The St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) has been thriving in the heart of downtown since 1965. The museum is renowned for its extensive permanent collection, which displays artwork from over 4,500 years ago to modern day pieces, all in varying media from differing countries. The Bay area’s MFA certainly offers the most comprehensive art on the west side of Florida—and this year the museum is celebrating its 50th birthday, naturally, with a new exhibit.
50 Artworks for 50 Years, aptly named, is a special project dear to the museum’s heart; not only does it celebrate the MFA’s success and perseverance over the years, but it acknowledges the philanthropy that helped each step of the way. At the beginning of 2015, the MFA set a goal for itself: to acquire 50 new permanent pieces purely from donations. The response from members of the art community was outstanding, securing the museum many more works of art than they’ve hoped-for 50. While many contributors donated the artwork directly, some donated the funds that made the purchase of a piece of art possible.
The exhibit contains clay figures, watercolor paints, incandescent glass works, and many other mediums over a dramatic range of geographies and eras. From the end of the 20th century, one of the pieces on display is “Tired of Being the Good Guy” by South Florida native Ruby C. Williams from 1998: an almost childish yellow monster with black spots and many teeth. This work, acrylic on wood, falls perfectly into the MFA mission of preserving “objects of artistic interest and merit.” Ruby Williams had gotten her artistic start with her colorfully painted road signs advertising her home-grown produce stand. “Tired of Being the Good Guy” represents her roots with its medium and stark contrast of bright yellow and black. While the whimsical style falls under folk art, the title of the piece really causes viewers to stop and think, giving it merit as a documentation of art history but also interest as an image with more than a superficial meaning.
Another late 20th century piece that was donated as part of the 50 for 50 project is Hughie Lee-Smith’s “The Distraction” from 1994. In the watercolor painting, a man sits on a green bench on the beach tossing a green ball into the air while a woman—perhaps his wife—stands turned away from the viewer in a one-piece swimsuit. Another Florida native, this time from Eustis, Hughie Lee-Smith represents how exactly American artists fit into the predominantly-European movements of Cubism, Social Realism, and Surrealism. “The Distraction” carries a slight touch of the surreal, as the bench has seemingly no place on a beach and the man, unlike the woman, is completely overdressed in his turtleneck and dress pants. The tonal range of blues and greens only adds to this dream-like quality, making the bizarre image more believable with its softness. Again, the painting’s historical placement gives it merit, and the subject matter and its style makes the work interesting.
Williams and Lee-Smith are only a microscopic sample of the new artists who have been welcomed to the MFA permanent collection as a result of 50 for 50. Because of the awesome turnout with an abundance of donations, the museum only displays a third of the collection at a time and will continuously alternate the contents until the exhibit’s close on March 13th. The first round of works on display featured mostly contemporary artists exploring the passing of time, portraits, and narrative. The museum’s hours are Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays until 8 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.