A Toast to Southern Art
Louis L. Betts, The Yellow Parasol, c. 1925. Oil on canvas. 50x40 inches. Morris Museum of Art.
Some things just pair naturally with the word “Southern”: There’s the Southern drawl, Southern cooking and Southern hospitality; oh, and Southern belles, Southern Baptists, of course, and Southern music...
But until 20 years ago, no one would have thought to pair Southern with art. That began to change on September 24, 1992, when the Morris Museum of Art opened in Augusta. It was the first museum in the world dedicated to collecting and exhibiting the art of the American South.
“It was my dream and my wife Sissie’s dream,” says William S. Morris III. He and Sissie had collected art for years and they wanted to create a museum for Augusta, which had never had an art museum. But what kind of art should the museum feature? “I think every business, every institution and every museum needs to have a focus. And as we studied the matter and looked around, we discovered that no one was focusing on Southern art.”
The dream became reality when Dr. Robert Coggins, a retired cardiologist who trained at the Medical College of Georgia, was looking for a home for his private collection of Southern art. Morris purchased 250 paintings for the museum in 1989. Those 250 paintings by Southern artists became the foundation for the museum’s collection, lending it a unique purpose and direction. A few years later, the Coggins’s art trust contributed more than 900 additional works of art to the museum. “And so we had a great, great start,” Morris says. “Since then we’ve built on it. We were incredibly lucky to have Keith Claussen as our first director.”
Claussen was the right person to get the Morris launched. An Augusta native, she had been arts editor for The Augusta Chronicle for many years, and she knew the arts community in the CSRA intimately. She visited Dr. Coggins’s Marietta home. “It was stuffed with art. There were paintings stashed everywhere.” That art clearly needed a place to be displayed. And thus the purpose of the new museum suddenly came into focus.
Over the years, purchases and donations of other collections and individual pieces have increased the Morris’s holdings to almost 5,000 works of art. That makes its holdings the fourth largest museum in Georgia (after Atlanta’s High Museum, Savannah’s Telfair Museum/Jepson Center and Athens’s Georgia Museum of Art).
In the years of planning that led to the Morris’s opening, Claussen got together 80 people from the CSRA’s arts community to work on a cultural action plan then being designed for Augusta. She listened to the ideas of more than 300 people in focus groups. At the end of the process, the action plan consultants advised that the museum be located not in the old Forest Hills VA hospital as originally planned, but downtown as part of a cultural arts district.
Lamar Dodd, Bargain Basement, 1937. Oil on canvas. 46x55 inches. Morris Museum of Art.
So the Morris Museum opened in the Augusta Riverfront Center, occupying one-and-one-half floors of the office building. “We started with a staff of five,” Claussen remembers. “We did everything. It was sort of a mom-and-pop operation. After the first gala, we all put on sweats and swept the floor. It was that kind of thing. Now they have a highly professional staff. Back then we were just ‘highly professional’ at doing whatever needed to be done.”
Today the Morris has a professional staff of more than 20, along with dozens of docents and other volunteers. Both its collection and its outreach programs have expanded exponentially after Kevin Grogan came on as curator and director in 2002, succeeding Buck Pennington and Rick Gruber. The Morris has become way more than just a place to look at paintings. The roster of public programs is full of interesting stuff, including lectures by contemporary artists, two film series and a year-round Music at the Morris program on Sunday afternoons. The Morris offers programs for adults and children, for families, for public and private schools, for kids in the children’s hospital and even for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.
The museum’s most successful—and perhaps most surprising—outreach program is the Southern Soul and Song Series, now in its 10th year, at the Imperial Theatre. Supporting the museum’s mission to explore and preserve Southern culture and enrich the community, the series was created to present uniquely Southern forms of music. Over its 10 years the series has focused on bluegrass music, attracting 35,000 people to the Imperial, to hear the best bluegrass musicians in the world. I’ll always be grateful that the series brought the incomparable Doc Watson to the Imperial about five years ago. The 2012-2013 season features Ricky Scaggs, Dailey and Vincent, the Steep Canyon Rangers, Suzy Bogguss, Sam Bush and Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue.
Of course, it’s still visual art that is the heart of the Morris. As part of its 20th anniversary celebration, the museum featured folk art and photography from the Morris’s Julia J. Norrell Collection, portraits of Southern artists by photographer Jerry Siegel, paintings by Alfred Hutty and Reflection on Water in American Painting: The Phelan Collection. Still to come are Shadows of History: Civil War Photography From the Collection of Julia J. Norrell and Romantic Spirits: Nineteenth Century Paintings of the South From the Johnson Collection, as well as exhibitions devoted to the paintings of Ellen Axson Wilson, Southern crafts and traditional art, highlights from the collection of Wells Fargo and regional artists Jennifer Onofrio, William Entrekin and Honor Marks. In all, it is a roster of exhibitions that any city in the South would be proud to host.
Thomas Satterwhite Noble, The Price of Blood, 1868. Oil on canvas. Morris Museum of Art.
The Morris serves as an economic engine for the community, not only by employing a staff and attracting out-of-town visitors. “It has been very useful to our community,” says founder Morris. “I have had every president of our local colleges and universities tell me that when they are recruiting faculty for their institutions, they always take them to the Morris because it shows them that our town has culture, depth, diversity, balance.” Cities with thriving cultural communities are, in fact, much more attractive to businesses and institutions recruiting executives and staff than cities without them.
What Morris finds particularly gratifying about the museum he named as a memorial to his parents is its effect on the young. “I get a great thrill when I go up there and I see two things: I see a group of students sitting on the floor and an art teacher talking to them about the paintings; and when I see a group of students sitting on the floor and sketching and trying to learn.”
And the future?
Eventually the Morris must move into its own building. “The space we occupy was always intended to be temporary,” Grogan says. The original hope—to build a museum at the foot of the Augusta Common—is not likely, given today’s economic realities. Various possibilities are being explored. There’s the old library on Greene Street, for example. But the one that excites Grogan most is the Telfair Street property occupied by the old Richmond Academy building and the old Medical College. Not only would those two 19th-century buildings provide space the museum has outgrown for exhibiting and storing its collection, they would also add important examples of Southern architecture to its portfolio of interest. “The setting itself is beautiful. But this is all still in the talking stage. We’re gathering information on all kinds of possibilities. The least attractive alternative is to do nothing. The growth of the art collection and the museum’s library, the Center for the Study of Southern Art, dictate that we must do something.”
Claussen agrees. “The Morris is an amazing thing to have in Augusta, but it needs its own front door as a free-standing museum.”
She thinks back to those years when the museum began and smiles. “Sometimes it still amazes me. It was so much fun to work on an idea whose time had come. Once we hit on the Southern art focus, all the pieces just fell into place. It was an exciting time. All kinds of good people wanted to be part of it. And think of the artists who have come through—Robert Rauschenberg, Benny Andrews, Wolf Kahn—people who otherwise would have had no reason to come to Augusta.
“Twenty years, in the greater scheme of things, is nothing. But when you think that 20 years ago we did not have an art museum in Augusta, it’s great to realize there’s a whole generation of school children who have had that as a part of their lives. I love that.”