BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – There are only two places to see a gallery of artwork depicting key events in the history of U.S. intelligence services: The headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency and an out-of-the way museum in Alabama.
Tucked away in a neighborhood near Birmingham's airport, the Southern Museum of Flight this month opened a gallery featuring 16 reproductions of original artwork donated to the CIA and displayed at its building in McLean, Va. Based upon once-secret events that have since been declassified, the artwork provides a rare glimpse into decades of U.S. spy work.
One print depicts a B-26 bomber flying over Cuba during the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, when Alabama National Guard pilots flew for the CIA in a bid to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. Another print shows World War II spy Virginia Hall tapping out code in occupied France, another a sunken Soviet submarine being lifted off the ocean floor during a secret 1974 operation.
The general public can't see the paintings at the spy agency — they are housed in a secure area frequented only by employees, official visitors and VIPs. But $7 will get anyone a ticket into the Alabama museum to view both the prints and historic aircraft such as an old Soviet helicopter, a World War II bomber pulled from a lake after crashing in South Carolina, and an A-12 Blackbird spy plane that once flew over Southeast Asia taking top-secret photographs.
"It's a one-of-a-kind deal," museum Director Jim Griffin said.
The exhibit, housed in a large room near old biplanes and aircraft engines, is titled "Shadow Gallery, The Art of Intelligence."
Artist Jeff Bass, who painted three commissioned works that hang in both the cloistered CIA museum and the Alabama display, said he's glad to have a new, less-exclusive audience for his art. He spoke at the opening of the Birmingham exhibit Nov. 15 and said he was impressed by the display.
"A print, as an artist, is never going to be fully representative of the original artwork," said Bass, of Pensacola, Fla. "But the prints are very high quality and representative of what you see at the agency. They tell a story."
CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz said the agency isn't aware of any collection similar to the one in Birmingham, although the CIA displays some items on its website and has loaned some historical objects to nonprofit museums.
The Southern Museum of Flight developed the exhibit through years of work after learning about the CIA gallery almost by chance.
The works displayed at CIA headquarters were funded by private contributions and donated to the CIA, said Erik Kirzinger, who played a key role in helping put the collection together. While artist Dru Blair was working on a piece for the CIA depicting a flight of the A-12 spy plane now in Birmingham, he contacted the museum seeking photos of the aircraft to ensure historical accuracy, Griffin said.
Museum staffers photographed the plane from multiple angles and sent the images to Blair, and Griffin came away with the idea of developing a "shadow" collection of artwork to mirror the paintings housed at the CIA.
"Some of the paintings include aircraft that we have here in the museum, like the A-12," Griffin said.
One artist led to another, Griffin said, and the museum eventually secured prints of 16 of the 18 works displayed at CIA headquarters. Some artists donated their works, Griffin said, and others provide the art at deeply discounted prices.
Installed as a permanent exhibit at the Birmingham museum, the prints are accompanied both by written explanations of the historic events they depict and stories of how the artists completed the artwork.
Bass said some of the works have been displayed outside CIA headquarters, including his painting of Hall sending secret messages in July 1944. The painting has been widely reproduced by publications, including Smithsonian Magazine.
But so many works from the CIA collection have never before been available to so many people outside the agency's walls, he said.
"It's certainly unique," Bass said.