For 75 years, the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art has served as a vital resource for the arts in Augusta and the
region, offering classes, holding exhibitions, presenting lectures and becoming part of the history of one of Augusta’s most important historic buildings – the centuries-old Ware’s Folly.
The organization has affected generations and will have an impact even into the future, said Rebekah Henry Murphy, the director of the institute.
“You are looking at generations who have come through, perhaps as children, who were instilled with this love and appreciation for the arts,” Murphy said. “The thing about 75 years is that you’ve got several generations of families and individuals – influencing their career or the joy they find in life.
“It’s opened their eyes in looking at life in a little different light,” she said. “That’s the most important impact we’ve made.”
The Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art had its genesis as the Augusta Art Club, founded in 1932, said Karen Klacsmann, an art historian and the chairwoman of the institute’s 75th anniversary celebration.
At the time, they met in different places, mostly at the old Medical College of Georgia building on Telfair Street – having to set up and take down art and needing more room as their popularity grew.
“They decided that they really needed a permanent home, and as they were looking at Ware’s Folly, nobody was living there,” Klacsmann explained.
Olivia Herbert stepped in and bought the building in 1937, paying for renovations and creating an endowment. The institute was named in memory of her daughter, Gertrude, who died of spinal meningitis in the mid-1930s.
The institute’s first director, Horace Talmadge Day, was brought in from New York and conducted classes from October to May, Klacsmann said.
“He was also exhibited throughout the country,” she said. “So he had a large network, and people in the community had a large network. That created a critical mass.”
The institute has had many fascinating exhibitions over the past 75 years, including work by Diego Rivera, engravings by Albrecht Durer and lithographs by Pablo Picasso, Klacsmann said.
In 1963, the institute held an exhibition in partnership with Fort Gordon of artwork by military service members, civilian workers and families living on the post, she said. At one time, the institute even offered classes in drama and flower arranging.
“They’re really things you don’t think about, but the institute has always been about finding a need within the community and fulfilling it,” she said.
Teaching classes and watching people interested in the arts is incredibly fulfilling, said Lucy Weigle, a professional artist who taught for a number of years at the institute, giving instruction primarily in watercolor.
“It’s a wonderful thing to do because the students want to be there,” she said. “It’s not because they have to be. There’s a sincere interest in it. They may not have talent at the beginning, but they suddenly blossom – working at it like anything else.
“I really enjoyed it and had a lot of students who would repeat and repeat. I got to know them and watch them progress, and become friends,” Weigle said.
The institute serves a critical role as arts education programs in schools and elsewhere have been cut and continue to struggle during tough economic times.
“It’s a shame that you might have to even argue that (art) is important to our well-being as humans, but we have to defend the arts and humanities to a large portion of the community all of the time,” said Jackson Cheatham, a professional artist who was on the board of the institute.
“Culturally, as a nation and as a people of the world, we need to educate ourselves about the arts,” said Cheatham, who is retiring from the faculty at Augusta State University. “It makes life more enriched and defines more of who we are.”
“We always will remain at our very heart an educational facility, teaching individuals to appreciate the visual arts,” Murphy said. “With budget cuts, kids aren’t getting a basic arts curriculum in schools now. Over the next couple of decades, I think you will see nonprofits begin to fill that void.
“We’ve reached thousands through our outreach programming, and we’ll probably see a lot of the same, maybe in a more impactful way,” she said.
As the institute celebrates its 75th birthday, members of the public can become part of the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art’s history through modern technology and art of the 21st century, using smartphone cameras and the Instagram photography app.
“For our 60th anniversary celebration, we asked artists to create a portrayal of the building,” Murphy said. “This is a modern spin on what we did then.”
In early December, the institute invited the public to submit images of Ware’s Folly, located at 506 Telfair St. downtown, through Instagram in an exhibit and competition named #GertrudeHerbert75.
Images are being collected through Jan. 4, and a juried exhibition of 75 prints of those photos will be displayed Jan. 11-31 in the institute’s third-floor galleries.
“It’s a really cool way to spread the word about our birthday, and a way to bring in the next generation – bringing in people who are very wired into social media,” Murphy said.
A 75th anniversary reception will be 6-9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11. Admission is $75 per couple or $37.50 per person. The event will feature a visual timeline of the institute’s history. Learn more by calling (706) 722-5495, or visit www.ghia.org or www.facebook.com/gertrudeherbertinstituteofart.