It was April Fools’ Day of 2002 when Kevin Grogan got the call from William S. (“Billy”) Morris III offering him the job as executive director of the art museum that Morris had opened almost 10 years earlier in honor of his parents.
Grogan, then 53, had spent the previous three years as director and president of the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia (now Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art) in Virginia Beach.
But it certainly was no clever trick with that call being a life changer not only for Grogan and his wife, Kate, but for thousands of Augustans.
“He actually called me on April Fools’ Day to formally offer me the job, and that timing is something that he and I have joked about ever since,” Grogan recalls.
Grogan had been alerted by retiring Morris Museum of Art executive director Keith Claussen that the job offer should be happening any day.
“He is a friend and colleague that I’ve known since I got into the museum business,” Claussen later would tell The Augusta Chronicle. “He has quite a track record, and I think this will be really good for the museum.”
Grogan’s previous years as an arts administrator already had racked up an impressive list of accomplishments including being assistant curator of The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.; director of The Cheekwood Fine Arts Center in Nashville, Tenn.; interim director of the Knoxville (Tenn.) Museum of Art; director of art galleries at Fisk University in Nashville; and director of the art center in Virginia Beach.
Who could have guessed in accepting the job at the Morris Museum of Art ─ devoted to paintings of Southern artists and Southern subjects ─ that Grogan also would have such an impact on local music and film fans?
Nevertheless, his tenure has resulted in free Sunday concerts in the museum’s ground floor auditorium (10th at Reynolds streets) of several internationally known country and Americana music artists; the bring-your-lunch, free film series on Fridays in the auditorium with audience participation discussions and, of course, the usually-packed Budweiser True Music Southern Soul & Song Series held since October of 2003 in the Imperial Theater.
“We plan and produce the series,” Grogan said of the widely-known offering of bluegrass music superstars, “select and contract the performers, raise the sponsorship support and market and promote the series as a whole and its individual artists.”
Name a major bluegrass star living and out on the road performing and chances are they have been part of the Southern Soul & Song Series.
Just some of those have been Ricky Skaggs (making his first Augusta theater appearance), Marty Stuart (coupled with an exhibit of Stuart’s photographs of fellow country stars at the Morris museum), Old Crow Medicine Show, Rhonda Vincent, Steep Canyon Rangers (also known as comedian/banjo player/movie star Steve Martin’s road band), Hot Rize, Seldom Scene, Sierra Hull, Ralph Stanley and his son, Ralph Stanley II, Dailey & Vincent, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Tony Rice, IIIrd Tyme Out, Sam Bush, Mountain Heart, etc., etc., etc.
“Southern Soul and Song is unique to Augusta and the Morris Museum,” Grogan said recently in talking about the upcoming 17th annual series to be launched this fall. “No other museum in the country does this, and I think we can take some pride in it.
“The reasoning behind an art museum undertaking a roots/Americana/folk/country/bluegrass concert series and its history is related to my own history with music and concert production and promotion.”
Grogan developed the series as a marketing tool, educational enterprise and fundraising method in making a large number of people aware of the Morris Museum of Art and its Southern culture mission.
“I want them to appreciate what we do through our “educational efforts in support of the visual arts and, more broadly, Southern cultural studies,” Grogan said.
“I also needed a way to generate the revenues that make it possible for the museum to do so many other things that benefit the public in Augusta like the free ‘Music at the Morris’ series and ‘Artrageous Family Sundays.’”
Back in his days at Cheekwood Fine Arts Center in Nashville, Grogan came to know personally many of country and bluegrass music’s superstars in combining them with exhibits at Cheekwood.
He presented Bill Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass Music,” in connection with a Thomas Hart Benton rural art exhibition and the legendary Sons of the Pioneers vocal group with a Western art show. Benton’s last painting in 1975, in fact, depicts the history of country music.
One of the first major exhibits that Grogan put together at the Morris Museum was an exhibit of 60 black and white photographs taken by Nashville resident Jim McGuire of country music stars; some who were early members of the Grand Ole Opry from the 1920s and 1930s.
The exhibit, “Nashville Portraits: Photographs By Jim McGuire,” in 2009 was loaned to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon and became published by The Lyons Press in a coffee table-size book.
Grogan had been director of Cheekwood about a year when the fine arts center in March of 1980 hosted the after show party for the world premiere of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the movie biography of country music legend Loretta Lynn.
The star was in attendance with her family including her mother, Clara Webb Butcher, as well as cast members like actress Sissy Spacek who would win an Oscar for portraying Lynn, and Tommy Lee Jones, who portrayed Lynn’s husband, Mooney.
“Our children (Matthew and Sarah now living in Austin, Texas) were very young, about 5 and 2, and because of some babysitter mix-up, we had to choose whether to attend the movie premiere at Belle Meade Theatre or the reception at Cheekwood’s Botanical Hall,” Grogan recalled.
“We were new to Nashville and hardly knew anyone at that time, but there was the glamour of being at the post-premier party for a big movie.
