History of the High
Located in the heart of Atlanta, the High Museum of Art connects with audiences from across the Southeast and around the world through its distinguished collection, dynamic schedule of special exhibitions, and engaging community-focused programs.
Housed within facilities designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architects Richard Meier and Renzo Piano, the High features a collection of more than 18,000 works of art, including an extensive anthology of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fine and decorative arts; major holdings of photography and folk and self-taught work, especially that of artists from the American South; burgeoning collections of modern and contemporary art, including paintings, sculpture, new media, and design; a growing collection of African art, with work dating from prehistory through the present; and significant holdings of European paintings and works on paper. The High is dedicated to reflecting the diversity of its communities and offering a variety of exhibitions and educational programs that engage visitors with the world of art, the lives of artists, and the creative process.
The High Museum of Art
In 1905, the Superior Court of Fulton County granted the Atlanta Art Association a charter, for a period of twenty years, to promote an interest in the fine and applied arts and to found an art school and an art museum.
The Museum received its first permanent home in 1926, when Harriet “Hattie” High donated her family’s residence on Peachtree Street, and the High Museum of Art was born. On October 16, 1926, The Atlanta Constitution wrote, “Atlanta’s new home of culture and the arts sits like a gem of truth, bowered in lovely green trees and shrubs, with the gentle rising sweep of the lawn in front, on Peachtree Street between 15th and 16th. Formerly the High home it was given to the city through the art association by Mrs. Joseph Madison High, to be a perpetual home of art in this southern metropolis and to house the permanent collection which Atlanta will gather together for the inspiration and training of her gifted sons and daughters of the generations yet to come.”
J. J. Haverty Collection
The High received its first major art donation in 1949 from J. J. Haverty’s family. Haverty was an early Museum patron and leader, and at the time, Atlanta’s foremost art collector. Haverty’s daughter bequeathed twenty-five pieces including significant American paintings by William Merritt Chase, Henry Ossawa Tanner, John Twachtman, and Childe Hassam, as well as a select group of sculptures. This formative gift created a strong base for subsequent additions of American art to the Museum’s collection.
Samuel H. Kress Collection
Businessman and philanthropist Samuel H. Kress, who founded the Kress Foundation, deeply believed in art as a force for good, and he worked to make it accessible to everyone. The Samuel H. Kress Foundation, as part of its Regional Galleries program, donated twenty-nine Renaissance and Baroque paintings and sculptures, establishing the core of the High’s European art collection. Highlights of the Kress gift include Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child and Tommaso del Mazza’s Madonna and Child with Six Saints. The anticipation of this donation prompted the construction of a purpose-built, climate-controlled building, which opened near the High House in 1955.
Orly Plane Crash
The Women’s Committee of the Atlanta Art Association organized a tour of European art capitals in 1962. On the return flight from Orly Field in Paris, the plane crashed at takeoff and one hundred and twenty-two people perished of whom one hundred and six were Atlantans; only two flight attendants survived. At that time, it was history’s worst single-plane disaster. The tragedy devastated Atlanta and took the lives of many of the city’s most dedicated art supporters. The French government presented a gift of Rodin’s The Shade in memory of the Orly victims. Today the sculpture stands as a memorial outside the High’s Stent Family Wing.
In October 1968 the High opened its first space dedicated to its youngest visitors and their caregivers called Color/Light/Color in the red-brick High Museum building. Since that initial space opened, there have been ten family gallery installations, including the very popular Sensation, which debuted with the opening of the Stent Family Wing in 1983.
In a press release about Color/Light/Color, then museum director Gudmund Vigtel is quoted, “My proudest accomplishment to date is the Junior Activities Center established within the museum . . . children are the art audiences of the future. The more knowledgeable they are, the greater the dialog possible between the community and the museum.” More than fifty years later, Vigtel’s conviction that children are central to the mission, relevance, and sustainability of the Museum continues to resonate. From its initial iteration as the Junior Activities Center to its current identity as the Greene Family Learning Gallery, this family-focused, interactive space evolves and remains a signature aspect of a child’s visit at the High Museum of Art.
The African Art Collection
The Museum made its first African acquisition in 1953, a D’mba figure from Guinea, and the collection grew substantially over several decades due to the generous support of patrons Fred and Rita Richman. In 1971, moved by the Orly crash, the Richman’s gifted their collection of sub-Saharan African art with around two hundred fifty objects. The New York–based collectors had a small sewing plant in Atlanta on University Avenue and were inspired by their employees to do something for Atlanta after the tragic loss of so many of its arts community in 1962. That initial gift was followed by an even larger one in 2001 and the endowment of the curatorial position in African art.
Virginia Carroll Crawford
The Virginia Carroll Crawford Collection of American Decorative Arts, given between 1979 and 1983, positioned the High as a leader in collecting and preserving works in this field. With objects spanning from 1815 to 1917, the Crawford Collection includes major pieces of furniture, silver, and porcelain as well as specially designed serving items produced by Tiffany & Co.
