Norton Museum of Art: from private art collection to world-renowned museum


The front entrance of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.


Considering its permanent collection of over 8,000 works of art, it is hard to believe that the Norton Museum of Art began with just one married couple of collectors.


After his semiretirement, Ralph Hubbard Norton and his wife, Elizabeth Calhoun Norton, had to decide what to do with their art collection — the bulk of which was American art from the first half of the 20th century. The couple commissioned Marion Sims Wyeth to design a museum in West Palm Beach, and it opened to the public a year after construction began.


Now the museum is home to thousands of art pieces in five departments: American, Chinese, contemporary, European and photography. Thanks to the Nortons’ personal collection and donations from other art collectors and institutions, the Norton has acquired many distinguished masterpieces.


At its beginning in the 1940s, the Norton was a free gallery “for the education and enjoyment of the public.” While this short slogan still applies, the museum is committed to a new “IDEA”: inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility. The museum is embracing art from around the world and expanding its size and productivity to make it more open to public events.


In the early 2010s, the museum began to adapt to current cultural needs and expectations — from renovations and expansion to providing opportunities for talented yet underprivileged artists.


Women’s art became a centerpiece of the Norton’s event planning early in the decade. The Norton launched an annual exhibition series in 2011, “Recognition of Art by Women.” The artists are primarily painters and sculptors, and each artist has a solo exhibition for a few months. The list of visiting artists includes Jenny Saville, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Phyllida Barlow, Krista Kristalova, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Svenja Deininger, Nina Chanel Abney and Maria Berrío.


Another major aim of the museum is to help visitors gain an appreciation for photography. A longtime supporter of the Norton, Beth Rudin DeWoody, created the Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers in 2012 to honor her late father, Lewis Rudin. This $20,000 prize is awarded to photographers who have yet to receive a solo museum exhibition. So far these international awards have gone to Analia Saban, Rami Mayom, Elizabeth Bick and Kristin-Lee Moolman.


By 2013, what was once a large gallery for art collected by its founders became an establishment for art, relaxation, education, shopping and dining. The Norton trustees enlisted Foster and Partners, a renowned British architectural firm, to redesign the building.

Visitors enjoying a docent led tour of the museum.


The renovations allowed the museum to designate space for additional galleries, classrooms and exhibitions. The Norton also added an auditorium to accommodate over 200 people, a store, a restaurant, a sculpture garden, an artist-in-residence program, a lawn for outdoor programs and the 43 ft-high Great Hall.


The extra space not only attracted more visitors, but also allowed people to plan weddings and formal celebrations on the Norton’s grounds.


Through all its changes, the Norton has remained a historical establishment to the community.


Every Friday, the Norton holds Art After Dark, where visitors can enjoy art over a classy cocktail. People come to enjoy live performances, film screenings, art workshops and, of course, drinks.


The Miami-based band, Clean Cut, is a crowd favorite at the Norton Museum.


On Friday, March 25, the Art After Dark theme will be “College Night”.


All individuals with a valid Student ID will receive free museum admission. Events include a docent-led tour, an open mic session, live music by Clean Cut, an open studio and a silent disco to end the evening.


For more information on the Norton Museum of Art, visit Norton.org or call (561) 832-5196.


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