The Wiregrass Museum of Art (WMA) was formed after a 1986 article in a national magazine pointed out Dothan’s lack of a museum. To address the issue, then-Mayor Larry Register asked Elaine Johnson, an arts-minded citizen, to explore the idea. Johnson, who had always dreamed of an art museum in the Wiregrass, worked alongside Sam Kates and Terry Slaughter to develop a plan for the founding of what would become the Wiregrass Museum of Art.
A committee of thirteen citizens was later appointed to study the feasibility of establishing a municipal museum. After a two year study, the committee recommended to the City Commission that a museum focusing on the visual arts be established. Twelve sites were evaluated for the prospective museum and the overwhelming choice was the historic Water and Electric Building located in downtown Dothan. This building was built in 1912-1913 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
An early photo of workers and machinery in Dothan’s historic Water and Electric Building, now WMA’s Main Gallery.
The City Commission converted the original committee to an official Museum Board and an appropriation of $50,000 was made to the Board to begin planning the new museum. In February 1988, the board hired Sam Kates as the project’s director. Twenty-one invitations were then mailed to local architectural firms to submit proposals for designing the museum. The local firm of Joseph L. Donofro and Associates was awarded the job. In 1988, schematic designs for a 30,000 square foot museum were unveiled with a projected cost of 2.8 million dollars to complete the project. The City Commission expressed concern over the amount needed to complete the museum in one phase. The Museum Board submitted a revised plan to the City Commission to divide the building program into four phases. The Commission agreed to accept this new plan.
Since 1988, the museum has completed three of the four phases of the original construction plan. All of the contributions for these three phases were raised by the museum board and employees with support from the private sector. The first three phases have created 18,000 square feet of gallery space, an exhibit preparation area, a vault, as well as a conference center.
The museum continues to offer educational programs, cutting edge exhibitions and community events throughout the year. WMA is continually changing and evolving, but the history of the museum would not be complete without including the dedication of a handful of believers who dreamed the impossible and saw their wishes for a new dynamic art museum become a reality for Dothan and the Wiregrass Region.