A New High for Atlanta
In 1979, Coca-Cola magnate Robert W. Woodruff offered a $7.5 million challenge grant for a new facility that would triple the High’s space to 135,000 square feet. The High subsequently raised $20 million and in 1983 opened its new building (now named the Stent Family Wing). Pritzker Prize–winning architect Richard Meier designed the building, which has won design awards including a 1991 citation from the American Institute of Architects as one of the “ten best works of American architecture of the 1980s.”
In 1981, in anticipation of the Museum’s growth, Atlanta-based collector and photographer Lucinda Weil Bunnen donated what would become the core of the High’s photography holdings, though she had already inspired the High to begin collecting photography in 1973. The Museum’s dedicated photography galleries are named for Mrs. Bunnen in honor of her formative work in building this key segment of the collection. Today the photography collection numbers over eight thousand objects.
Folk and Self-Taught Art
The High began collecting the work of living self-taught artists in 1975 and was the first general–interest museum to establish a dedicated department in 1994. T. Marshall Hahn’s foundational gift of one hundred forty pieces throughout 1996 and 1997 was the first major collection of self-taught art primarily from the South to be gifted to an American museum. Today the collection contains more than twelve hundred objects primarily comprising work made in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries, with growing holdings of more historic folk sculpture.
Rings: Five Passions in World Art
The High’s Rings exhibition was the centerpiece of the cultural events surrounding the summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Inspired by the symbolism of the five Olympic rings, the show was guest curated by J. Carter Brown Jr., director emeritus of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
The 125 objects in the show touched on nearly every major world culture, from ancient Egypt and Central America forward, and the works of art came from many of the greatest collection around the world—Prado in Madrid, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Vatican Museum, Palace Museum in Beijing, Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and Tokyo National Museum. The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg permitted Matisse’s mural-size Dance (1909–1910) to leave Russia, and Edvard Munch’s Scream came from the Munch Museum in Oslo.
A Village for the Arts
The High initiated a building expansion program in 1997 to address the unprecedented growth of its collections, exhibitions, and community programming. It opened its new facilities to the public in October 2005, creating a “village for the arts” at the Woodruff Arts Center in midtown Atlanta. Three new buildings, designed by the award-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano, more than doubled the Museum’s size to 312,000 square feet.
The Architecture of Renzo Piano
All three buildings erected as part of the Renzo Piano expansion are clad in white aluminum panels to align with Richard Meier’s original white–enamel facade. Often called the “master of light,” Piano designed the buildings with a sculptural feel to meld seamlessly with the High’s existing light-filled Meier space. Piano’s design for the Wieland Pavilion and Anne Cox Chambers Wing features a special roof system of one thousand light scoops that capture northern light and filter it into the Skyway Galleries.
Image © Timothy Hursley
I “Louvre” Atlanta
Launched in 2006, Louvre Atlanta—the High’s three-year partnership with the Musée du Louvre in Paris—welcomed over 1.3 million visitors to the Museum for six exhibitions that brought a combined 493 treasures from the Louvre’s collection to Atlanta. Masterworks from all eight of the Louvre’s curatorial departments traveled to the High, including rare works of art by Raphael, Titian, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Velázquez. The exhibitions attracted visitors from all fifty states, including nearly 140,000 students.
Civil Rights Photography
In the early 2000s, the High began building a collection of photography from the civil rights era that is now considered one of the finest in the country. Representing the work of over thirty photographers, the collection showcases the Museum’s commitment to preserving documents of this crucial part of the history of our nation and of the American South in particular.
The Driskell Prize
Established by the High in 2005, the David C. Driskell Prize in African American Art and Art History recognizes field-defining contributions to African American art by some of the leading scholars and artists from around the country. Named in honor of the late artist and scholar David C. Driskell, this prize is the first in the country to recognize the importance of African American art.
The annual Driskell Prize Gala supports the David C. Driskell African American Art Acquisition Restricted and Endowment Funds, which are used to support the acquisition of African American art as well as exhibitions and education programs presenting African American artwork.
The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army
The major special exhibition The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army was inspired by one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century. Featuring over one hundred artworks, including fifteen terracotta figures, The First Emperor allowed Atlanta audiences unprecedented access to works from the tomb complex of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, who reigned from 221 through 210 BCE. It remains one of the High’s best-attended exhibitions to date.
Piazza Activation Project
In collaboration with artists and designers, the High develops interactive and immersive installations for the campus’ central Carroll Slater Sifly Piazza. These installations, which are freely accessible to the public, aim to make the campus more open and welcoming to the community. To date, the piazza installations include Mi Casa, Your Casa (2014) and Los Trompos (2015), both designed by Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena; Tiovivo (2016) and Merry Go Zoo (2017), designed by Jaime Hayon; Sonic Playground (2018), designed by Yuri Suzuki; Murmuration (2020), designed by SO – IL; and Outside the Lines (2021) designed by Bryony Roberts Studio.
The Kusama Exhibition
In 2018 the High presented a comprehensive exhibition of work by Yayoi Kusama—one of the twentieth century’s most influential artists. Organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, this show took visitors on an expansive journey across six decades of Kusama’s creative output and explored the development of the artist’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, her iconic, kaleidoscopic environments. This exhibition still stands as one of the High’s most sought-after special exhibition tickets.