Backus turns 60

A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery
Celebrating its 60th season, the A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery was first envisioned as a building with an open air atrium. Backus painted this as an artist’s rendering in 1959. A.E. Backus [American, 1906-1990] Fort Pierce Art Gallery, 1959. Oil on board, 15x30 inches. Gift of Dorothy Shapiro Manello.

Community support has helped the museum survive difficult times including the pandemic


From hurricanes to recessions, the A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery has weathered many storms in its 60-year history. But perhaps nothing has challenged its survival more than the pandemic.

As the oldest continually operating art institution on the Treasure Coast, the museum depends on community support and its popular events like the Backus Brunch for fundraising. That was all jeopardized when the museum, like everything else, closed to the public on March 16.

But according to Executive Director Marshall Adams, it is that same community-minded spirit that will allow the museum to thrive during challenging times.

“We have had to be innovative, but the shows will go on,” he says. “This museum was founded out of the interest of the community, and because the community has come together, we can continue to be part of it.”

More than 60 years ago, A.E. Backus, then the pre-eminent Florida landscape artist who lived in Fort Pierce, gathered his friends and supporters and incorporated the Fort Pierce Art Gallery.

Hawkfish on His Perch
Through the Eye of the Camera Juried Exhibition, which will run next year, is an annual show that features the work of many area photographers, including Mike Ricciardi, who took this photo, Hawkfish on His Perch. Digital photograph on metal.

On a plot of land adjacent to the Indian River, the gallery was constructed and opened to the public in 1961. Backus’s original studio inspired the building’s open atrium and casual façade. Unfortunately, it was also subject to Florida weather, and many of the artists would have to come running in a rainstorm to remove their paintings hung on the building’s exterior.

Key Lime #1
Frank Spino’s watercolor, Key Lime #1, is part of the Best of the Best 2020.

In 2016, the museum underwent an extensive renovation, bringing it up to museum standards. While the bones of the old gallery still exist, it now boasts space for both a permanent collection of works by Backus, along with a collection of paintings by the Highwaymen, the black artists who lived and worked in the area and were inspired by his paintings.

Backus never wanted the gallery to be named after him, but following his death in 1990, the name was changed to honor him.

“It has been an anchor for the artistic community,” says Adams, who notes that generations of artists were inspired or taught by Backus. Backus’s profound influence has remained, although Adams admits keeping his legacy alive is harder as time goes by.

“People still respond to his idyllic scenes of Florida,” Adams says. “But those scenes are more precious now. You only find them in the state parks, and of course, the Everglades. It is a challenge, but hopefully, we can meet that challenge.”

With more than 30,000 visitors annually and a number of community outreach activities, the museum has continued in the humanitarian and open-door spirit of Backus.

It will open its new season at 50 percent capacity, and the opening receptions that marked each exhibition will be adapted to social distancing requirements. Much of the fundraising done through public events has also been put on hold, but underwriters are now sponsoring entire seasons of shows, instead of individual exhibitions, a move that has helped the museum financially.

“We have had to be innovative and we have been really pleased with the supportive response of the community,” he says. “With everyone’s help, we can get through this.”

Washer Woman, oil on Upson board
The gallery will show paintings from The Highwaymen. Alfred Hair, Washer Woman, oil on Upson board, 30x48 inches. Lightle Collection.

Oct. 10 – Nov. 13
The Best of the Best Juried Exhibition
Each year, the museum honors its roots as a community gallery by encouraging artists to share their best works in a special exhibition. This annual fine art competition showcases exemplary works in different media by amateur and professional artists that demonstrate exceptional quality, skill, creativity, and presentation.

Nov. 20 – Jan. 3
Insight: Photography of Jon Kral
During his 18 years with the Miami Herald, Jon Kral earned a reputation as an outstanding photojournalist covering decades of unprecedented growth, social and political upheaval and natural disasters both home and abroad – it was the best street education a photographer could receive. Whether on assignment or following his muse, Kral has always focused on his documentary interests, with a special affinity for people, places, and capturing the right moment. He has been published in major publications including, Time Magazine, US News & World Report, National Geographic, Newsweek, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and others.

Fishing Day Ends, oil on Upson board
The Highwaymen captured Florida scenes like this. R.A. McLendon, Fishing Day Ends, oil on Upson board, 18x24 inches. Lightle Collection.

L’il Man, watercolor on Ginwashi paper
L’il Man, watercolor on Ginwashi paper by Debby Marriott is among the works in the Best of the Best 2020 exhibition.

Jan. 8 – March 7
Right of Way: The Highwaymen
When a group of young and promising African American artists was confronted with a race-based social system during the Civil Rights Era, they devised a way to negotiate the segregated color lines designed to limit their opportunities — they bypassed them by taking their art on the road. By selling their works not in a traditional gallery but from the trunk of a car, these vivid and bold paintings found eager customers up and down the Atlantic Coast of Florida. Their path to success broke through barriers and is a story of intuitive talents, dramatic paintings and resourceful practices that would earn state and national recognition and continues to inspire today.

March 12 – April 25
TOP: Anniversary Invitational Exhibition
Ten past winners of the top awards from The Best of the Best fine art juried show and our Through the Eye of the Camera photography juried show will share a body of six works each in a wide variety of media. Combining two popular competitions, it will feature a total of 60 works to mark the museum’s 60th anniversary.

May 7 – June 18
Through the Eye of the Camera Juried Exhibition
Amateur and professional artists in traditional and digital photography are encouraged to enter this favorite competitive opportunity that champions photography as an art form. We return to our beginnings in this juried exhibition to close this special anniversary season. Entries accepted by advance appointment March 31 — April 30.

See the original article in the print publication

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