In 1966, The Junior Welfare League of Lakeland founded The Youth Museum of Imperial Polk County, an all-volunteer not-for-profit institution. Housed in a small building near the current location, it was the first version of what is now Lakeland’s Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College.
Since that time 56 years ago, the museum added extensively to its collections, saw tremendous growth in numbers of visitors and in 1988, the current PMA was built and opened and now has about 148,000 guests come through its doors annually.
But as Florida, specifically Central Florida, Polk County and Lakeland continue to add residents and visitors, the need to expand the local museum to accommodate art lovers and art-curious is inevitable.
In February, the PMA administration announced plans for a $6 million expansion and renovation of the art museum. Those plans include adding more than 10,000 square feet of gallery, classroom and art laboratory space and more than tripling the museum’s main gallery space.
Construction on the new addition is expected to begin in late 2022, with a projected completion in the spring of 2024.
Alexander Rich, Polk Museum of Art executive director and chief curator, says the upcoming construction work will be the first major expansion to the current approximately 30,000-plus-square-feet building since it opened in 1988. He says smaller expansion projects have already occurred, including building the museum’s outdoor Living Wall in February 2020 and renovating Galleries 1 and 2 starting February 2021.
Rich, in his fifth year at the museum, says the augmentation -- particularly of the galleries -- opens up more room for some of the PMA’s approximately 2,800 pieces in its permanent collections. The two-story addition will be on the northwest side of the present building and will update the building’s façade as well as add more than 10,000 square feet to the building.
Among the additions the expansion will bring are new multi-functional exhibition and educational spaces and galleries to feature artwork from the museum’s international permanent collection.
Speaking in the museum’s lobby, Rich says he and his staff have been looking to highlight more contemporary art and photography works and the additional gallery space will permit that. The expansion will give the gallery more space for future exhibits, along with multi-use classroom events and learning spaces in the current PMA, which he says is “feeling its age” after 34 years. There will also be additional collection storage space available as result of the expansion and renovations.
“It’s built for a different era and different sized collections. The expansion allows us to build upon the history of the museum as a key cultural institution in our region and helps us better meet our aspirations to become an academic museum,” says Rich, who holds masters and doctorate degrees in art history from The Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.
Rich says plans call for renovation of the museum’s entrance, replacing first-floor flooring and updating and upgrading second floor galleries, classrooms and offices. Those changes will allow the museum staff to expand collections storage space and add study, archive and classroom areas.
The Polk Museum of Art at Florida South College entered into affiliation agreement with the private college in 2017. Anne Kerr, president of Florida Southern College, states the expansions and modifications being done at the PMA will hopefully draw more visitors and visiting exhibitions from around the world.
Kerr, a member of the museum's board of directors, says she and the staff also want to build on being a Smithsonian Affiliate Museum through the museum’s growth.
“This expansion will also enable additional exhibits from the Smithsonian to be shared with our community and students,” she says in a written statement. “This expansion of the museum will result in a dynamic arts venue that will greatly enrich the cultural offerings in our community.”
The structural changes also will help propel the Polk Museum of Art toward becoming known as one of the United States’ leading academic fine arts museums and centers for scholarly study of the arts and visual culture, adds Rich. Those should occur by providing more hands-on experiences for students, interns, volunteers and those in pre-professional development programs.
“The expansion allows us to build upon the history of the museum as a key cultural institution in our region and to better meet our aspirations to become an academic community museum,” he says. “We want to create and exceptional museum experience for everyone from local art lovers, to regional visitors, to those who’ve become aware of our museum internationally.”
For information, call 863-688-7743 or visit the Polk Museum of Art online.