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  • Tara Crutchfield

Polk Museum of Art $8M Expansion

Approximately 140,000 visitors meander the galleries at Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College annually. Boasting more than 3,000 works of art in their permanent collection – including works by Rembrandt, Andy Warhol, Faith Ringgold, Pablo Picasso, Miriam Schapiro, James Rosenquist, Barbara Kruger, Chagall, Damien Hirst, Hung Liu, and others – the Smithsonian affiliated institution is bursting at the seams.

The Museum was founded in 1966 by the Junior Welfare League of Lakeland as The Youth Museum of Imperial Polk County. In 1983, it received national accreditation as an art museum and adopted the name “Polk Museum of Art.” The current building, designed by Ernie Straughn, was formally dedicated in September 1988. It was designed to house 500 objects in its collection.

In February 2022, the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College announced plans for a then-$6M, 10,000-square-foot expansion and renovation project. The project has since grown to $8M and will encompass 14,000 square feet of gallery, classroom, and art laboratory space in addition to the current 38,000-squarefoot building. The two-story addition will be located on the northwest side of the present building.

Executive Director and Chief Curator for Polk Museum of Art, Dr. Alexander Rich, noted the expansion was a 30-year dream for the institution. The current facility offers approximately 18,000 square feet of exhibitable gallery space. “There’s always been a great desire to add to this building,” said the executive director. “With the affiliation with Florida Southern College in 2017, our aspirations grew, and as it became an academic museum and a community museum, we were trying to bring bigger exhibitions and drive larger audiences through,” said Dr. Rich.

“We are elated to build upon the legacy of this impressive museum of fine arts, and through the affiliation of FSC and the Museum, now pursue an expanded agenda to offer exhibitions of our treasured permanent collection and welcome an increasing number of visiting exhibitions from the great museums of the world,” said Dr. Anne B. Kerr, president of Florida Southern College and member of the PMA Board of Directors. They broke ground on the 14,000-square-foot expansion in May 2023 and are projected to open in Fall 2024.

Gallery space will be principally added, with each space convertible into lecture, education, and multipurpose use. The expansion will triple the Museum’s current major exhibition space, “enabling the Museum to display more of its permanent collection and to expand its collections storage.” “A lot of the dream was how we could imagine what a museum of the 21st century truly looks like,” said Dr. Rich. “That becomes an interesting futuristic addition to the 1988 building.” Funding for the project comes from private donations as well as city and county support. Dr. Rich notes they hope to receive state support in the future.

“I’m excited about the idea that we are going to live up to our expectations and far exceed them in people’s minds. To give people who come to the museum an opportunity to spend a half-day here or more and have so much to look at and learn, and to appreciate all the hard work our team puts into creating exceptional experiences that are both fun and enormously educational.”

“It’s a dream to add to the collection. Because our space is so limited, we’ve been very purposeful with any additions to the collection,” said Dr. Rich. Though they accept gifts to the Museum as often as possible, they have not acquired many works because of the scant space.

Museum patrons can expect more numerous and extensive exhibitions in the new space. PMA’s current show, “Rockwell / Wyeth: Icons of Americana” (Jan. 27, 2024 - May 26, 2024), is the Museum’s most expansive exhibition to date, with 366 objects taking up all of the main gallery space on the first floor. Dr. Rich says there are more exhibits of this caliber to come. There will also be more opportunities for experimental exhibitions, exhibitions for new media, for students at Florida Southern College and surrounding schools, and educational programming.

The latter is especially important to Dr. Rich, Chair of the Department of Art History Museum Studies at Florida Southern College, housed at the Museum. “I’m excited for the opportunities we have to grow the next generation of museum and nonprofit professionals,” he said. “We see the expansion as a hub for community and professionals working in the arts and nonprofit fields, and pre-professionals [...] to give them resources to succeed and also help support this world as we move into future generations.” They are looking to add an undergraduate and master’s program in Museum Studies as well.

The expanded space will also include “new, innovative, multi-use gallery, education, and archival spaces in which to study, learn from, and appreciate art across time and cultures, special events spaces, classrooms, and additional storage and restoration areas.” Dr. Rich notes that he loves the narrative the museum as a whole will share. Guests will enter through the current entrance of the 1988 building and step into the future – the expanded gallery space.

“We are a free-admission museum and intend to remain a freeadmission museum. To be able to offer a museum like the one we have at the moment and to offer an expanded museum in the coming months is extraordinary and unusual for a community like ours,” said Dr. Rich. “I always hope that people come through the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College and are surprised to find a museum of this caliber here in Lakeland, in Polk County, or Central Florida, for that matter.”

The project also includes renovations to the existing 1988 structure, including to the current entrance, new flooring throughout the first level, and updated second-floor galleries, classrooms, and office spaces. “We want to be on the leading edge of what art museums should be,” said Dr. Rich.

The opening of the new expansion is sure to draw fanfare. Though the Museum is keeping exact details close to the vest, Dr. Rich divulges that there will be several launch exhibitions—a large one in the 1988 building, another anchor exhibit in the expanded space, and several other shows from their permanent collection. Consider becoming a member to support the Polk Museum of Art and keep admission free. By joining the Museum, you’re supporting arts education, exhibitions, educational programming, and operations, and investing in the arts in your community, according to the Museum’s membership page. Additionally, you’ll gain access to a myriad of perks and reciprocal benefits, including free afterschool art programming for young artists, free admission to Bok Tower Gardens, the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa during February and July, and more. To become a PMA member, visit their website, listed below.

Polk Museum of Art 800 E Palmetto St, Lakeland (863) 688-7743

FB: Polk Museum of Art

IG @polkmusuemofart

Photograph by Amy Sexson, Renderings Provided


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