The High Museum of Art , located in Atlanta, is the leading art museum in the Southeastern United States. Located on Peachtree Street in Midtown, the city’s arts district, the High is a division of the Woodruff Arts Center.
The High Museum of Art is the leading art museum in the southeastern United States. With more than 15,000 works of art in its permanent collection, the High has an extensive anthology of 19th- and 20th-century American art; a substantial collection of historic and contemporary decorative arts and design; significant holdings of European paintings; and burgeoning collections of modern and contemporary art, photography, folk and self-taught art, and African art. The High is also dedicated to supporting and collecting works by Southern artists.
The High Museum of Art’s permanent collection includes more than 15,000 artworks across seven collecting areas: African Art, American Art, decorative arts and design, European art, folk and self-taught art, modern and contemporary art, and photography. More than one-third of the High’s collection was acquired after the museum announced its plans for expansion in 1999.
The High is home to the most robust photography program in the southeastern United States. The Museum began acquiring photographs in the early 1970s, making it one of the earliest American art museums to commit to collecting the medium. Today, photography is the largest and fastest growing collection at the High. With more than 6,000 prints, holdings focus on American work of the 20th and 21st centuries, with special strength in modernist traditions, documentary and contemporary photography.
The Museum was founded in 1905 as the Atlanta Art Association. In 1926, the High family, for whom the museum is named, donated their family home on Peachtree Street to house the collection following a series of exhibitions involving the Grand Central Art Galleries organized by Atlanta collector J. J. Haverty. Many pieces from the Haverty collection are now on permanent display in the High. A separate building for the Museum was built adjacent to the family home in 1955.
On June 3, 1962, 106 Atlanta arts patrons died in an airplane crash at Orly Airport in Paris, France, while on a museum-sponsored trip. Including crew and other passengers, 130 people were killed in what was, at the time, the worst single plane aviation disaster in history. Members of Atlanta’s prominent families were lost including members of the Berry family who founded Berry College. During their visit to Paris, the Atlanta arts patrons had seen Whistler’s Mother at the Louvre. In the fall of 1962, the Louvre, as a gesture of good will to the people of Atlanta, sent Whistler’s Mother to Atlanta to be exhibited at the Atlanta Art Association museum on Peachtree Street.
To honor those killed in the 1962 crash, the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center was built for the High. The French government donated a Rodin sculpture The Shade to the High in memory of the victims of the crash.
In 1983, a 135,000-square-foot (12,500 m2) building designed by Richard Meier opened to house the High Museum of Art. Meier won the 1984 Pritzker Prize after completing the building. The Meier building was funded by a $7.9 million challenge grant from former Coca-Cola president Robert W. Woodruff matched by $20 million raised by the Museum. Meier’s highly sculptural building has been criticized as having more beauty than brains. For example, constructed with white concrete, the lobby, a giant atrium in the middle of the building’s cutaway cube, has almost no exhibition space, and columns throughout the interior restrict the way curators can display large works of modern art. Also with the atrium being just one of four quadrants, it’s viewed as a luxuriously structured, but vacant pathway leading to the other exhibits, which is quite a shame when considering how radiant and light-filled the room is. At 135,000 square feet (12,500 m2), the Meier building has room to display only about three percent of the museum’s permanent collection. Although the building officially contains 135,000 square feet, only about 52,000 square feet (4,800 m2) is gallery space.
The Meier building, now the Stent Family Wing, was termed Director Gudmund Vigtel’s “crowning achievement” by his successor Michael Shapiro. During Vigtel’s tenure 1963-1991, the size of the museum’s permanent collection tripled, endowment and trust funds of more than $15 million were established, the operating budget increased from $60,000 to $9 million and the staff expanded from four to 150.
