LAKELAND — Cornelia “Nitzy” Waters remembers when it wasn’t much more than a small collection of science and nature items, including a moon rock, displayed on shelves and walls for children to see in an empty church on Walnut Street.

Sitting in the Polk Museum of Art recently, Waters spoke on how much the museum had changed 50 years after its founding from a simple, volunteer-run showplace for scientific artifacts and items for children to one housing artworks and collections from state, nationally and internationally-renowned artists.

The early roots of the Polk Museum of Art go back to 1962, when Waters, a member of the then Junior Welfare League, took a trip to Tallahassee and visited the Junior Museum there. Her late husband, Robert, suggested she try to interest Lakeland’s Junior Welfare League in starting a museum so she spent the next few years researching the founding of similar museums in other states.

The Junior Welfare League, now called the Junior League of Greater Lakeland, voted to adopt a children’s museum as a project. In 1966, the League put together a committee to find a building to open a facility and organized the all-volunteer Imperial Youth Museum, leasing an empty church on Walnut Street for $100 a month.

In 1968, the first professional director was employed, and in 1969, the museum was renamed Polk Public Museum to reflect an emphasis on art, history and science. A year later, the board of trustees purchased a vacant Publix Super Market building at 800 E. Palmetto St., increasing exhibition and classroom space.

The current facility, still at the Palmetto Street location, was designed by architect Ernie Straughn and formally dedicated in September 1988, opening debt-free, paid partly through a $1.7 million grant from the state Department of Education due to its relationship with the Harrison School for the Arts. It currently has 2,500 works of art in its collection, hosts the MidFlorida Mayfaire-by-the-Lake art festival and serves about 35,000 youths annually, according to statistics provided by the museum. In 1983, it was accredited by the American Association of Museums while under the direction of Ken Rollins.

Rollins served as the Polk museum’s director from 1982 to 1994. He said the museum staff’s desire to constantly bring in top-notch exhibits has made it one of the best museums in Florida.

“It’s a museum that really serves its community well and there is a strong commitment to support it,” said Rollins, now president of Rollins Fine Art, St. Petersburg. “It’s one of the most complete art museums in the state of Florida and I enjoyed my time there.”

The Polk Museum of Art’s focus is collecting and exhibiting contemporary art, Asian art, Pre-Columbian art, African art and decorative art. Among the exhibitions are works by local, nationally and internationally known artists such as Pablo Picasso, Albert Paley, Miriam Schapiro, Donald Sultan, James Rosenquist and others. The main galleries typically change every two or three months.

Waters, who moved to Lakeland in 1950 with Robert, said even five decades since its founding, she’s still amazed each time she steps into museum and its galleries.

“Every time I walk through the doors, I walk in with awe,” she said. “It’s so much more than I ever thought it would be. I thought we were just starting a little children’s museum, but it has become a fantastic addition to this town.”

The museum is celebrating its anniversary all year. It is now the largest and the only nationally accredited visual arts organization in Polk County and has been a Smithsonian Affiliate Museum since 2010.

As part of its Golden Anniversary celebrations, the staff has organized various events and programs, most notably an audio-visual recording program to preserve visitors’ memories of the museum.

In the museum lecture hall, long-time visitors and residents spoke about what they remembered about the museum’s early years.

Jane Bryant spent about 20 minutes in front of a camera, speaking to museum Technical Manager Gregory Mills about her recollections of the facility 40 years ago. She also was in the Junior League and on the museum board of directors when the first permanent exhibit – a pre-Columbian collection – was installed in 1979.

An artist and retired Lakeland interior designer, Bryant said she recalled the process of converting the focus of the museum from science and history to art.

“When we started as an arts museum, I remembered we had to get rid of all the science things, like snake skins, then bring in permanent collections,” she said. “It has become a first-class, fine arts museum now and the quality of the art is outstanding. I hope the museum continues building its exhibits but not just to show, but to teach the arts.”

Another woman instrumental in the museum’s past, present and future is Sarah McKay, a sustaining member of the Junior League who first volunteered to help expand the museum in 1970. She reflected back to the days of soliciting governmental help for simple maintenance amenities to keep the museum in order.

“We had to beg, borrow and ask for all kinds of things, like a vacuum cleaner,” she said. “It certainly has come a long way and we have a great future ahead of us. It’s really done so much for everyone.”

In addition to recording memories, the Polk Museum of Art held a 50-year celebration, “The Gala 2016,” in February.

Next is a Birthday Celebration at 50 on June 18, which is open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m.

It’s all part of the physical and cultural growth of Polk County, said McKay, who sees a promising future for the Polk Museum of Art as it continues to attract acclaimed artists and exhibits.

“I’m really quite proud of what we have accomplished. We were all very dedicated and passionate about getting this thing going,” she said. “It really does so much for everyone and it certainly has come a long way.”

By:  Paul Catala

The Ledger