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History of the High
High Museum Fact Sheets banner
 
Ginia Sweeney headshot
Ginia Sweeney
Coordinator of Museum Interpretation

The High has grown from its origins in a stately home on Peachtree Street to become the leading art museum in the Southeast.

With more than 15,000 works of art in its permanent collection, the High has an extensive anthology of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American and decorative art; significant holdings of European paintings; a growing collection of African American art; and burgeoning collections of modern and contemporary art, photography, folk and self taught art, and African art. The High is also dedicated to supporting and collecting works by Southern artists.

Portrait of Harriet "Hattie" Harwell Wilson High (Mrs. Joseph Madison High), Sidney Edward Dickinson (American, 1890–1980)
Atlanta Art Association

Originally founded in 1905 as the Atlanta Art Association, the High Museum of Art received its first permanent home in 1926, when Mrs. Joseph M. High donated her family’s residence on Peachtree Street. In 1955, the Museum moved to a new brick structure adjacent to the original High house. The Atlanta Memorial Arts Center opened in 1968 with the High Museum of Art at its center.

High History Milestones

Portrait of J. J. Haverty
The High received its first major art donation in 1949 from J. J. Haverty, an early Museum patron and Atlanta’s foremost art collector at the time. Haverty bequeathed a group of significant late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century 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.

Photo of a museum visitor admiring a piece in the Samuel H. Kress Collection

The Samuel H. Kress Foundation 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, Tommaso del Mazza’s Madonna and Child with Six Saints, and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Roman Matrons Making Offerings to Juno.

Rodin's 'The Shade'
The Atlanta Art Association organized a tour of European art capitals in 1962. One hundred and twenty-two members and friends perished on the return flight as it crashed during an aborted takeoff at Orly Field, near Paris. 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 outside the High's Stent Family Wing.

A cabinet from the Virginia Carroll Crawford Collection

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.

An exterior view of the new Richard Meier-designed building, now called the Stent Family Wing

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 many 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.”

Atlanta-based collector and photographer Lucinda Weil Bunnen donated what would become the core of the High Museum’s photography holdings. The Bunnen Collection now includes nearly six hundred objects, and 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.

An exterior shot of the Museum, with lawn art and buildings designed by the renowned Italian architect Renzo PianoThe High Museum initiated a building expansion program in 1997 to address the unprecedented growth of its collections, exhibitions, and community programming. The High opened its new facilities to the public in November 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. 

Looking up at the special roof system of 1,000 light scoops that capture northern light and filter it into the skyway galleries.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 façade. 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 1,000 light scoops that capture northern light and filter it into the skyway galleries.

An exterior view of the Museum piazza with many visitors and large signs promoting the Louvre exhibition

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 seven 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 by artists including Raphael, Titian, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Velázquez. The exhibitions attracted visitors from all fifty states, and nearly 140,000 students visited the exhibitions. Other notable exhibitions during 2006 included The Quilts of Gee's Bend and Chuck Close: Self Portraits 1967 – 2005.

 

A photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a car surrounded by crowds and police

In the early 2000s, the High Museum began building a collection of photography from the civil rights era that is now 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.

A view from the Museum gallery looking straight at the 15 terracotta figures

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 100 artworks, including 15 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 B.C.E. It remains one of the High’s best-attended exhibitions to date.

A front view of a large, reflective sculpture composed of mirror fragments arranged in the form of a concave disk

In 2010, the High Museum acquired contemporary British artist Anish Kapoor’s Untitled, a large sculpture composed of mirror fragments arranged in a concave steel disk. Its multifaceted surface creates an uncanny sense of limitlessness through the viewer’s fractured reflections on its surface. The concave form also produces astonishing acoustic effects, turning the act of looking into a multisensory experience. This acquisition continued the strong growth of the High’s collection into the twenty-first century.

A view of the wall text and a large photograph of Frida and Diego in the Museum galleries
Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) and her husband, Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera (1886–1957), were the subjects of this major 2012 exhibition. Featuring more than 75 works by the couple, Frida & Diego explored the myths surrounding them and their participation in history.

 

'Profile/Part II, The Thirties: Artist with Painting and Model' by Romare Bearden

Profile/Part II: The Thirties, Artist with Painting and Model contains Romare Bearden’s only known self-portrait. This important work, which joined the High Museum’s collection in 2014, shows the artist reflecting on his career in his signature layered, collage style. Profile/Part II complements the High’s important holdings of work by African American artists.

The High in the Present

Piazza Activation Project

A view of 'Mi Casa, Your Casa' on the piazza

In collaboration with artists and designers, the High Museum has developed interactive and immersive installations for the campus’s central Sifly Piazza each summer since 2014. 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, and Tiovivo (2016), and Merry Go Zoo designed by Jaime Hayon.

Family Initiative

A photo of two children and parents making art outdoors at the High Museum

Major support from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation allowed for the kick-off of a major family-audiences initiative in collaboration with the entire Woodruff Arts Center beginning in 2015. The initiative comprises new programming, which includes free Second Sundays, Family Festivals, and the High’s series of exhibitions of original picture-book art. This project underscores the High’s commitment to arts education and allows the Museum to welcome thousands of family visitors to campus each year.