Step into a time machine and explore the Magic City during the Great Depression at the Birmingham Museum of Art

Sloss Birmingham
Richard B. Coe, American 1904–1978, Down Town Birmingham, about 1935, etching on paper; Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of John Peter Crook McCall and Doy Leale McCall, III AFI.144.2017. Image courtesy of the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Ever dreamed of stepping into a time-machine? That is the experience visitors will have when they explore the Birmingham Museum of Art’s newest exhibit “Magic City Realism: Richard Coe’s Birmingham.”

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.

Birmingham Art
Richard B. Coe, American 1904–1978, Sloss Furnaces, about 1935, etching on paper; Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of John Peter Crook McCall and Doy Leale McCall, III AFI.150.2017. Image courtesy of Birmingham Museum of Art.

“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.

Important Dates

Magic City Realism: Richard Coe’s Birmingham – March 24 to June 17, 2018

Gallery Talk: Magic City Realism – Sunday March 25, 2018, 3:00 to 4:00


Pat Byington
Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

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