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Huntington Museum of Art celebrates 60th anniversary

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By JAMES E. CASTO

For The State Journal

The Huntington Museum of Art is 60 years old, and it's marking its anniversary in a big way with a year-long exhibit that chronicles the museum's founding and celebrates the generosity of one of its founders, the late Herbert Fitzpatrick.

The exhibit, "Mr. Fitz," opened in October and continues through Feb. 3. It then will come down for a brief break, so the display space can be used for the museum ball, an annual fund-raising event. The exhibit then will be on view again from Feb. 23 through Oct. 20.

Fitzpatrick, a lawyer and railroad executive known to his friends as "Mr. Fitz," was one of the visionaries who in the late 1940s began discussing the idea of a cultural center or museum in Huntington. He then jumpstarted the project by contributing his own personal art collection and 52 acres of land for a site to erect an art gallery, as well as provide for an arboretum, bird sanctuary and nature trails.

A lifelong bachelor, Fitzpatrick was an avid collector and his tastes in art were wide-ranging, from British silver from the Georgian period, Near Eastern prayer rugs, fine European and American paintings, sculpture, drawings and prints, and Asian decorative arts. The current exhibit features dozens of pieces from the more than 425 works that Fitzpatrick donated to the fledgling museum. 

The Huntington Galleries (now known as the Huntington Museum of Art) opened on Nov. 9, 1952.

Discussing the exhibit, Museum Executive Director Margaret Mary Layne said Fitzpatrick "wanted to be sure that the community truly wanted and would support an institution such as the museum. So, he challenged the community to raise the funds to construct the facility as a prerequisite to his gifts."

"The direction of his thinking has colored the entire life of the museum," Layne said. "Through this challenge, the community and all the people in it became the owners of the museum and throughout the years have continued to make it their own by supporting it through thick and thin. Through this early challenge, the museum democratized art and the access to it."

The Huntington museum is the oldest art museum in West Virginia and by far the largest. It has 17,000 square feet of display space and a collection of more than 10,000 objects. 

A Virginia native, Fitzpatrick (1872-1962) joined the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, which is now CSX Corp., in 1895 as local counsel in Huntington. In 1923, he was made vice president and general counsel. He was the C&O's board chairman from 1937 to 1940. At the time of his death, he was a C&O director and a member of the railroad's executive committee.

Fitzpatrick's career with the C&O lasted for 37 years. As his responsibilities with the railroad grew, Fitzpatrick moved his offices to Richmond, Va., and eventually to Cleveland, Ohio, but he always maintained his home in Huntington on Whitaker Hill and returned there on weekends. 

For the past two years the museum's archivist/librarian Chris Hatten has been researching Fitzpatrick and the early years of the Museum. Photographs, videos and ephemera from the museum's archives and new material collected during his research are on view in a portion of the gallery. Hatten has written a limited edition book about Fitzpatrick and the founding of the museum which will accompany this exhibit at a later date.

The presenting sponsor of "Mr. Fitz" is the Huntington Federal Savings Bank. Other sponsors include the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, and the National Endowment for the Arts, with approval from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts.

For information about the Huntington Museum of Art, visit www.hmoa.org or call 304-529-2701.