The Tubman Museum of African American Art, History and Culture will open its new facility on May 16. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Tubman museum in Macon expands into new facility

Jeff Bruce, curator of the extensive collection at the Tubman Museum of African American Art, History and Culture, had an excellent problem: too much art.

The old facility on Walnut Street in downtown Macon was bursting at the seams. The galleries could display only 20 percent of the 3,000-piece collection. Storage — in a series of temporarily loaned spaces, including a college campus, a railroad depot, an ice house and a newspaper building — was undependable. The lenders eventually wanted their space back, and the museum kept getting kicked out.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve moved the collection six times,” Bruce said.

His days of restlessness are finally over. On May 16, the Tubman Museum, to the sound of parade drums, is opening the doors of a spacious new home on Cherry Street in Macon’s heart, with room for the collection and more. For the first time in his tenure, Bruce doesn’t have to leave the building to visit art that’s off-exhibit.

“It is really exciting for us to get it all in one place,” Bruce said.

Its directors say the Tubman is the largest museum in the Southeast devoted to African-American art, history and culture. With its new 49,000-square-foot facility, across from the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, it finally looks the part.

The rotunda ceiling is a piece of artwork in and of itself at the Tubman Museum. Curtis Compton /
Photo: Curtis Compton

Designed by Boston architects VernerJohnson, the new structure is distinguished by basket-weave-style brickwork, a rich, earthy yellow exterior and a complex domed/peaked roof with pointed dormers that suggests a ceremonial headdress. The museum honors Harriet Tubman, the Maryland-born slave who escaped to freedom, then returned to the South to help other fugitive slaves go to the North through the Underground Railroad.

Among the five exhibits that will greet visitors on opening day is a monumental display in the elliptical, central atrium, where part of the curved walls will be covered with textile wall hangings created by Maconite Wini McQueen.

Called “If Walls Could Talk,” the hangings are composed of 125 panels that McQueen has been working on for years, panels that tell the story of African-Americans in Macon and Middle Georgia.

McQueen studied traditional dyeing techniques in the Ivory Coast, which she combines with photo transfers, quilting and other treatments to create the panels. A sewing machine, piles of fabric and completed panels filled a side room at the museum where McQueen could be seen working steadily during the past week to finish the project.

The other exhibits will include:

  • “Black Artists of Georgia,” a gallery of studio and visionary art.
  • “Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People,” an exhibit on the life of the great liberator, featuring works loaned from the Spelman College Museum of Art, the DuSable Museum in Chicago, and the Hampton University Museum in Virginia.
  • “From Africa to America,” a chronological mural made up of nine panels by painter Wilfred Stroud.
  • “From the Minds of African Americans,” celebrating the ingenuity, perseverance and creativity of African-American inventors, who came up with the ideas for, among other things, the Super Soaker and the gas mask.
One of Little Richard’s pianos is on display at the Tubman Museum. Curtis Compton /
Photo: Curtis Compton

The $19 million Tubman structure was built in stages. Planning began in 2002. Most of the exterior was finished by 2008 when construction was put on hold during the financial crisis. An infusion of $2.5 million from special local option sales tax revenue helped get the project started again.

During the week leading up to the reopening, workers were busy uncrating and un-bubble-wrapping sculpture and paintings. In a balcony sculpture gallery was a jaunty more-than-life-size wooden figure draped with wreaths of bottle caps by Atlanta visionary artist Mr. Imagination, also known as Gregory Warmack.

A large-scale photo-assemblage called “I’d Rather Two-Step Than Waltz” by Amalia Amaki leaned against a wall, ready for mounting. A vintage image at the center, which catches a boy and girl in the middle of a dance step, is adorned with hundreds of buttons.

Founder Richard Keil established the museum in 1981, and the first building opened to the public in 1985. Keil was all smiles as he toured the building during the hectic setup 10 days before opening day.

“I’m very happy,” said Keil, a former Catholic priest, who left the clergy in 1988. “I’m happy for the potential to help so many people.”

Executive director Andy Ambrose, formerly of the Atlanta History Center, said the new attraction is expected to draw 30,000 visitors a year, or about double the current attendance. It should benefit from the boom in residential construction in the middle of the city, he said.

“We have an opportunity to fit in and be a player in what we’re seeing as revitalization in downtown Macon,” he said.

Ambrose was particularly excited about the collaborations between the museum and local colleges and art organizations, who help staff the museum’s outreach efforts.

“For museums to be sustainable, they have to have a connection to the community,” Ambrose said. “You can’t just create a place that’s nice for tourists to come visit.”

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