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No Slowing Down for the Oldest Museum in the South

It’s been another busy summer for the Telfair Museums of Art in Savannah, with a crowded roster of camp programs, family events, new exhibits, and gallery talks keeping new executive director Lisa Grove on her toes. She’s also got a $22 million endowment, a 6,000-piece collection, a staff of 50 and a budget of $5 million to manage. Add 180,000 annual visitors and there’s little doubt that Grove, who started her tenure just nine months ago, has had her work cut out for her.

Fortunately, she’s got a strong community—as well as a solid seven-year background as deputy director of the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis—behind her.

“I’ve been struck by how passionate people feel about the Telfair,” Grove recently told the Savannah Morning News. “You can really build on that to take the museum to the next level.”

“We’re competing with TV, the Internet, and kids’ soccer games for people’s attention. We have to get outside the walls and reach out to the community.” — ED Lisa Grove

But she also noted that, as a museum, “we’re competing with TV, the Internet, and kids’ soccer games for people’s attention. We have to get outside the walls and reach out to the community.” As such, she’s made visitor experience quality a top priority: “We’re working to strategize, take stock and focus on what do well and do it even better.”

The South’s First Museum

Established in 1883 by visionary Savannah philanthropist Mary Telfair, who left her stately home to the Georgia Historical Society, the Telfair Museums of Art is the oldest public art museum in the South—a fitting distinction for Georgia’s First City. Since then, the original Regency-style building has been joined by two others: the Owens-Thomas House, another 19th century example of English Regency, and the Jepson Center, a thoroughly contemporary structure opened in 2006. Together, the complex doesn’t just house a top-tier collection of 19th, 20th, and 21st century American and European artwork, but serves as a hub for the busy Savannah arts scene, hosting a dizzying range of educational programs and guest lectures as well as community events like the Savannah Book Festival and the Gray’s Reef Ocean Film Festival, while working with organizations like Creative Coast, the West Broad Street YMCA and the Savannah College of Art and Design to develop new exhibits and initiatives.

Telfair’s draw, in fact, has helped make Savannah a perennial top 10 U.S. arts destination in StyleAmerica magazine’s annual list. (Last year, it was ranked number two among mid-size cities.) The pressure to measure up on the national stage while simultaneously serving the local community has been a driving force for Grove, who recently told weekly newspaper Connect Savannah that every project they’re working on “should resonate on both fronts.”

“I want us to be a museum of national excellence, with local relevance,” said Grove.

Telfair’s draw has helped make Savannah a perennial top 10 U.S. arts destination in StyleAmerica's annual list.

You can see that commitment in the museum’s current roster of exhibits, which includes a selection of quilts from local knitting groups, Georgia artist Beth Mount, and the Telfair permanent collection; a celebration of the U.S. Studio Glass Movement’s 50 year anniversary; and, coming in October, a provocative political project from artist Jonathan Horowitz called “Your Land/My Land: Election ‘12.” Telfair will be one of seven museums across the country to host the dialog-starting multimedia installation that takes political polarization, the 24-hour news cycle, and the museum space itself as its subjects. “It’s an honor to be part of a national project that is so timely,” says Kristin Boylston, Telfair’s director of development and communications.

Courting the Community

Telfair has long counted on the community to help fund their programs; currently, Boylston reports, the majority of their support comes from earned income like admissions, membership, facility rentals, special events and donations. The community, in turn, counts on Telfair not just for sophisticated cultural opportunities but accessible arts education, which Boylston calls “the core of the museum’s mission.”

Those education programs include an increasingly popular suite of camp programs—eight to 12 every year—that have been keeping Savannah kids busy all summer. The most popular, reports Boylston, is the Master Artist Photography Camp—“they sell out right away”—originally started and still funded by longtime Telfair supporter Robert O. Levitt. Other big draws include Video Game Development camp and Geek Bling Techno-Jewelry camp, both for teens.

At the same time, Telfair works to draw in Savannah’s youngest artists—the ones still mastering skills like walking. “The earlier we reach them,” says Boylston, “the more opportunity we have to build lifelong skills such as self-confidence and creative problem solving.”

Telfair will be one of seven museums to host the dialog-starting multimedia installation “Your Land/My Land: Election ’12,” that takes political polarization, the 24-hour news cycle, and the museum space itself as its subjects. 

Besides introducing four new activities for the 5-and-under set in its interactive Artzeum exhibit, Telfair continues its Toddler Third Thursdays program, the monthly class for 3-5-year-olds and their parents; upcoming projects include “Advanced Watercolor Techniques for Tots” and “Make Your Own Paint.” In their efforts to reach “as many youth in Savannah as possible,” Telfair even offers in-home services.

They also offer adult learning opportunities like “Sketchbooking is Hip,” aimed at 20-somethings looking for a break from digital life; traditional figure-drawing and portrait-painting courses; and special one-day workshops like a recent landscape-painting expedition to Ossabaw Island, led by beloved Savannah artist West Fraser. Lectures and gallery talks fill out the education calendar; this month sees SCAD professor Andrew Scott discussing his large-scale sculpture “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and widely-published photographer Dan Winters (who owns a house on nearby Tybee island) kicking off his first museum exhibit with both a price-of-admission lecture (free for members) and an $85-a-head Director’s Circle Preview Dinner.

Expanding the Opportunities

Also this summer, Telfair has launched an Adopt-a-Painting campaign for the big December exhibit arriving from Florence, Italy, Offering of the Angels: Paintings and Tapestries from the Uffizi Gallery. Each of the show’s 45 pieces is up for adoption on a first-come, first-served basis, for $1,000; adoptive patrons will get their name displayed next to their adoptee, as well as a private preview reception in their honor. “We’re able to bring in world-class exhibitions like this due to the overwhelming generosity of a group of individuals in our community,” says Boylston. “This is our effort to expand the foundation of this support.”

In November, Telfair hosts its 18th annual Art Fair, their “al fresco” 2-day event featuring 120 artists and $10,000 in prizes. It also offers ticket-buying patrons a preview in the form of their Opening Night Arty Party, another big fundraiser for the museum. And early next year, they’ll host another packed schedule of performances, workshops, and interactive art experiences for their newest annual event, the aggressively forward-thinking PULSE: Art and Technology Festival. First put on in 2007, PULSE is a long way from the museum’s beginnings, admits Boylston, “but I think it’s exactly where Mary Telfair would want us to be.”

Marc Schultz is writer/editor at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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