Florida's First Highwaymen Exhibition

Gadsden Arts Sets Records
By Ashton Langrick
October 2017

The Florida's First Highwaymen exhibition proved to be one of the most impactful and far reaching exhibitions hosted by Gadsden Arts Center & Museum. The exhibition set attendance records, attracting visitors from across Florida and neighboring states, and some even flew in to see the show. One couple wrote in the gallery comment book, “We flew in from Connecticut just to see this show and we weren't disappointed! Bravo!” Another couple came from Boston.

Florida State University Schools brought second through fifth graders to experience the exhibition. FSU teacher Ms. Learner wrote to Gadsden Arts staff, "Thank you so much for providing a wonderful learning opportunity for my students. I debriefed with the primary students this morning, and the integrated, cross curricular concepts that we discussed were amazing."

Some visitors expressed that they had heard of the Highwaymen but had never seen their art or knew what it was about until this exhibition. One visitor comment: "Wow! These paintings just take my breath away. I've heard of the Highwaymen, but I've never seen any of their paintings until today. They're incredible, full of life and vigor. Absolutely amazing!"

During the 10-week run of show, 12 adult groups and 9 student groups enjoyed interactive guided tours of the exhibition, 1,700 visitors enjoyed the exhibition on their own, 670 visitors attended one of the four lectures about the early Highwaymen, and 1,010+ online visitors enjoyed the online Highwaymen Stories blog, video tour, and downloadable exhibition catalog.

The Florida's First Highwaymen exhibition told the story of a group of African American artists in Fort Pierce, Florida who, aided by the friendship and guidance of premier landscape painter A.E. Backus, developed successful careers as Florida landscape painters. Their story unfolded in the Jim Crow era in the South, a time in history when African American artists could not exhibit and sell work through galleries or museums. This group was later dubbed the “Highwaymen” by a collector, since these artists sold their paintings along Florida's roadsides and by going door-to-door to businesses. The exhibition shared this inspiring story of triumph over adversity, celebrating remarkable humanitarianism, and the progress our society has made in celebrating diversity in artists working today.

Gadsden Arts staff and volunteers heard from visitors many stories of personal encounters with Backus and the early Highwaymen from visitors, from how private collectors acquired their Highwaymen artworks, many through family members who worked on the east coast of Florida and bought work directly from these artists, to the story of one gentleman, now in his 80's, who took painting lessons with Backus on Saturday mornings when he was only 7 or 8 years old. 

Some visitors even created artwork during or following their visit that was inspired by the paintings in the exhibition. We were delighted to see such a strong demonstration of community throughout the exhibition, with visitors excitedly sharing their stories with one another. 
Gadsden Arts is grateful to the Backus Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida and private collectors Peggy Brady, Annette Cowart, Regina Davis, Zoe Golloway, Hal and Julie Lewis, Sheree and David Porter, and Elaine and Bob Woodward, who lent the works of art painted by A.E. Backus and the Highwaymen during the 1950's and 1960's to make this exhibition possible.

The museum also thanks exhibition sponsors Centennial Bank, Lifesong, Tallahassee Community College, Tallahassee Magazine, the Gadsden County Times, McMillan Design, Damfino's Café and Market, Sandy Higdon, and Dean Mitchell; museums members and donors; and funders including Gadsden County, City of Quincy, Gadsden Tourist Development Council, and  the State of Florida Division of Cultural Affairs for making this exhibition and the larger programs of Gadsden Arts possible.

The Gadsden Arts Center & Museum is located at 13 N. Madison Street, on the historic Courthouse Square in Quincy, Florida, just 25 minutes from downtown Tallahassee. Suggested exhibition admission is $5 (museum members and children admitted free), with guided tours available for any group with a reservation by calling (850) 627-5023. Information can be found at www.gadsdenarts.org