Pictures of an expansion
The A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery, 500 S. Indian River Drive, will open in November with a new look. A 2,500-square-foot expansion will increase its exhibition space. Outside, a user-friendly mural plaza will feature murals by nine different artists, including local students, who will paint their own interpretation of the Florida landscape. A.E. BACKUS MUSEUM AND GALLERY PHOTO
A bigger, better Backus Museum expansion honors longtime volunteer, Highwaymen
BY CATHERINE ENNS GRIGAS
It doesn’t want to be the hidden jewel of the Treasure Coast anymore.
When the doors open for the season on Nov. 12, the A.E. Backus Gallery and Museum will have a new look and an expanded exhibition space, part of its planned $1.1 million improvement. But that’s not all.
It also hopes to engage the entire community and be a more visible presence, to be a place not only to learn, but to spend time and return often.
It will have an additional 2,500 square feet of exhibition space in a new wing named in honor of Peggy Berg, who has been instrumental in the museum’s operation for almost 50 years. That will allow the museum to display more of its permanent collection of Backus’ paintings.
The Highwaymen will have their own dedicated gallery with the story of the 26 African-American artists told in film, paintings and an interactive exhibit.
An outdoor space will feature nine mural walls, where artists will be invited to paint their own visions of Florida, a water fountain for both people and dogs, and free Wi-Fi.
And, down the road, the museum will enter the digital sphere, using iPads and digital technology to enhance the museum experience.
The museum already has its new signage in operation, a digital display board that is flanked by a pair of Sabal palms made from cast concrete and aluminum by local sculptor Pat Cochran called Sabal Sentinels.
Bringing the museum to this point has not been easy, executive director Kathleen Fredrick says.
In 2010, the museum announced plans to build a two-story addition, along with another gallery wing, a move that had been years in the making. Those improvements were going to bring the building, which was originally constructed in 1960 as an open-air gallery, up to museum standards for security and climate control.
“We didn’t know the economy was going to melt down,” Fredrick says. “We almost fell off the face of the earth and had to use monies we had saved for a rainy day to stay open. Blessedly, we are a boot-strapping, budget-minded, thrifty organization.”
When she realized the museum was not in the financial position to begin a major expansion, her husband, Greg, told her additional gallery space on the north side of the building made more sense.
“I didn’t want to hear that,” she remembers. When her husband died unexpectedly in 2014, and the museum was about to lose one of its major grants, she realized that he had been right and that a more modest expansion, an addition on the museum’s north wall, made sense.
All of the development work for expansion was donated by local professionals — the contractor, Paul Jacquin and Sons; the architect, Haydn K. Curtis of Donadio and Associates in Vero Beach; and the landscape architect, Lisa Nelson — some $85,000 in professional fees.
The museum also received a $300,000 capital improvement grant from the Florida Department of Humanities, along with the initial $400,000 grant from the St. Lucie County Tourism Development Council. Other funding came from individual donations.
But the first person to make a commitment to the museum’s expansion was Jeff Berg, Peggy and Leonard Berg’s son and the CEO and chairman of the popular surf cam website Surfline.com
“Jeff was the first to come on with funding and that helped us to get county funding,” Fredrick says. “I’m so pleased the new wing is going to be named for Peggy Berg, who has given her life and worked tirelessly without a penny’s compensation for the gallery.”
Berg, who lives in San Clemente, Calif., but still considers Fort Pierce his home, says the $150,000 gift seemed like a natural way to honor his mother, who has been involved in every aspect of the gallery’s operation, from serving as its director for seven years and being on its board of directors for 45 years.
“On a personal level, the gallery was a big part of our life growing up and it was part of the fabric of Fort Pierce culture,” he says. “It has been so neat to watch my mom do all of this and for my brothers and me to be able to honor her in this way.”
The Peggy Berg Gallery will provide the additional exhibition space to hang some of the museum’s more than 100 paintings by A.E. “Bean” Backus, the Fort Pierce-born artist who painted Florida’s landscape with unparalleled virtuosity. Backus, who died in 1990, left a wide legacy, including his students who became successful artists and are part of the Indian River School, as well as the Highwaymen, many of whom call Backus one of their greatest influences.
“It really shows the power of one man, who quietly and consistently helped people and encouraged them, and never asked for one bit of recognition,” Fredrick says. “Twenty- eight of the artists inducted into the Florida Hall of Fame were all influenced by Backus.”
That includes not only the Highwaymen, but Jackie Brice, who was a Backus student, and Jim Hutchinson, who was his brother-in-law. Backus himself was inducted into the hall of fame in 1993. A book on his paintings is due to come out in late fall.
Fredrick is hoping that by making the museum more visible, it will encourage not only more visitors, but possibly more donations of money and Backus paintings. The museum is still about $200,000 short of its ultimate goal.
One of Backus’ credos was to “pass it on” and to that end, Fredrick hopes to bring in younger generations of art lovers.
She has developed plans for several technology-based activities that she hopes to develop with more funding. One hope is to have iPads in the museum, allowing viewers to get more information on paintings. Another would encourage collaborative artistry, using Backus images, like palm trees, to create a Florida landscape painting that can be projected on the wall.
“The museum’s goal is to spread the word to all comers that St. Lucie County is where Florida art began,” Fredrick says.