The Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando, Florida is a testament to the passion and perseverance of two local art collectors, Marilyn L. and Michael A. Mennello. Thanks to the indefatigable pursuit of this passionate couple, the Mennellos, and the vision of the Orlando city government, the entire Orlando community will continue to appreciate and enjoy the diverse and creative world of American art in the future.
As Marilyn Mennello described, it all began in 1969 with a friend’s visit from Los Angeles; she had heard of St. Augustine and wanted to make an excursion there. So off they went: two friends on a day trip to an interesting historic destination.
As Marilyn described the visit, they started walking down St. George Street in the old part of town to browse in the small shops. Soon, always in hopes of discovering hidden treasure, they opened the door to the Over-Fork Gallery. “A small, white-haired bespectacled man stood quietly in the corner.” As the two left the shop eager to continue sightseeing, they glanced into a grimy window, part of the shop’s extension, to see paintings galore, all signed “Earl Cunningham.” As the two started a conversation with the man who now told them he was, indeed, Mr. Cunningham and that he had more works, but they were not for sale. “The room was a gallery with his folk-art waterscapes hung floor to ceiling and painted in brilliant colors, of yellows, blues, and greens…He painted with a child-like freshness that simply fascinated us and made us want to possess every painting there,” remembered Marilyn.
The encounter seemed to animate Cunningham, and he began to tell his life story. Born in 1893, he left his home in Edgecomb, Maine at the age of 13. He bought paints in a dime store and painted on boards from boxes that had washed up from the sea. He sold his pictures and anything he could find from a suitcase strapped on his back. At the age of 19, he graduated from a school for automobile engineers in Portland, Maine. Later, he went to sea and sailed the east coast of the U.S., always holding in his imagination the ships, people and sunsets he had witnessed.
But the two women each wanted a painting. And, after much lively discussion, Cunningham agreed to sell two paintings for $500 cash each, believing the women did not have the cash and nothing would come of the deal. Marilyn, however, swore she would return the next week with the money, and so she did.
Afterwards, recognizing the beauty inherent in the vivid colors of Cunningham’s imagination of his folk-art works, Marilyn was determined to introduce them to the world. She soon acquainted the director of the Orlando Museum of Art to Cunningham’s paintings and helped to arrange a one-man show there in January 1970. When Marilyn married Michael Mennello, who collected Old Masters and fine furniture, the collectible acorn had already been planted.
After Cunningham passed away in 1977, the Mennellos found themselves on track to buy as many paintings as they were able to locate. Since Cunningham left no will, the paintings were widely distributed. But with a great sense of purpose and commitment like true artistic detectives, the couple tracked down estate lawyers and found works as far away as Washington and Connecticut. Their lives were filled with Cunningham. “We felt as if he were a member of our family,” Marilyn recounted.
Years later in 1998, she and her husband, both of whom have now passed away, founded the Mennello Museum of American Folk Art with former Orlando Mayor, Glenda E. Hood in Orlando’s Loch Haven Cultural Park. Owned and operated by the City of Orlando, this gem of a museum is housed in what was once the private home of Howard Phillips, son of local philanthropist Dr. Philip Phillips. Frank Holt, the former City Art Coordinator served as the museum’s first executive director. He also was responsible for acquiring and supporting visual arts and regional artists in the Central Florida community. Currently, the city’s collection contains more than 900 pieces, including paintings, sculptures, tapestries and mixed media, that are displayed within City Hall, public buildings and throughout the city’s parks and neighborhood centers.
Later, the museum expanded, changed its name to reflect a larger mission, and became a Smithsonian Museum Affiliate. It uses its multiple gallery space and four intimate rooms to showcase changing exhibitions featuring American art of all genres, including original and traveling installations, such as The Unbridled Paintings of Lawrence H. Lebduska; American Artists in the Southwest & American Paintings and Drawings from the Melanson Holt Collection and Style & Grace, Masterworks of American Art from the Collection of Michael A. and Marilyn L. Mennello. Including many fine examples of American Impressionism, Mid-century Modernism and Contemporary Art. However, Earl Cunningham’s works remain a primary focus.
The Marilyn L. Mennello Sculpture Garden is open to the public and displays its 350-year-plus sprawling live oak tree draped with Spanish moss called “The Mayor.” Numerous sculptures can be found in the surrounding Old Florida landscape along with walking paths, which merge into the larger Orlando Urban Trail with more than 4,000 acres of nature. Two large-scale twin works, Twin Vortexes and Waltzing Matilda by American sculptor Alice Aycock, were installed in 2016. The sculptures debuted on Park Avenue in New York City and are on long-term loan from the artist.
The museum enriches the public through art, exhibitions, education and events that celebrate the diversity of American art and the Central Florida community.
A folk festival takes place every year in February, except for 2021. Every second Sunday of the month is Free Family Funday. There is Yoga in the sculpture garden every Sunday morning hosted by the museum in collaboration with certified instructors from Full Circle Yoga in nearby Winter Park. Starting the week with a relaxing lakeside flow, suitable for beginner and moderate levels, is a healthy and fun way to spend a Sunday morning. The minimal fee is $10 for guests and $5 for members, including free entrance to the museum exhibitions.
In the early 2000s, Earl Cunningham paintings appeared in the “Art in Embassies’ Program” sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. In 2005, five paintings traveled to Yerevon, Armenia’s capital where they helped visitors appreciate the contributions of American artists. With each exhibition, there is extensive programming including all types of workshops for both children and adults.
In addition, Katherine Page, Curator of Art and Education helped the museum’s audience weather the pandemic with behind-the-scenes introductions to Orlando artists in a series of virtual studio visits in 2020 with support from Art Bridges, a foundation dedicated to expanding access to American art in all regions across the nation.
The exhibition, An Irresistible Urge to Create, the Monroe Family Collection of Florida Outsider Art is installed until October 16, 2022. Florida Photographer Gary Monroe has written numerous books, including the seminal work, The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters, which opened everyone’s eyes to the social history and works of these men.
He then spent more than decade in search of Florida’s self-taught artists. Against the odds, these artists obsessively worked and created and is a worthy parallel to Earl Cunningham’s works. “Their art is genuine, elemental and substantial,” writes Monroe, “They let it flow, viscerally and often profoundly deep from within their interior selves.”
Building a New Future
The Museum is now poised to begin a new life with an expansion project that will increase the number of programs and opportunities to better serve an increasing audience. More than just a building, the museum is a civic place for social interaction, bringing people closer to art, each other and to nature, providing an opportunity for new, immersive art experiences. The projected 40,000 square-foot expansion will be integrated around the current 12,000 square-foot museum building. The largest gift in the history of the museum, the American art collection from founder Michael A. Mennello, will anchor the new building extension. This expansion will increase the number and quality of programs, opportunities and amenities to better serve the growing audience. It will also create a cultural destination on beautiful Lake Formosa designed to preserve and reimagine the green space and intimacy of the original museum. Walking, bike paths and sculpture garden will expand a family-friendly environment. There will be defined spaces to accommodate conferences and programming, something that is not available in the original building.
Shannon Fitzgerald, Executive Director sums it up, “Our future plan is inclusive, welcoming, and sustainable. With the open expansion, we will serve more in our community with a mission-driven building designed to seamlessly merge art, education, nature, dwell, respite, function, and form. We started with visionary ideas on how to make the museum more cohesive and increase public access and with Brooks + Scapa and KMF Architects’ brilliant partnership, the visionary has been put into action—a very exciting moment for us all!”
Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D. is a visual culture specialist, travel writer and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art and postcard history.