The Georgia Museum of Art, on the campus of the University of Georgia, in Athens, is both an academic museum and, since 1982, the official art museum of the state of Georgia. The permanent collection consists of American paintings, primarily 19th- and 20th-century; American, European and Asian works on paper; the Samuel H. Kress Study Collection of Italian Renaissance paintings; and growing collections of southern decorative arts and Asian art.
From the time it was opened to the public in 1948 in the basement of an old library on the university’s historic North Campus, the museum has grown consistently both in the size of its collection and in the size of its facilities. Today the museum occupies a contemporary building in the Performing and Visual Arts Complex on the university’s burgeoning east campus. There, 79,000 square feet house more than 8,000 objects in the museum’s permanent collection—a dramatic leap from the core of 100 paintings donated by the museum’s founder, Alfred Heber Holbrook.
Much of the museum’s collection of American paintings was donated by Holbrook in memory of his first wife, Eva Underhill Holbrook. Included in this collection are works by such luminaries as Frank Weston Benson, William Merritt Chase, Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, Jacob Lawrence and Theodore Robinson. Over the years it has been impossible to separate the history of the museum from the story of Holbrook’s generosity.
Holbrook retired from an active New York law practice at the age of 70. He began a personal quest to learn about the world of art, an interest piqued by his passion for visiting museums. In his retirement he was determined to study art in a gentle southern climate. A trip to Athens in the mid-1940s led to his introduction to Lamar Dodd, head of the university’s art department. Instantly, the two began a friendship, sharing a joint vision of enriching the visual arts environment in Georgia. Holbrook, clad in a knee-length pink artist’s smock with pipe in hand, attended art classes at the university. The Georgia Museum of Art was founded in 1945, and Holbrook became its first director and one of the university’s and the state’s most beloved citizens. Holbrook continued to serve as the museum’s director past his 90th birthday.
Under the leadership of succeeding directors, numerous museum exhibitions have traveled to national and international venues. When “Adriaen van Ostade: Etchings of Peasant Life in Holland’s Golden Age” was exhibited at the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam, the catalogue quickly sold out, becoming a text for the study of 17th-century Dutch printmaking in classrooms across the United States. This exhibition also reflected the importance of prints and drawings in the programming of the museum, which houses one of the finest collections of works on paper in the Southeast. The collection includes Old Master prints, Parisian prints of the 1890s and American prints and drawings of the early 20th century. Exhibitions from international museums such as the National Gallery of Scotland, the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, the Rembrandt House and the San Carlos National Museum in Mexico City have all been displayed in the galleries of the museum over the past decade. The museum also offers traveling exhibitions formed from its permanent collection to other museums and art institutes around Georgia and the Southeast. Since the early 1970s the Friends of the Georgia Museum of Art, a support group of more than 1,200 members, have hosted fundraisers and openings for exhibitions and have sponsored exhibitions and educational programs at the museum.
In April 1996, thanks to the efforts of the University of Georgia’s administration, the Office of Development, the Friends, supporters, patrons, and staff, the Georgia Museum of Art opened a new building on the East Campus of the university as part of the Performing and Visual Arts Complex, which also includes the School of Music, the Performing Arts Center, and, now, the Lamar Dodd School of Art. The opening weekend’s events included a lecture by Time magazine art critic and author Robert Hughes and a recital by internationally acclaimed soprano and Georgia native Jessye Norman. The museum also held special exhibitions that year to correspond with the Olympic Games, which took place in Atlanta with a few events held in Athens, such as soccer in Sanford Stadium.
The new building opened in 1996 allowed for larger and more ambitious exhibitions and a new emphasis on professional practices, trends that will continue to hold true in 2011 and beyond. Current director Eiland has taken a leadership role in organizations such as the Association of Art Museum Directors, the American Association of Museums, the Southeastern Museums Conference and the Georgia Association of Museums and Galleries. The museum has become a leader, in particular, among university museums, and its educational programs have been the most tangible example of the balance it strives to achieve among state, local and university audiences as it seeks to fulfill its trifold mission of teaching, research and service. The many grants it has received from agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as such organizations as the Henry Luce Foundation and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, have helped it do so.
Scholarship, in particular, flourished with the museum’s European initiative and Henry D. Green Center for the Study of the Decorative Arts, both of which led to biennial symposia that resulted in published volumes of papers. The former also resulted, most recently, in the publication of the “Corpus of Early Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections: The South,” a project of nearly 20 years that will be an invaluable reference work for the current generation of scholars. The Green Center’s emphasis on American decorative arts, specifically those made in or of significance to Georgia, has dovetailed with the goals of the department of American art, something the new galleries make clear. Just as connoisseurs initially favored European paintings over works of art by Americans, so, too, did they prefer European decorative arts to native ones. The collecting and scholarship history of the Georgia Museum of Art show a series of efforts to correct these prejudices. The Green Center also includes the Green Library, which greatly expanded the museum’s library of art books and has served as a model for the archival aspects of the other centers. The Pierre Daura Center was established at the museum in 2002 with a gift from Martha Randolph Daura in honor of her father and joined the Green Center and the Jacob Burns Foundation Center, bringing its own extensive archives of Pierre Daura’s papers. These three centers, plus the newly founded C.L. Morehead Jr. Center for the Study of American Art, make up four study centers that are a focus of the expanded and renovated building, facilitating research in the humanities and access to the museum’s curators.
In 2011, the museum occupies an expanded contemporary building, with additions and renovations designed by Gluckman Mayner Architects, in the Performing and Visual Arts Complex on the university’s burgeoning East Campus. New galleries display the permanent collection, and visitors enjoy an outdoor sculpture garden and expanded lobby.
The museum continues to balance its dual designation as an academic museum with its role as the official state art museum of Georgia. Its schedule is a reflection of the academic study of the history of art and a broader array of popular exhibitions that appeal to all audiences. From the time Alfred Holbrook first loaded works from his art collection in the trunk of his car to share with Georgia’s schoolchildren until today, when the museum staff crisscrosses the state of Georgia to present a variety of educational programs, the Georgia Museum of Art has made the state a richer and more culturally viable place to live.