ALBANY — Since the storms of January 2017, the Albany Museum of Art has been actively working to move into downtown Albany.
“The museum was not looking to move downtown until the storm hit,” said R. Ripley Bell Jr., who ends his second year as president of the AMA Board of Trustees on Sunday. “The process has been going on for two years, and we’ve had another storm (Hurricane Michael in October 2018) hit in the meantime.”
Progress was stalled at the end of 2018 due to “environmental issues” with the old Belk Building located on North Washington Street that halted negotiations between museum and city officials and the owner of the building, businessman Bob Brooks.
But now, after 2 1/2 years, the museum can now begin the process of relocating downtown in the former Belk Building after it was announced on Thursday night that the Brooks family has agreed to donate the property.
“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster,” said City Manager Sharon Subadan. “We’ve worked hard on the project, and I’m grateful for us to be at this point, which allows us to take the next step.”
The new building will have more than double the space — 53,000 square feet — compared to the 25,000 square feet of the current building.
“While (the current museum structure) is a fabulous building,” said outgoing AMA Executive Director Paula Williams, “and I started working here when this museum was a baby really, we’ve really outgrown it, which is a good thing. That building has twice the space as this. We can have more classrooms. We can have more storage space. There will be more space where we can do more programming, more exhibition space, so the potential for us being downtown is really going to be fabulous.”
Williams also said that she thinks the move downtown will allow for collaboration opportunities with other attractions like Thronateeska Heritage Center, the Flint RiverQuarium and the Albany Civil Rights Institute.
“All of the other attractions are downtown, and with all of us downtown there are so many opportunities for us to collaborate,” Williams said. “Kids can come in and visit downtown and see all of the attractions. It’s so much easier for the school system. It’s so much easier for the kids, but you’ll see that you’ll have more people coming in from around the region, not just Dougherty County. They’re going to come from all over because there’s going to be so much downtown. And we just want to be a part of that.
“There is a lot of foot traffic down there now. We really don’t get any food traffic down here on Meadowlark Drive. This is a destination. You’re not coming here unless you’re coming to the museum, but there are so many hundreds of thousands of people that come downtown every year with the CVB and the Chamber of Commerce that never go out to Gillionville Road to see the museum. We will be able to be a cultural hub downtown, and I’m really excited about that.”
Subadan said the move will be a big step for downtown redevelopment as well.
“As you know, we are actively working to redevelop downtown Albany, and arts and culture are a big part of us as a community in Albany,” the city manager said. “It’s everybody’s museum, and having it downtown as part of our renaissance, as part of our revitalization efforts, is really a great joy for us.
“We are, as you know, actively pursuing different opportunities for downtown, and with Pretoria (Fields Brewery) and The Flint and The Flats and other smaller ventures that are doing well downtown, this is going to be a really nice anchor. It takes the place of a building that has been boarded up for many many years and is on a key corner. Having that beautiful new space on that key corner will draw people, draw traffic, and one of the things about a successful downtown is people, foot traffic. Well, people draw people.”
The move will also allow the AMA to bring back its permanent collection, all of which was salvaged by AMA staff, trustees, volunteers and conservators after the storm damage to the building and has been stored at safe, off-site locations since the storm.
The renovation project is expected to cost $10 million, and closing on the downtown property is expected to be completed by Wednesday.
The former dance studio adjacent to the old Belk building will be torn down and replaced with an outdoor sculpture garden in addition to the 53,000 square feet the Belk building will provide the museum.
With the announcement of the move on Thursday night, the Board of Trustees also announced a special tribute to Williams, who will retire on Sunday.
Board of Trustees member Leslie Abrams Gardner announced on Thursday night that the museum will commission a sculpture for the sculpture garden and the plaque will read, “In honor of Paula Bacon Williams, strengthening our community through the art of giving.”
“I’m excited about the sculpture garden, but to be honored like that is very humbling,” Williams said of the planned tribute.
While a timeline for the move has not been established yet, Bell said museum officials hope to have the first phase, demolishing the former dance studio, done by the end of summer.