On Augusta’s riverfront is an institution that brought, for the first time, an art museum to the city and to the region. This year, the vibrant Morris Museum of Art celebrates its 20th year of leading the way in the curation and interpretation of Southern art, music and literature.
With a collection of around 5,000 works of art, the museum is one of the largest in Georgia, counted among Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, Savannah’s Telfair Museum/Jepson Center and the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens.
“We should take a great deal of pride in that the Morris Museum has been a leader in this effort to underscore the importance of Southern studies, and we’re in a position to illustrate that it’s not just musical or literary,” said Kevin Grogan, the museum’s director.
“There is also a serious visual component to this. It ties us to a larger American culture.”
The museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution Affiliations Program, has several engaging exhibitions in its future, including one of photographs of Southern Artists by Jerry Siegel.
The exhibition, which will show Siegel’s black-and-white photographs of 33 iconic Southern artists, all represented in the museum’s collection, will be on display Sept. 21 to Dec. 2.
Featured through Oct. 28 is an exhibition of the works of Alfred Hutty, with his early 20th century art representing art colonies in Woodstock, N.Y., and Charleston, S.C.
The museum’s genesis came from William S. Morris III, the chief executive officer of Morris Communications Co., the parent company of The Augusta Chronicle.
“My wife and I have been married for 54 years, and we’ve enjoyed art for all of our marriage,” Morris said. “We started collecting at the beginning of our marriage, and as our business continued to do well and as we were blessed with the ability to buy some more paintings, we began to do that.
“We were very fortunate to acquire a collection of Southern art, and that led us to the focus on Southern art for which there was no museum in the South,” he continued. “The South is a wonderful part of the country, and my family has lived here for seven generations.”
THE MUSEUM’S collection became a crucial part of a cultural action plan created for a five-county Augusta metropolitan area during the late 1980s, said Louise Keith Claussen, the first director of the museum.
“Everybody pulled together to try to come up with ways to revitalize the heart of downtown, and the Morris Museum became a part of that,” Claussen said. “We were hoping to be a catalyst for local art organizations.”
The museum opened on Sept. 24, 1992, at the Augusta Riverfront Center, and now occupies more than 40,000 square feet of exhibition, support, storage and administrative space.
“What’s interesting, I think, is that at the time, there was really no museum focusing on the art of the South,” Claussen said. “There were other museums in Greenville (S.C.) and Savannah and Birmingham (Ala.), that had Southern art in their collections, but they were much more general in scope.
“We were really the first museum to declare that we’re going to be a museum of the art of the South,” she continued. “It was not recognized at the time in the art world that there was such a thing as Southern art, or it was worth examining as a distinct aspect of American regional art.”
The museum became an example for other museums around the Southeast to highlight their own Southern art collections and became an institution that attracted artists to call Augusta home.
Philip Morsberger, who was appointed as a Morris Eminent Scholar of Art at Augusta State University during the 1990s, stayed in the area after his appointment ended, and the museum played a big role in that decision.
He has been a member of the faculty of institutions across the country, and even at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford, England, and could have chosen any location to go to – but Augusta remains his home base today.
His works give a perspective on his reactions to world events during his lifetime, including the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the tumult of the 1960s.
“It definitely influenced
my decision to stay,” Morsberger said. “If the museum had disappeared, I would have been much less inclined to stay on. It’s a tremendous treasure.”
TODAY, THE MUSEUM holds about 20 exhibitions a year, along with a four-lecture series on contemporary art annually, Grogan said. There are lunch speakers once a month and film programs showing classics and independent works.
Even literature and music are a part of the museum’s activities.
Beyond displaying art alone, it is helping the public to understand and interpret art that gives the museum a great portion of its mission, he said.
“Collecting is a very obvious aspect of what we do, and interpreting is an important aspect of what we do,” Grogan said. “That’s our reason for being.”
As to the future of the Morris Museum of Art, the institution is bursting at the seams with its art collection and needs more room to continue its mission of highlighting Southern art and artists, and bringing cultural programs to the region.
“I hope eventually we’ll have our own freestanding building, in a building that’s fine and adapted to the space to make it work,” Morris said.
And expanding the collection of the museum will always be a part of its momentum.
“We hope to continue to acquire significant and important Southern artists – those who are contemporary as well as deceased,” Morris said.