By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
For the Birmingham Museum of Art, it’s Museum Ball 2020 Take 2.
The event was canceled last year because of COVID-19. But mother-daughter pairings Sallie Johnson and Sumner Johnson Rives, along with Garland Smith and Lindsay Smith Puckett will be co-chairs of the event, as they were meant to be last year.
The chairs are looking forward to creating an event that maintains a level of safety while providing a show-stopping experience. The re-do is set for Sept. 11.
The ball is always an immersive experience, the chairs agreed.
“When the guests come and experience the ball,” Rives said, there is always a build-up for guests to wonder what surprises are in store.
“It’s always a buffet for your eyes. The decor and approach in design is actually an expression of art.”
In recent years, the ball has focused on more modern artwork, taking inspiration from short-term exhibits. This year, the focus is on American Art, still life works in particular, and the theme is Fruit et Fleur.
It made sense, Rives said, as both the Smith and the Johnson families have a history of supporting the museum with a focus on American art.
Generations of Museum Supporters
Garland Smith has a storied history with the Birmingham Museum of Art. It begins with her stepfather’s uncle, Jack Bass Smith, with whom her family was very close.
“He was instrumental in bringing the museum to (its current location) from its original placement at City Hall,” Smith said.
She has since maintained that connection through service and involvement in BMA programs.
“I’ve chaired the ball three times,” Smith said. Her first run as ball chair was in 1981, when she was two weeks away from giving birth to her daughter. She counts last year’s canceled event as her second time, as they had all but finalized plans before the pandemic shut down large gatherings.
This year will be the third time she’s planned the ball and her daughter’s second run, by Smith standards.
“I came here as a kid for art camp,” Puckett said. “I also was an art history minor in college and lived over in Italy, and that really instilled in me a love for art, especially American art.”
Johnson also has had a long-standing history with the museum, beginning with her parents. They were active members of the BMA’s Asian Art Society.
“I remember them going on art trips with the museum,” Rives said. “The society would travel, and while traveling they would intentionally purchase items as a group or as individuals and donate them to the museum.”
American art is something that Johnson has devoted much time to studying.
Perhaps she was inspired by experiences writing high school term papers at the Birmingham Public Library beneath the gaze of Albert Bierstadt’s “Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California.”
“I remember it being upstairs and it was just on the wall, right where you would go to take all of your notes,” Johnson said. “It was just on the wall. I thought it was wallpaper or a mural.”
The painting is recognized as an iconic work of art and makes a grand impact as patrons enter the American art gallery.
Johnson said her love of art has evolved through her relationship with the museum.
“It changes your perspective when you walk through these halls,” she said. “The more you know, the more you appreciate it.”
When BMA Director Graham C. Boettcher first joined the staff, Johnson and her husband formed a bond with him. They were inspired by his love of American artwork and began collecting themselves, with help from Boettcher.
“This museum is a place to learn about our culture and other cultures,” she said. “It’s not just pretty stuff to look at. That’s important for everybody to know. It’s a real tool for us to learn about others.”
Giving Back to the City
What fuels the Smiths and Johnsons as they chair the ball and raise funds for the museum is the knowledge that the facility is truly an asset to the community. It’s a benefit to education and quality of life and has a profound economic impact.
“When organizations and large companies are looking for a place to move or open additional offices, they have certain things that they need to offer their employees that they are asking to move,” Rives noted. A major component in quality of life is cultural opportunities such as the museum.
The Museum Ball is the BMA’s largest fundraiser of the year. This is the 64th year it’s been held, since last year’s ball was canceled. Funds raised are essential every year, but this year that need has doubled because of the impact of the pandemic.
Typical money-making event series and programming have had to be canceled or restructured. In addition, funding cuts by the city of Birmingham have reduced the facility’s budget.
“The first and primary purpose is that it is key and instrumental to the financial wellbeing of the museum,” Rives said. “That is our goal and that is why we are here and want to help them do that.”
The second purpose is to present an expression of art – something that was lost last year.
BMA Development Events Manager Erin Everett said this year will provide an immersive experience like none she has seen in the city.
To maximize safety, the museum will expand its event space to about 150,000 square feet.
“We are opening up galleries that have not been used before in order to be able to socially distance,” Smith said.
The event floor plan also will include the largest outdoor space ever used for one of its balls.
A menu by chef George McMillan of FoodBar and decor by Jill Garmon of AG Lighting will excite the eyes and tastebuds, inspired by the Fruit et Fleur theme.
Guests can expect to see plenty of florals, fruits and vegetables in the event space, all of which will be donated after the ball.
“I love the idea that we are not going to have a lot of waste while we are shining a light on this still life and the artwork that we have in the museum,” Everett said.
For those who wish to attend the event, tickets must be purchased by June 1.
“That’s for two reasons,” Rives said. “Those funds will then be a part of this fiscal year for the museum, even though the event will be held in September.”
In addition, the ball typically nears sell out two months before the event date.
“We fully expect this event, like many years in the past, to sell out well before the event occurs,” Rives added. “So, those who want to attend and get back to normal in a big booming way, look to purchase them by June 1.”
Johnson also suggested that those interested in attending who do not normally receive notices about the event call the museum to inquire about ball tickets.
For more information, call Erin Everett at (205) 297-8062.