“Years later when the Patsy Cline biopic ‘Sweet Dreams’ [1985 released with Jessica Lange as Patsy] was made, our neighborhood in Nashville served as a shooting site. It stood in for Music Row, though it looked very little like Music Row.
“But our block on Central Avenue was filled with terrific looking cars from the ‘50s for a couple of weeks, and we caught sight of Jessica Lange several times.”
Grogan’s love of music in general was solidified growing up in the nation’s capital where his mother, Mary Ellen Grogan, was a founder and executive director of the Friends of the National Zoo, program assistant at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a legislative assistant to Minnesota U.S. Senator Eugene J. McCarthy.
His father, Peter Grogan, who owned a food brokerage business, died in 1966 when Kevin was about 18.
It was in those growing up years that Grogan came to know many of his parent’s friends including Kitty Kelley, world famous author of best-selling biographies of celebrities including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, the British Royal Family and Oprah Winfrey.
“I’ve known Kitty since 1967 when she went to work, right out of college for Eugene McCarthy, then the junior senator from Minnesota, Kitty’s home state.
“Kitty’s a great person, and she really hasn’t changed a whit since then apart from the extraordinary riches and the house in Georgetown that those biographies have provided her.”
While his parents had their own busy lives, Grogan outside of school began cultivating his love of theatrical life in D.C.’s many historical venues.
“I guess that I misspent a good deal of my life in darkened auditoriums and theaters; and haven’t regretted a moment of it,” Grogan reflected in recalling some of his favorite early musical experiences including ‘50s and ‘60s soul music artists.
“I love that music and always have ever since I spent much of the ‘60s at the Howard Theater in Washington; a vaudeville house on the style of the Apollo in New York where all the great black stars of the day appeared.
“That’s where I first saw James Brown on the strong recommendation of my family’s maid, Betty Hall, and also saw Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner, The Supremes, The Four Tops, everybody.
“That all ended, I’m sorry to say, with the riots after Martin Luther King’s death in April of 1968. But for some of the years leading up to that, the Howard Theater for me was like a little bit of heaven.
“Once you’d seen the real thing in the person of these performers, much of what passes for rock and roll nowadays seems pale by comparison.”
He also remembers the great folk music and rhythm and blues artists that he saw in smoky D.C. nightclubs.
“I remember seeing Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and a bunch of other folkies at The Cellar Door; a group then called The Mugwumps (later The Mamas & The Papas) at The Shadows and Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee at Ontario Place.
“And I saw a lot of rock and roll in odd places including The Rolling Stones in Uline Arena, once an ice house, that seated about 4,000 kids on a flat floor for shows. I saw Bob Seger and a bunch of other people in that same place.”
When Grogan earned his driver’s license he began frequenting jazz music clubs in the D.C. area where he remembers Ramsey Lewis at the Bohemian Caverns, Charley Byrd, Wes Montgomery and Sergio Mendes at the Showboat Lounge and artists like Marian McPartland, Teddy Wilson, Red Norvo and a bunch of folks left over from the ‘30s and ‘40s at “a wonderful place called Blues Alley.”
Grogan and his wife, the former Kate Reis, whom he married in 1971, also loved catching musicals heading for Broadway.
“Kate saw ‘My Fair Lady’ on its way to Broadway ─ I didn’t I regret to say ─ but I did catch ‘Hello Dolly’ with Carol Channing during its tryout run in Washington and later caught Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway in David Merrick’s all-black cast of ‘Hello Dolly’ on its way to New York, too.
“Before we had kids, Kate and I used to save up our money and do big concerts and big shows. So we saw [pianist Vladimir] Horowitz in one of his periodic bouts of non-retirement and [cellist Mstislav] Rostropovich in his first concert after he was expelled from the Soviet Union.
“And once we saw a sampler evening of the American Ballet Theater that had all these people who became the biggest dance stars of the ‘70s on the stage at the same time: Peter Martins, Alexander Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland and Martine Von Hamel. That was a wow.”
During their early visits to Augusta, Grogan said his wife immediately liked the look of the city and that it reminded the couple, in some respects, of the Nashville they had moved to 22 years earlier.
“And we liked everyone we met,” he added.
Kate, an educator since 1971 who now is retired, found “a very happy home” at Episcopal Day School where she spent the last 15 years of her educational career doing the thing she had done when she first started: teaching first grade.
Grogan also said there were two basic overriding considerations why he and his wife decided 17 years ago to move to Augusta.
“First it was the opportunity to work with an already strong collection and strive to make it even stronger. The collection has more than doubled in size during my tenure,” he said.
“Second, this represented an opportunity to integrate an already good public institution so thoroughly into the life of the community as to make it indispensable. That’s still a work in progress, but I think it grows harder and harder to imagine what Augusta would be like without the Morris.”
Of course, the truth be known, there are many Augustans who may find it harder and harder to imagine what the city’s cultural life would have been like without the music and painting loving Kevin Grogan.
Article appears in the May 2019 issue of Augusta Magazine.