Terry Capps remembers the exact moment the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston photography curators showed her the new centerpiece of the Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts. They brought a package into a back room, put on white gloves and pulled out a photo—the first of dozens from gray boxes that crowded the room. It was Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother.
“I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I’m going to start hyperventilating,'”says Capps, a Pearl Fincher curator. “I’d never seen it without glass on it, and I remember thinking, 'For a small museum, this is big.'”
A three-gallery, one-story space, the Pearl Fincher is a county library-turned fine art museum in Spring. It runs without financial support from the exhibit’s lender, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and admission has been—and always will be—free for all, the museum says.
The iconic image is surrounded by 35 others in the museum’s summer exhibit, “Introducing America to Americans: Depression-Era Photographs from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.” The black and white photographs decorate four walls in the Rebecca Cole Gallery at the back of the museum. The exhibit is sectioned into four parts—each depicting one aspect of American farm life: community, entertainment, work and family.
The exhibit's title comes from Roy Stryker, the director of the Farm Security Administration’s photography project. He hired Lange and other artists—including Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and Russell Lee—to document the devastating poverty that swept across the country in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Many of these photographs were put into magazines such as Life to educate the American public about what was going on in their country. At the end of the project, Stryker’s team had 175,000 photographs.
To this day, Lange’s photo steals the spotlight as part of the family section of the exhibit. On either side of the image, more black and white images depict destitute children, parents and grandparents in tattered clothes to complete the scene.
Recently, only a few minutes after the Pearl Fincher opened its doors at 10 a.m., a band of children filed into the gallery to gather in front of a white wall. Above their heads hung one of the most famous photographs in American history. That encounter is part of the exhibits mission; most of the museum’s younger visitors come from the Spring, Klein and Magnolia school districts, and Migrant Mother is a physical connection to the nation's past.
“A lot of kids in the area don’t have access to fine art,” Capps says. “It’s an opportunity for 21st century children to learn about the Depression and our history.”
Thru Sept. 9. Free ($5 suggested). Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts. 6815 Cypresswood Dr. 281-376-6322. More info at pearlmfa.org.