Thursday, July 07, 2016

Pardon the Mess: Reinstallation of the Permanent Collection

Five years ago, the Georgia Museum of Art opened a wing dedicated to its permanent collection as part of a large expansion and renovation project that also added the Jane and Harry Willson Sculpture Garden, enlarged the museum’s public spaces and expanded storage. On stark white walls, the museum laid out highlights from its American and European collections, including many old favorites. It was clean. It was fresh. It was something new for us.

But 5 years is a long time. Since January 2011, we have welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors into those galleries, our curatorial staff has changed and expanded, and our collection has grown by about 25 percent. We have new priorities and new visions. It’s time for us to shed our old skin in favor of a new one. This August, after a two-month closure of the eight galleries on the south side of what the staff still call the “new wing,” we will reveal a reimagined look at our permanent collection. The white walls will get some colored paint, and removable walls will create defined spaces within the galleries. We’re doing away with the hard line between American and European artists, partially because it feels somewhat arbitrary (where would you put Mary Cassatt?) and partially because incorporating them all into the same art historical timeline just makes sense.

One thing we’ve realized in the past 5 years is that many of our visitors are first-timers not only to our museum but to any museum, which means that we need to do a better job of explaining why particular works of art are grouped together. If you have an art history degree, it’s not hard to recognize a wall of American impressionist paintings, but if you don’t, you may not understand why our Paul Revere spoons are next to 18th-century portraits. New wall text will make these connections clear, and new labels should be easier to read for everyone.

Inclusivity is a buzzword in the museum community these days, but in our position as the official state museum of art, we feel very strongly about its value to what we do. If you feel unwelcome somewhere, it is unlikely you will come back. To develop and diversify the next generation of museum lovers, we need to meet them where they are, not where we wish they would be.

Are you worried that your favorite painting is going into storage? You probably don’t need to be. Although works will be shifted around among galleries, the most well- known ones will still be on view. More works by African American artists, especially those from the collection given by Brenda and Larry Thompson in 2012, will join the story, creating a richer narrative of art history. The museum also has an especially strong collection of works on paper, and more prints, watercolors and photography will be on display. Though these fragile, light-sensitive objects cannot stay on view for as long as hardier oil paintings or works of decorative art, the upside of having a regular rotation is that the look of the galleries will change frequently, rewarding return visitors with new discoveries.

Check in with us through our Tumblr and other social media for updates on our progress, and we hope you’ll enjoy the results.

Hillary Brown
Director of Communications

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