DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – For centuries, painters sat on dewy tree logs in meadows and art studio stools across Florida creating what has become the collection of jewels on display for the first time at the new Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art.
The museum opened this month to the public and received rave reviews, smiles and the awestruck looks of people trying to take in the 400 works that show long-gone buildings and serene scenes of the Florida landscape capturing sunrises, birds in flight and blossoming wildflowers.
“It’s overwhelming,” Daytona resident Mae Frances Davis said as she stood in the middle of one of the museum’s seven galleries. “This is definitely something I want to do more than this one day. I want to come back and learn.”
The opening was the day Cici and Hyatt Brown had dreamed of for years. When the collection they started in the late 1990s mushroomed to the thousands, they decided they wanted to share with the public the works that cover a 200-year span of Florida dating back to the 1700s.
Working with local government leaders, they were able to put their new building on a wooded piece of land along Nova Road that the city donated. The Browns in turn donated $14 million for construction of the 50-foot-tall Florida Cracker-style structure that will be owned and run by the Museum of Arts & Sciences, and last week they announced they’ll give $2 for every $1 donated to create a $15 million operations endowment.
They also donated to the museum bearing their names more than 2,600 paintings worth tens of millions of dollars, keeping just 150 pieces in the full collection of 2,750. It will take 10 years to rotate through the full 2,600 – the most significant of which are celebrated with ornate gold frames – and put them on display.
Before the grand opening, the Browns held an invitation-only brunch at the museum and received a standing ovation from their guests, which included everyone from Daytona Mayor Derrick Henry to the project’s architects with Orlando firm RLF.
“We never imagined this would be possible when we bought our first painting,” Cici Brown told the brunch crowd as she stood at the podium placed in front of a 30-foot-wide panoramic of a Florida landscape that moves from morning mist on the left to sunset on the right.
Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who was among the brunch guests, said the museum is going to “enhance the cultural landscape” and impact both Daytona Beach and the state.
“By thoughtfully selecting these works, you have given new life to them,” Detzner said in his remarks to the group and Cici and Hyatt Brown, who is a former Florida Speaker of the House. “As Florida’s chief cultural officer, I could not be more proud.”
Volusia County Chair Jason Davis also thanked the Browns for all they’ve done.
“This is truly a rare collection of art like no other,” Davis said. “It’s an incredible gift to the citizens of Volusia County.”
In addition to the brunch group, hundreds of other invited guests were treated to sneak peeks of the artwork at three black tie dinners at the end of last week. Cici Brown, a longtime volunteer and board member with the Museum of Arts & Sciences, said the best part for her has been seeing how excited everyone’s been as they walk into the place she had a key role in creating.
“It’s been so much fun,” said Cici Brown, who’s had a hand in everything from selection of paintings that were purchased to design of the new museum to the flowers at the black tie galas.
Her excitement was shared by people who were about to see the paintings for the first time. Before the Browns snipped the red ribbon strewn across the front entryway, a few hundred people had already gathered in the sunshine of a picture-perfect Florida day.
“I think you’re going to be blown away by what you see in there,” Andrew Sandall, executive director of the Museum of Arts & Sciences, told the crowd.
Once inside to see the work of greats such as John James Audubon and Thomas Hart Benton, visitors were wowed.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Pat Madacsi of Daytona Beach as she wandered the 26,000-square-foot museum.
“I was told I’d be awestruck,” Henry said.
“Fascinating. Oh, my goodness,” said longtime Daytona Beach resident Mike Forest, as he stood in a room full of paintings. “Beautiful. I’m not an artist, but I know I like what I see.”
For Daytona Beach City Manager Jim Chisholm, who grew up in the countryside around the Kissimmee River valley in the 1950s, walking through the galleries was a journey back to his childhood.
“These bring back real memories about the Florida landscape,” he said. “Today it’s not what it was back then, but the museum brings it back to life.”
Chisholm said he plans to come back and spend more time just gazing at the hundreds of works, which show salt marshes, the Everglades and the Keys.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “It’s just amazing to see it all on the walls, and the stories about each individual painting is just as impressive. I think that’s the magic in the museum. Not only to have the original paintings, but to have the stories to go with them.”
Beside each work is a short history of the painter and the painting.
Hyatt Brown, chairman of the board for insurance brokerage Brown and Brown Inc., said he tries to imagine a 15-year-old girl walking through the new art museum in 100 years, and all that she would learn from the paintings.
With that teenage girl and her 2115 visit in mind, Brown raised his glass at the brunch and made a toast.
“To the future,” he said as everyone clinked their glasses and echoed back, “To the future.”
Information from: Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal, http://www.news-journalonline.com
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