see if we can build on what appeared to be a sincere attempt to solve regional problems together. Regionalism will eventually happen; it must for the city to grow and reach its potential. It would just be a shame to not embrace it and suffer the consequences of doing stuff as a tiny kingdom before joining the party.

André Natta is the publisher and managing editor of The Terminal. To submit letters in response to this commentary or to contact for general information, use any of the methods listed on our contact page.

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Filed under: Alabama · Birmingham · Commentary · development · regional