FORT PIERCE – If good things are worth waiting for, the expansion of the A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery is going to be great. Seven years ago the museum finalized its plans for a significant expansion of exhibition space. It was awarded a $400,000 grant from the St. Lucie County Tourism Development Council and everything looked like a go, but economic downturn delayed the project. After seven long years, the museum is now poised to break ground on its expansion. The plans have been modified with an eye to sustainability, but they are none-the-less exciting.

On a global level, the future viability of museums demands a greater connection to the community. To remain relevant, museums seek to create experiences that appeal to their longtime supporters and to cultivate supporters from millennials, “non-museum goers,” and future generations. Museums must be demystified and democratized; reaching out to people and drawing them in rather than waiting for them. The Backus’ plans recognize these overarching trends and seek to create an engaging experience, drawing the public in by bringing the art out.

In early June 2015 the Museum received notification that it had been awarded a $300,000 capital improvement grant from the Florida Department of Humanities. The grant was an essential piece in the financial puzzle and allowed the project to move forward with confidence. Funds are still needed to complete the entire project’s wish list, but the physical structure and exterior improvements are fully funded. Slated to cost in excess of $1.1 million, the museum currently has over $900,000.

The new wing will be named after Peggy Berg, a museum board member for 45 years who previously held volunteer positions as president and exhibition coordinator. Berg’s son, Jeff, is the largest private donor to the project at $150,000.

If you would like to help the museum complete the vision of a multifaceted museum with integrated digital components and a vibrant public presence, please contact the museum. All contributions are vital and greatly appreciated. Donors will be recognized on a patrons wall inside the new wing.

The project includes a new 2,500 square-foot gallery built along the entire length of the museum’s north wall. It will house the growing Backus collection, much of which is currently in storage. The project will also create an exterior exhibition space, known as the Mural Plaza, featuring large panels painted by a variety of artists who will be selected by a community-based committee of arts and civic leaders. Space will be reserved for entries from local students. All murals should depict something about nature and the outdoors, but are not limited in style or technique. Applications will soon be available for artists interested in participating.

The museum also seeks to showcase are interior murals that are copies of Backus or Highwaymen paintings. Designers hope for a wide variety of unique visions exploring different themes and styles, while paying homage to Florida’s often imperiled wild places and wildlife. Artists will receive a stipend to cover materials and each mural will be sealed with a UV acrylic sealant to protect it from the sun’s ravages.

It is anticipated that the murals will be redone every three years so that the outdoor exhibition changes much like the indoor exhibitions. Individual murals may be sponsored by area arts patrons. Outdoor seating and free Wi-Fi will create a welcoming environment for enjoying the art, the stunning views of the re-sculpted and newly landscaped park grounds and the Indian River. The museum’s goal is to create a dynamic conversation between the community, the arts and the lagoon.

Perhaps the most exciting development is the creation of a permanent Florida Highwaymen exhibit. The absence of a museum-quality Highwaymen exhibit is something the Treasure Coast has been sorely lacking. In addition to original Highwaymen paintings and narrative text panels, the museum has developed a 20-minute documentary video exploring the link between Backus and the Highwaymen. Fort Pierce is the epicenter of the only mid-twentieth century African American outsider art movement. The influence of Backus’ artistic and humanitarian generosity catapulted the Highwaymen phenomenon. Their stories are inextricably intertwined and both stories are the better for it.

If you have driven by the museum recently you cannot fail to have noticed that the Sabal Sentinels sculpture, designed and created by local artist Pat Cochran and his hardworking crew, has sprouted from the ground. The concrete and aluminum palms, along with the large digital sign they support, create a place mark for creativity and a significant downtown landmark. The $60,000 project required the collaborative talent and generosity of Fort Pierce City staff and officials, the St. Lucie County Tourism Development Council, visionary artist Pat Cochran, landscape architect Lisa Nelson, engineer Bo Hutcheson, Glo-Master Signs, the generosity and good humor of Rusty Norvell Concrete Pumping and the support of museum patrons. The sculptural sign is just one example of the Museum’s commitment to bringing art outside for all.

To allow for expansion the museum will close for the summer on June 19 and hopes to reopen at the end of October. There is much to be done in order to take the museum into the 21st century. The museum’s goal is to spread the word to all comers that St. Lucie County is where Florida art began.

Kathleen Fredrick is the director of the Backus Museum and Gallery in Fort Pierce.

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