Citizen of the Year: Arts

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Margaret Ausfeld

Margaret is the senior curator at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.

In the 1880’s the name Ausfeld might have been a little squirrly for Alabama, especially when you put Fredrick at the beginning. But when he designed the spectacular Sidney Lanier High School and the Bell Building downtown, that somehow made it all right. It becomes even more so when it turns out that his great, great granddaughter, Margaret Lynn Ausfeld, is the senior curator at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts where she has worked for 33 years.

At a young age she was taken by her grandmother to the Montgomery Museum housed in an old building in the center of town. There she saw things which set her imagination on fire: a horse-drawn carriage, a pioneer cabin, a paper mache replica of the Caves of Lascaux. She was captivated, and later began to volunteer at the museum, helping to catalogue books. At the University of Alabama during her classes she kept on volunteering at the museum, while reading voraciously in the library of Maxwell Field. She was hooked on working in a museum, but first had to switch off from her earlier dream of becoming a librarian. A friend delivered the coup de grace: ”You talk too much. That’s not a trait for a librarian.”

If museum work is appealing you might follow the classic road of courses in European history and culture, with American studies a close second. But another road, not often traveled, is to follow Ausfeld’s example and volunteer. Her experience turned out to be priceless training and made job hunting much easier.

It’s interesting to speculate on the influence that luck plays in our lives. Here in Montgomery in a second floor museum The Golden Arrow of Luck hit the front door. Not just one, but two stunning collections were turned over and were transformative throughout the whole organization. “In 1950,” Ausfeld says,“ the Weil Collection of European Drawings of the 1600 to 1900 centuries came. Priceless works attracting people from everywhere. And then the Blount Collection of American Art arrived, lifting us to a higher level in the art world. But even that wasn’t enough. Ida Bell Young’s financial bequest appeared, providing funds to our Acquisition Endowment which has allowed us to continue purchasing other works of art. And because the Montgomery Museum emphasizes educational instructions, we have used these resources to expand our programs with more workshops, exhibits, school tours and lectures. And to bring the artists themselves into our building to discuss their work. Working artists are invited to the museum, either in video or in person. Their physical presence makes all the difference in their impact on visitors.”

Ausfeld is approaching retirement. In response to questions about what she plans to do, she said, ”Let me tell you what I’d like my swan song to be.”

Taking a book from a shelf, she flipped it open to a double-page photograph of a man’s costume. The brilliantly colored slacks, embroidered in flaming colors from the waist down, competed with the matching jacket, a tiny touch of lace at collar and cuff. “This,” she said, “I want to mount an exhibit of the performance costumes of the leading Country Music singers of the deep South!”
A classically trained museum curator fiddling around with Dolly Parton? Please! “But think about it,” Ausfeld says. “Country Music was born here, and grew and developed in this part of our society, and now it’s worldwide. In the exhibit we would have hashtags with the clothes telling about the social conditions, the money problems, the background stories of the singers, the Dust Bowl, the Depression – these singers, working class all of them, wore costumes which were works of art. They’re too precious to be allowed to roam around the countryside unprotected. What a show it would be!”

When Ausfeld is presented with a moment of Let’s Play Make Believe and is asked to wave a Magic Wand and get anything she wanted for the museum, she has a ready answer. Room to exhibit more of their stored collections, more programs enticing all the citizens into the museum, but the most intriguing of all, a little bus which could zip around town and bring more people in to enjoy this extraordinary organization.

“Here, in our museum, we’re doing our best to offer various services to the community. Our latest efforts: providing a place of refuge and security for the community. Where, in silence if possible, for a little while they can be at peace here, to rebuild their spirit by escaping from the pressures of the woes of the world.”

 

 

 

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