With more than 27,000 paintings, prints, drawings, and decorative arts pieces dating from ancient to modern times, the Birmingham Museum of Art is a big source of pride for the Magic City. Since opening in 1951, the free art museum has welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors to view and engage with art through galleries, exhibitions, and special events. We sat down with the museum’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions, Anne Forschler-Tarrasch, to learn more about how the museum functions and what to expect when visiting.
Tell us a little about your background and what brought you to the Birmingham Museum of Art.
I was born and raised in California and got my B.A. and M.A. at the University of California. I then went to Germany for a year and ended up staying for 14! I got my Ph.D. in Berlin, Germany, and through an internship at the Decorative Arts Museum in Berlin, I became acquainted with 19th century European cast iron. The Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA) has a great collection of this material, and while doing my research, I stumbled upon it. I wrote to the BMA asking for more information and when I was told that they didn’t have a decorative arts curator at the time, I sent in my own resume. They offered me an interview and the rest is history. I’ve been at the BMA for 23 years now.
What does your role as Director of Collections and Exhibitions entail?
In this role, I oversee the curatorial, registration, and preparation departments. I make sure that the exhibition calendar is populated with exciting projects, that “back of house” projects are well coordinated, and that we are all working toward common goals. I supervise a number of staff members and help each to achieve their goals. I am also the curator of decorative arts at the museum and oversee a collection of about 16,000 objects—ceramics, metalwork, furniture, textiles, and glass. For this role, I do research, catalog objects, make acquisitions, organize exhibitions, and work on the permanent galleries.
What kinds of things do you look for when selecting new art for collections and creating new exhibits?
We have a new Collection Development Plan that is focused on building our collection of under- and unrepresented artists and makers. This includes people of color and women. Thus, we are actively looking to purchase works of art that fit this goal. We also have a strong permanent collection, so we will consider objects that build on strengths, such as Wedgwood. These come in mostly through gifts, however. We are trying to put our purchasing power behind those works that will build our collection in new ways. In many ways, our current exhibitions program follows this model. Upcoming exhibitions focus on artists and makers of color and/or women.
Are there any upcoming special exhibits or collections that visitors should look forward to seeing soon?
Visitors should check out a new group of objects going into our current contemporary exhibition, Light Play. This will happen in January. Right now, we also have an exhibition of works of art that relate to sports and games and one of Chinese fan paintings. An exhibition of photographs by artist Manjari Sharma that focuses on the pantheon of Hindu deities is also on view. These photographs are combined with historic and ancient works from our Asian collection, which makes the exhibition very compelling. We are also continually working on our permanent galleries and changes happen there all the time. Next year, we’ll show Dawoud Bey’s Birmingham Project in full to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. We recently purchased the whole set of photographs. We’ll also have a new contemporary artist installation in our main lobby, and we’re hoping to make even more changes to our permanent galleries. During the second half of 2023, we’ll have an exhibition of works of art that deal with the environment. So, there’s lots to see every day and things are changing all the time!
What do you love about what you do?
I love the museum’s permanent collection, and I love working with objects. Researching and cataloging are my favorite things. However, in my expanded role as supervisor of a team, I love helping colleagues achieve goals and realize projects. Whether people stay at the BMA for a long time or a short time, I want people on the Collections and Exhibitions team to have a good experience at the BMA. I want them to feel like they were heard and valued, and that they were able to carry out passion projects. My goal is for them to go on to another job feeling like the BMA was a fantastic place to work and to spread the BMA love!
Do you have a favorite piece (or a couple of favorite pieces) that are part of the museum’s collection?
My favorite pieces tend to change with time. There’s always something new to love at the BMA. Right now, I am loving a large piece made by Birmingham artist Larry Allen. It was a commission and Larry came to the BMA to study our collection and made a piece in response. It’s currently on view in one of our Wedgwood galleries and I love it more every time I see it.