“Magic City Realism: Richard Coe’s Birmingham” features 60 never-before-exhibited, Depression-era scenes of Birmingham that Coe etched or painted between 1934 and 1937. But time is running out to see the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA) exhibition, which will close this Sunday, June 17.
“These images provide a view of Birmingham in the 1930s that is otherwise impossible to see,” said Katelyn Crawford, Ph.D., the William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
“In the city views, industrial scenes and images of neighborhoods created by Coe, we find a city both similar to and distinctly different from the one we live in now,” Crawford said. “I think this exhibition helps us understand our city’s history broadly at a time when we are evolving and growing rapidly.”
The exhibition includes realistic etchings of many still-recognizable buildings, including the Empire, Woodward and Brown-Marx buildings, the American Trust and Savings Bank (John Hand Building), Sloss Furnaces, Birmingham-Southern College, St. Vincent’s Hospital, Independent Presbyterian, First United Methodist and Sixth Avenue Baptist churches, and the former Terminal Station. The exhibition features etchings of a number of unidentified neighborhoods.
Born in 1904 in Selma, Richard Coe attended Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee, followed by the University of Cincinnati, where he studied architecture. He then won a scholarship sponsored by The Birmingham News and the Allied Arts Club of Birmingham to study at the Grand Central School of Art in New York.
Following his studies, Coe received a travel scholarship and spent several years in Europe. In 1934, he came to Birmingham, where his grandmother lived. He set up a studio, with an etching press, in the Five Points South neighborhood, and occasionally attended the Dixie Art Colony — a gathering of artists at a permanent site on Lake Jordan in Elmore County.
“His five years in Birmingham are his most productive for creating art,” Crawford said. While in Birmingham, Coe participated in two arts projects under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, producing the highly detailed etchings of everyday life around the Magic City, some of which are on view in the exhibition, and the famous mural in the Woodlawn High School Auditorium, drawn by Sidney Van Scheck and painted by Coe.
With dwindling art prospects in Birmingham, Coe returned to New York around 1939, where he remained until his death in 1978.
“Not much of Coe’s work has survived, and that which has is rarely found in museum collections,” Crawford said. “He is an important American regionalist artist, but he resides in a region where that type of work is understudied.” With the majority of his portfolio featuring scenes in the Birmingham area, “the Birmingham Museum of Art (is) the perfect institution to execute this exhibition and reinsert Coe into Alabama history and art history of the 1930s,” Crawford said.
For Crawford, curating “Magic City Realism” was a personal experience. “I’d just relocated to Birmingham and, as I got to know Coe’s etchings, I also quickly got to know my new home — past and present.”
“It was a fun show to work on as an art historian … engaging with a trove of work by one person allows you to get to know their thought process, their technical skill and their evolving ideas about their subjects,” Crawford said. “That opportunity is relatively rare and a treat for a curator.
“It is unlikely that this group of objects will ever be together again offering this perspective on 1930s Birmingham,” Crawford said, so it is important to see the exhibition now. “Because so much of the exhibition is comprised of works on paper, which are light-sensitive, the soonest many of the works from the museum’s collection will be seen is five years from now. … We allow them to ‘rest’ for a period of time when they aren’t displayed to help to preserve them for future generations,” Crawford said.
In addition to the historical views of the city by Coe, the museum partnered with Mayor Randall Woodfin, who recorded a message to visitors through the gallery smartguide, encouraging them to share their thoughts, opinions and hopes for the future of the city.
“We’ve been surprised and informed by the thoughtful responses shared on sticky notes, from people praising the revitalization of downtown to others offering constructive criticism on how to improve public transportation, racial tension and water quality throughout the city,” Crawford said.
The Birmingham Museum of Art is at 2000 Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Blvd. Hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. General admission to the museum is free.