In 2005, Renzo Piano designed three new buildings which more than doubled the Museum’s size to 312,000 square feet (29,000 m2), at a cost of $124 million. The Piano buildings were designed as part of an overall upgrade of the entire Woodruff Arts Center complex. All three new buildings erected as part of the expansion of the High are clad in panels of aluminum to align with Meier’s original choice of a white enamel façade. Piano’s design of the new Wieland Pavilion and Anne Cox Chambers Wing features a special roof system of 1,000 light scoops that capture northern light and filter it into the skyway galleries.
The High’s permanent collection—over 16,000 objects strong and growing—focuses on seven key collecting areas. Get to know the masterpieces that have made the High one of the country’s leading museums as well as the distinctive strengths that set us apart.
Photography is the primary visual language of our time. Not only is it a means of recording personal and collective histories, it is also a rich form of creative expression. The High Museum of Art began collecting photographs in the early 1970s, making it among the earliest museums to commit to the medium. Today, the High’s photography department is one of the nation’s leading programs and, with some 6,500 prints, comprises the Museum’s largest collection.
These holdings encompass work from around the world made by diverse practitioners, from artists, to entrepreneurs, to journalists, to scientists. Spanning the very beginnings of the medium in the 1840s to the present, the High’s collection has particular strengths in American modernist and documentary traditions from the mid-twentieth century as well as current contemporary trends.
The photography collection maintains a strong base of pictures related to the American South and situates this work within a global context that is both regionally relevant and internationally significant. The High owns one of the largest collections of photographs of the civil rights movement and some of the country’s strongest monographic collections of photographs by Eugene Atget, Wynn Bullock, Harry Callahan, William Christenberry, Walker Evans, Leonard Freed, Evelyn Hofer, Clarence John Laughlin, Abelardo Morell, and Peter Sekaer.
Decorative Arts and Design
A single object can crystallize a designer’s vision and express the spirit of the times. Design is an intrinsic part of the human experience and reflects values, ideals, and the realities of daily life. Ranging from ornate tea services to utilitarian wastebaskets, what we own, collect, and covet reflects how we identify ourselves and how we want to be perceived.
The High’s decorative arts and design collection explores the merging of function and aesthetics through form, material, process, place, and intent. It features the renowned Virginia Carroll Crawford Collection—the most comprehensive survey of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American decorative arts in the southeastern United States—with important works by Alexander Roux, Herter Brothers, Tiffany & Co., and Frank Lloyd Wright. Other notable gifts include the Frances and Emory Cocke Collection of English Ceramics from 1640 to 1840.
The collection’s international contemporary design holdings recently have expanded with the addition of significant works by Joris Laarman Lab, Jaime Hayon, Ron Arad, and nendo. With more than 2,300 objects dating from 1640 to the present, the collection explores the intersections between art, craft, and design; handcraft and technology; and innovation and making.
To reflect the continent’s deep, rich history while foregrounding recent innovations, the High’s African art collection includes a diversity of art forms from ancient through contemporary times. To represent the depth and breadth of the African diaspora, the High continues to strengthen its holdings of works by artists of African ancestry, including African American artists, to highlight cultural bonds throughout the Black Atlantic world and beyond.
The heart and soul of the High Museum of Art’s African art collection consists of extraordinary examples of masks and figurative sculptures, enriched by exceptionally fine textiles, beadwork, metalwork, and ceramics. Antiquities include an animated terracotta sculpture of a female torso wrapped in snakes (ca. 1200–1500). From the region of ancient Djenne, one of Africa’s oldest cities, this work represents Sogolon, mother of Sundiata, founder of the Mali Empire. Along with this work, a Qu’ran (ca. 1600) from Timbuktu, Djenne’s sister city, highlights art of the Mali Empire, one of the largest and most important kingdoms the world has ever known.
The High Museum of Art’s European art collection represents centuries of artistic achievement. In a time before mass media and widespread literacy, art served as a form of communication. The High’s collection of more than 900 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper spans the 1300s through the 1900s and traces the development of religion, scientific discovery, and social change as reflected in the continent’s visual culture.
