The Great Depression, transformed the city as we know it today. Artist Richard Coe, an Alabama native, participated in and eventually headed up the Alabama section of the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) art programs during the Great Depression. His works documented the city’s rapidly changing urban fabric in his prints and paintings.
Opening Saturday, March 24, the Birmingham Museum of Art is bringing together over 60 of Coe’s images of the city for the first time.
According to Bhamwiki, “The Great Depression hit Birmingham especially hard as sources of capital that were fueling the city’s growth rapidly dried up at the same time that farm laborers, driven off the land, made their way to the city in search of work. New Deal programs made important contributions to the city’s infrastructure and artistic legacy…”
Richard Coe arrived in Birmingham in 1934. While living in the city, he created a realistic accounting of the impact and achievement of the city’s iron and steel industry as it was suffering under the effects of the Great Depression. He produced hundreds of highly-detailed etchings depicting everyday life in and around the Magic City, from downtown’s impressive skyscrapers to the humble shanties housing Birmingham’s poor.
“The 1930s were a fascinating period in Birmingham’s history. The city was in the throes of the Great Depression along with the rest of the country, and yet Birmingham was simultaneously an economic and artistic center in the Southeast,” says The William Cary Hulsey of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Katelyn D. Crawford.
Coe is best known locally for the mural he painted with artist Sidney Van Sheck in the auditorium of Woodlawn High School entitled Youth’s Strife in the Approach to Life’s Problems .
Crawford, who oversees the Museum’s permanent collection of American art, which currently exceeds 3,000 works, added, “Coe’s Birmingham etchings prominently feature the complex technology and human labor that allowed Birmingham to emerge like magic in the late nineteenth century and become the economic engine of the South in the early twentieth century.”
The works in Magic City Realism were drawn largely from the collection of John Peter Crook McCall and Doy Leale McCall, III. The McCall brothers have generously gifted the majority of the etchings in this exhibition to the Birmingham Museum of Art, significantly strengthening its holdings of Alabama art and establishing the leading institutional collection of Coe’s work.