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Images courtesy High Museum of Art

High to unveil bold new concepts for museum’s collection

If a collection and the city it serves are dynamic, shouldn’t presentation of the art follow suit?

The High Museum’s new top-to-bottom reorganization, which debuts with a series of opening events this weekend, October 13–14, is an effort to recast the collection and improve visitors’ experience of it.

The High as we know it dates from the opening of the Wieland Pavilion and the Anne Cox Chambers Wing in 2005. Yet in that time, the museum has added more than 6,500 works to its collection. Since director Rand Suffolk’s arrival in 2015, efforts to attract and engage Atlanta’s diverse community have tripled the High’s non-white audience.

The new $6 million makeover is the product of a full-scale reassessment of the museum, from its architecture down to its labels. As curators worked on new ways to showcase the collection, the museum engaged Selldorf Architects to apply the same kind of thinking to the architecture and planning.

The big jigsaw

Selldorf Architects is known for its thoughtful reconfiguring of museums such as the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., and the Swiss Institute in New York. The firm’s innovative founder, Annabelle Selldorf, believes that museum architecture should be in service to art, but not subservient to it. As Selldorf explained in a phone interview from her New York office: “Sometimes it can lead. But it is ultimately a dialogue between the two.”

Annabelle Selldorf and her firm revised the layout of the High Museum. (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe/courtesy of Selldorf Architects)

From the beginning she was in sync with Suffolk’s charge to prioritize the visitor’s encounter with art and the museum. “I believe that architecture has a very important role in bringing people together and allowing experience to happen,” she said.

The firm’s brief encompassed revising the building’s layout and circulation and lighting plans, as well as designing new casework and a color palette. Preparing was an immersive experience. “We had to get to know the collection, study visitor patterns, think about how to present different disciplines and how the departments can inform one another,” she said.

The team made a careful analysis of what Selldorf came to see as a disjointed campus, three conjoined buildings designed by two different architects with very different attitudes toward the experience of art.

“The Meier building is too controlling,” she said of Richard Meier’s 1983 Stent Family Wing. “Art often fits into a composition. It’s the opposite of neutral. You are taken by the hand and walked through. It’s difficult to find your own path. The experience of art can never be separated from the experience of architecture.”

Renzo Piano’s two-building 2005 addition has a different feel entirely, she said. “Piano [created] more flexible, general spaces,” she said. “The circulation paths are perhaps freer. It was striking how they are almost theoretical spaces, and they don’t take into account how people circulate.”

A different route

The team tried to create a more rational organization across the campus. The Stent Wing saw the most alterations. Meier’s “rooms within rooms,” which previously disrupted flow, visually and physically, were removed. Emphasizing that she tried to be respectful of the original architecture, Selldorf explained, “We tried to have more clarity . . . to create a spatial sequence that is recognizable going from room to room.”

Planning took several years, and the reinstallation and construction work itself took about six months.

There are fewer obvious changes to the Piano galleries. “This was more about working with the specific collections, which made for slightly different circulation. We tried to encourage people to use staircases.”

The temporary exhibition spaces on the second floor of the Cox and Wieland buildings will now flow into each other, as do the modern and contemporary galleries on the Skyways of the two buildings.

All in all, Selldorf says she aimed for a circulation plan throughout the complex that was systematic and logical but not coercive. And maybe not above cagey: A space devoted to rotating exhibitions of works from the permanent collection in the Stent Wing is intended in part to lure visitors who typically only visit big-name temporary exhibitions in other parts of the museum.

Reframing the collection

Previously, the High Museum was organized in the conventional manner, by discipline and largely chronologically. It experimented briefly in the ‘90s with an interdisciplinary, thematic presentation. Both have their drawbacks, noted chief curator Kevin Tucker. 

The “march through time” is only successful in museums with encyclopedic collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The thematic organization subordinates the art to concepts.

Without abandoning either of those approaches, the High has taken a different tack with the reinstallation:

  • Celebrating core strengths. The curators in each of the seven disciplines have selected artworks that emphasize and celebrate their area’s key holdings. “Where we have areas of national leadership, such as or self-taught or decorative arts, we want to show it off,” said Tucker. “We want to be able to say, come see the great collection of [for example] Southern photography.”
  • Cross-disciplinary connections. This comes in several forms. One example is a gallery bringing together photographs and self-taught art that address issues of civil rights. Another is mingling contemporary art and design.
  • Representing the museum’s community. The curators took care to equitably include works by artists of color, women, Georgians and other southerners. In that same spirit, the museum will include artists’ pictures on all labels. That’s to serve viewers who find the artist an entry point into the art, said Tucker, but it is also a way to make the diversity of the collection more apparent.

“All visitors need to recognize themselves in our collection and have an appreciation of what we do,” said Tucker. “The onus is on us and all museums to make everyone feel welcome.”

Visitors’ first visit to the newly revamped High Museum may feel like a treasure hunt.

It’s safe to predict that a first tour of the permanent collection could become a treasure hunt. The curators have rescued objects long hidden in storage. Nearly 1,400 works will now be on view. Welcome back, southern decorative arts (hint: in the new temporary exhibition gallery in the Stent Wing). The new installation will introduce new acquisitions. Hello, The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin, a 60-foot-wide cut paper work by Kara Walker in the Wieland Pavilion.

Disciplines will have new homes: Photography and works on paper will occupy the lower level of the Wieland Pavilion, giving it five times the space it had before, and the African collections will move from the lower level to larger galleries on the top floor. The Greene Family Learning Gallery will be twice its size and totally revamped in collaboration with Roto design firm.

Says Suffolk, “We cannot wait for our audiences to experience the High in a whole new way.”