In 1958, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation donated what became the core of the High’s European art collection. The Kress Collection includes Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child, Vittore Carpaccio’s Prudence and Temperance, and other artworks from Renaissance and Baroque Europe. Since 1960, the High has acquired Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works by Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Émile Bernard, and others.
The High’s significant European print holdings, displayed on a rotating basis, include work ranging from Albrecht Dürer’s sixteenth-century engravings to a complete edition of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Elles lithographs portfolio.
The High Museum’s historical American art collection includes over 1,200 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints made by American artists between 1780 and 1980. With particular strengths in historical American sculpture and painting, the collection demonstrates the evolution of a distinctly American point of view in artistic representation.
Over the course of the 1800s, America shed its colonial identity as a cultural outpost for its new international role as a cosmopolitan society with increasing global influence. From early American portraiture to the splendor of the Gilded Age, the High’s nineteenth-century collection includes works by John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, Eastman Johnson, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Frederick Kensett, John Henry Twachtman, Harriet Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Mary Cassatt, and John Singer Sargent.
In the twentieth century, American artists began to take a lead role in shaping modern expression. The High holds works by America’s most progressive artists of the modern age, from the Stieglitz Circle and abstract painters, to artists concerned with social justice and reform, to those rooted in the American art scene.
Modern and Contemporary Art
Modern and contemporary art at the High Museum traces the development of innovative visual languages since 1945 that have influenced how people perceive, understand, and interpret the world, its histories, and human experience.
Modern artists in the decades following World War II expanded on avant-garde forms in the first half of the century by exploring new perspectives and modes of expression. Toward the end of the century, contemporary artists rejected the singular point of view of a movement or style and began to treat art as a form of critical inquiry. Contemporary art has since assumed a multiplicity of forms to express varied experiences.
Modern and contemporary art at the High Museum provides a broad overview of the art of our time with outstanding examples of work by seminal artists, those just entering the canon, and emerging artists. The collection prominently features multiple works by artists such as Radcliffe Bailey, Alex Katz, and Ellsworth Kelly as well as a growing collection of significant individual works by artists including Michaël Borremans, Alfredo Jaar, Anish Kapoor, KAWS, Julie Mehretu, Judy Pfaff, Sarah Sze, and Kara Walker, with a special focus on work by African American artists.
Folk and Self-Taught Art
Not all great artists attended art schools. The artists featured in the High Museum’s folk and self-taught art collection instead were shaped primarily by lessons learned from family, community, work, and spiritual experiences. Some painted on canvas, while others depended on more readily available materials: stone from local quarries, decommissioned doors, scrapyard metal, and even bubble gum.
The High Museum began collecting the work of living self-taught artists in 1975 and was the first general interest museum to establish a dedicated department in 1994. This collection is especially rich in artworks by Southern and African American artists and features the largest groups of work by Bill Traylor, Howard Finster, and Nellie Mae Rowe held by any museum.
Although the majority of these artists could be identified as American or contemporary, we also call them “folk,” which underscores their status as artists of the people, or “self-taught,” to emphasize that they were not formally trained. However they are labeled, their legacy has greatly diversified and enriched the history of art, making it more inclusive of all people, regardless of race, educational background, region, or income level.
In collaboration with artists and designers, the High Museum has developed interactive and immersive installations for the campus’s central Sifly Piazza each summer since 2014. These installations, which are freely accessible to the public, aim to make the campus more open and welcoming to the community. To date, the piazza installations include Mi Casa, Your Casa (2014) and Los Trompos (2015), both designed by Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena, and Tiovivo (2016), and Merry Go Zoo designed by Jaime Hayon.
Major support from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation allowed for the kick-off of a major family-audiences initiative in collaboration with the entire Woodruff Arts Center beginning in 2015. The initiative comprises new programming, which includes free Second Sundays, Family Festivals, and the High’s series of exhibitions of original picture-book art. This project underscores the High’s commitment to arts education and allows the Museum to welcome thousands of family visitors to campus each year.