Museums abound in Atlanta, but while many are familiar with the High Museum, there are several lesser-known museums with rich offerings, such as the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art.
The OUMA is now celebrating its 25th anniversary with “OUMA in Retrospect,” an exhibition of 10 percent of its permanent collection, including several works from famous artists such as Henri Matisse and Salvador Dalí. The majority of the works were donated, many from Atlanta families.
Elizabeth Peterson, the museum’s director since 2012, said its mission is broad: international or national, spiritual or religious, realist or figurative. The museum spans seven centuries from the 14th to the 20th, with a few 21st century pieces.
While the museum’s strengths lie in 18th and 19th century French works on paper and art from the Far East, including OUMA’s 166-piece Japanese porcelain collection, the galleries in the museum show a wide variety of styles and mediums.
With about 1,250 students at the university, “it’s very rare for a school of our size to have a museum of this caliber,” said John Daniel Tilford, the museum’s curator.
Lloyd Nick, a former professor of painting at the university, founded the museum in 1993 with a focus on art from the Far East. In the five years since Tilford and Peterson joined the museum, the permanent collection has grown from about 200 works to approximately 700.
While OUMA serves as a museum for the Atlanta community, it also strives to serve students and professors, working closely with them to find connections between the university’s classes and the museum’s exhibitions.
“There has been this enormous drive in the profession, especially in academic university museums, to make ourselves legitimate and valid and relevant, because if we’re not part of the curriculum, we shouldn’t be here,” Tilford said.
“We want to be a teaching, learning museum,” Peterson added. For that purpose, last year she organized an exhibit on Hispaniola: “A Celebration of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.” In addition to curating an exhibit of Haitian art, Peterson worked with the school’s French, Spanish, music and theater departments to organize a series of lectures, films and performances to tie into the exhibit and the classes students were taking.
Each semester, the museum also chooses about 35 to 45 works that align with course offerings to display in the Skylight Gallery. Professors often hold their classes in the museum galleries, Peterson said.
The OUMA also wants its art to be accessible to the community outside the school, even if patrons can’t visit the museum. Tilford has often visited local retirement communities to bring art pieces with him for the residents to enjoy.
Peterson and Tilford have worked to cultivate strong relationships with local collectors, as well as with fellow museums like the High. “It’s much easier for us to borrow from collectors in Atlanta, but it also pleases the community to see these things on view,” Tilford said. “We like working with our neighbors.”
When Tilford looked through more than 700 works in the permanent collection to choose what would be included in the anniversary exhibition, he considered which works were the strongest representative examples of their style and genre while also being representative of the families that donated them.
“You’re honoring the donors, but you’re also making sure that it’s the strongest representation of the permanent collection,” Tilford explained.
The museum hopes to continue its rapid collection growth, particularly in acquiring more works by African-American artists. If the collection continues to grow at its current pace, Tilford said they would have “ambitious plans” for a future home for the museum, depending on the university’s wishes.
To Tilford, OUMA “provides a more intimate experience” than most museums for its more than 5,000 visitors each year. “You feel closer to the art; you don’t feel like you’re in some huge warehouse or that you’re behind guards at a palace. You can feel comfortable with the art,” he said.
The OUMA will hold a party and lecture for the exhibit on Aug. 23.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.