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Southern Art Saves: How the Morris Museum serves a community with soul

The first museum of its kind, Augusta’s Morris Museum of Southern Art has maintained the vibrancy of its forward-thinking founder, Billy Morris, who saw like few before him the rich and developing tradition in art from the American South.

Morris first established the direction of his museum with the 1989 purchase of more than 250 paintings from a Marietta cardiologist, Dr. Robert Powell Coggins, (shown here, with students), who had spent more than 20 years amassing the first collection of art from the South—motivated largely, according to current Museum Director Kevin Grogan, by those who claimed there was no such thing as Southern art: “He wanted to prove everyone wrong.” From one collector’s stubborn insistence (practically a regional virtue of its own) came the country’s first “pan-Southern” museum, dedicated to work by artists native to the Southern states and work that takes the South as its subject.

The Morris now counts 5,000 works among its collection, by artists from across the South and the globe—including a corridor of 19th century landscapes dominated by European artists who traveled through or settled in the South. Though other museums before it had focused on artists local to them, often in terms of individual states or events like the Civil War, the Morris was the first to take the entire South as its subject: “Our South covers a much larger part of the country than the historical Confederacy, reaching from the Atlantic Coast to Texas, and from the Gulf Coast to Maryland, including D.C.,” said Grogan.

Our field is cultural studies, and we use art objects to tell a bigger story.

But the museum’s purpose, Grogan continued, goes beyond the artwork: “Our field is cultural studies, and we use art objects to tell a bigger story.” To that point, they also use many other artifacts to educate visitors about the past: “Literature, music, film, dance—they all cross-reference. We want to enrich the experience of seeing art by showing people all the things created at the same time,” as well as what the works have inspired since.

Serving, and securing, new audiences

Today, said Grogan, a museum’s competition isn’t limited to other cultural institutions: “We’re in competition with every leisure time activity—anything that can possibly provide entertainment. In the fall, our biggest competitor is football—I mean, this is the South. We’ve learned to work around such things, offering clear alternatives to mainstream entertainment opportunities.”

To make the Morris Museum a visible and vital part of the community, Grogan knew he had two assignments: attract a large and diverse cross-section of the community to experience the museum, and develop partnerships with other local nonprofits to actively aid community members in need.

Since becoming ED in 2002, Grogan has led in the tradition of John Cotton Dana, who in 1918 founded an art museum in Newark, New Jersey’s poorest neighborhood, pioneering the idea of the museum as a community service. “Dana believed that the opportunity to experience art doesn’t just enrich people intellectually, but can actually assist them in moving their lives forward,” said Grogan. “In the 13 years I’ve been here, I’ve worked to make the Morris an institution that betters the community in multiple ways.”

To answer the call, the Morris has started off-site programs with partners like the Warrior in Transition program at nearby Fort Gordon, the Augusta Regional Office of the Alzheimer’s Association, the Children’s Hospital and the adult psychiatric department at Georgia Regents University, and two local schools without the budget for art teachers, where the Morris has started annual artist-in-residency programs. They also organize readings in local libraries and annual literary competitions for area schoolchildren and for adults in five states. In 2014, those efforts netted the Morris a nomination for the National Medal for Museum and Library Service from U.S. Rep. John Barrow.

We’re going to where the people are, with the expectation that these experiences will bring people to the museum itself.

Reaching out to the community with a helping hand isn’t just a matter of doing good, said Grogan, but attracting new fans: “We’re going to where the people are, with the expectation that these experiences will bring people to the museum itself.”

Another solution for attracting new audiences: the Morris Museum’s Southern Soul and Song concert series, started in 2003, shortly after Grogan became ED. Held at the Imperial Theatre, a historic 850-person venue four blocks from the Morris, the popular monthly series is meant to be “the musical equivalent of what we do for the visual arts.”

Grogan admitted that the series was started “for two reasons, really: audience development and making money.” It has made good on that secondary purpose, generating enough revenue to offset the cost of the Morris’s many free-to-the-public programs. One of the first things Grogan did when planning the series was look for a sponsor, hitting up the owner of a local Budweiser distributor who was known to be a big fan of bluegrass. “We went to him and said, if we were to do a concert series that began with Ricky Skaggs, would you be interested in picking up the tab?” said Grogan. That’s all it took: AB Beverage and Budweiser True Music have served as the series’ chief sponsor ever since, “and that leading sponsorship, in turn, has helped us attract new sponsors.”

More from the Morris

Writing in the Augusta Chronicle in 2014, Georgia Regents University Professor Geraldine Rinker, a docent at the Morris, said that “much of what is now accepted as commonplace in Augusta—free concerts, lectures, presentations by contemporary artists, classic and contemporary film series… did not happen before and would not happen now in Augusta without the Morris Museum of Art.”

However, as vital a role as the Morris has played in the community, Grogan said that there is still room to improve: “Great changes are pending,” some as a result of the organization’s recent participation in Momentum, the GCN-led performance-raising process for networks of nonprofits. “We had a strategic plan before [Momentum], but not one that was as fully-developed. It’s going to lead to many things, including a reorganization of the board and a change in our approach to fundraising.”

More immediately, they’ve also got a new season of exhibitions and concerts ahead. In January, they’ll open Scenic Impressions, an exhibit of late-19th and early-20th century impressionist painting from the South—work aimed at offering escape for urbanites. In February, the Southern Soul and Song series closes out its current season with “Rock My Soul,” a concert by The Fairfield Four and the McCrary Sisters, who Grogan calls “two of the greatest gospel quartets you’ll ever hear.”

“If you’re not a Baptist when you show up, you’ll be a Baptist when you leave,” added the museum director, admiring in their art (likely without even knowing it) a skill he’s been putting to admirable use for more than a dozen years: converting the uninitiated.

“Our goal is to introduce people to the Morris through something they enjoy already,” said Grogan. “Once they find out we do one kind of thing they like, they’ll come by the museum and discover others.”

Marc Schultz is contributing editor at GCN.

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