Morris Museum of Art at 25

The two-tone brick building at One 10th Street on Riverwalk Augusta could almost be mistaken for its similar-looking neighbor, the Augusta Marriott and Convention Center. The Morris Museum of Art, however, has the distinction of becoming the first museum ever dedicated to the art and artists of the American South, a mission it has maintained for 25 years.

The museum started in the mid-1980s as an idea by Augusta businessman William S. “Billy” Morris III to honor his parents and be a cultural center in Augusta. “Billy has always made the point that when he was growing up, his mother took him to Columbia or Atlanta to see a museum,” said Kevin Grogan, the director of the Morris Museum of Art, “because there wasn’t one here, and that was a big part of his inspiration.”

At its founding, the Morris Museum did not have a specific focus, but in 1988-89, “a couple of serendipitous events created an exciting new vision,” said founding director Keith Claussen.

Morris and a group of civic leaders had commissioned a cultural planning process for a five-county area. That led to the decision to put the future Morris Museum downtown, where it could be part of a revitalization. “Then, one afternoon, an art dealer from Atlanta brought Mr. Morris a book that pictured over 100 paintings by Southern artists,” Claussen explained.

The paintings belonged to Dr. Robert Coggins, a retired physician who lived in Marietta, Ga. Coggins was a passionate collector of Southern art. He was in poor health and wanted to find a home for the paintings. “So Coggins and Morris met and came to an agreement,” Claussen said. “The collector had a home for his paintings, and the museum had a focus and a mission.”

The Morris Museum acquired about 250 pieces, and not long after, Dr. Coggins died. “We were able to work with the trustees of his estate to acquire an additional 900 Southern paintings,” Claussen said. “So we became the first and only museum in the country dedicated to the art and artists of the American South. Other museums in the South had Southern paintings in their collections, of course, but none had the primary focus and mission we set forth. It was an exciting and challenging time.”

Now, 25 years later, the Morris’s collection includes holdings of nearly 5,000 paintings, works on paper, photographs and sculptures dating from the late 18th century to the present. The museum also plays host to eight to 10 temporary exhibits annually. This art comes from the geographical American South, not necessarily the Confederacy of the Civil War era, which comprises states from the Atlantic Ocean to Texas and from Florida to Washington, D.C.

A museum with such a focus gives people a new way to experience life in the American South, Grogan explained. “Everybody thinks they know something about the South through music or literature, but people don’t consider there is something unique about the visual arts.”

The permanent collection of the museum represents a lot of time and many aspects of Southern life. “You can see the changing landscape of the South from 19th to 21st centuries,” Grogan said. “You can see the people and how they changed.”

The pain of Civil War life is evident in the painting, “The Price of Blood” by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, in which a white man is selling his mixed-race son into slavery. A more colorful, upbeat painting – “Col. Poole’s Pig Hill of Fame” by John Baeder – pays homage to the real roadside restaurant Col. Poole’s Bar-B-Q of East Ellijay, Georgia.

The museum, though, collects more than paintings. Grogan said a collection of 250 studio art pieces has been promised to the museum, as has a 300-piece collection of North Carolina pottery. The museum also has acquired about 700 photographs.

The museum experience is educational, Grogan said, but it also is fun. “There’s a lot that one can learn – and enjoy – while they are here. People can come to the museum and have some fun. All the art is not just on the walls; we do  a film series, concert series and family programs, including the popular Southern Soul and Song concerts.”

An advantage of the Morris Museum of Art, according to Grogan, is that it is possible to take the collection in pieces. “It’s not like going to the Louvre in Paris and being overwhelmed. People find art here that is completely recognizable. You walk into the portrait room, and it could be people you know. The Civil War room only has 10 paintings, but you get a real feel for the impact of the war. Southern Stories has only nine paintings, but, again, you get a real feel for Southern life.”

Getting to this point – with a large permanent collection, revolving exhibits and a variety of public programs – took a lot of extra work 25 years ago from Claussen and her staff. One of the first actions they took was to establish relationships with other art museums and to build awareness and excitement in the community. “We began with a very small staff,” Claussen said, “just a few people who wore a lot of different hats.”

Southern art historian Estill “Buck” Pennington worked with architect Bob Kuhar to shape the space in the Riverwalk Augusta office building. The object was to display the art in a series of galleries that offered a history of painting in the South. Claussen and her staff invited Augustans to hear speakers talk about various aspects of Southern art. “Those audiences would become our early supporters and our first teams of docents. I attended state, regional and national museum conferences, meeting colleagues and talking about what we were going to do in Augusta. And we published brochures and sent information to museums and media around the country.” 

They wanted to build a sense of anticipation before the museum opened. “Part of that was keeping the museum closed and off limits during the construction of the gallery spaces and installation of the art. So on the night that the ribbon was cut and people saw the art showcased for the first time, it was an exciting moment for us and for Augusta,” Claussen said.

As the museum’s collection grew over the past 25 years, so did its community outreach. Today, the Morris Museum of Art is what Grogan calls a “social service agency with paintings.” The museum offers educational programs at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center; programs at the extended pediatric care unit and the psychiatric unit at MCG; daycare programs for Alzheimer’s patients; a program at the museum for people 16 to 24 years old with developmental challenges; and programs with 10 Boys & Girls Clubs and the Kroc Center.

Still, after, 25 years, there seems to be a popular misconception that the Morris Museum of Art is simply a showcase of Billy Morris’s personal art collection. “He doesn’t profit from it at all,” Grogan said. “The museum never has been small-business unit of Morris Communications or a showcase of Mr. Morris’s art collection. It was a gift to Augusta, which is a uniquely American form of private benefaction. In just about every city, you will find museums that bear the names of founders and benefactors, and that’s what this is.”

After a quarter of a century on Augusta’s riverfront, the Morris Museum of Art is ready to expand. Museum namesake and board of directors Chairman Billy Morris and Morris Communications intend to donate to the museum buildings on Broad Street at the corner of Seventh Street in downtown Augusta. The museum’s board of trustees is planning to launch a capital campaign soon with two objectives: the relocation of the museum and the rebuilding of its endowment. After what is anticipated to be an 18-month capital campaign and about 18 to 24 months of work on the buildings, the museum will nearly double in size.

Naturally, Grogan is excited about the move. “Having the art museum downtown within walking distance of the history museum, the Miller Theater and the Imperial Theater will create a cultural center like Augusta has never seen.”

Facts and Figures

The Morris Museum of Art is the only art museum between Columbia, S.C., and Athens, Ga.

In terms of physical size, number of employees, number of visitors and number of members, the Morris Museum is the fourth-largest museum in Georgia, after Atlanta’s High Museum, Savannah’s Telfair Museum/Jepson Center and Athens’ Georgia Museum of Art.

With a permanent collection of more than 5,000 objects, the Morris is the third-largest art collection in a public institution in the state. The High Museum of Art, with 11,000 objects, and the Georgia Museum of Art, with a collection of 8,000 objects, hold the largest collections.

Augusta, founded in 1736, did not have an art museum until the opening of the Morris in 1992.

The Morris’s studio education program for long-term pediatric care patients at the Medical College of Georgia and its program for Alzheimer’s patients have earned national recognition and have encouraged similar efforts elsewhere.

Article appears in the April 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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