High Museum’s ‘Drawing Inside the Perimeter’ showcases local artists

The High Museum of Art exhibition “Drawing Inside the Perimeter” is a substantial group show: 56 drawings, counting two expansive wall murals, by 41 metro Atlanta artists. But as big as it is in size, it may be bigger in how it symbolizes a shift in the way Atlanta’s largest museum relates to and reflects the city’s creative community.

Since its Centennial Olympic Games exhibit in 1996, “Rings: Five Passions in World Art,” the High has presented a seemingly unending stream of international masterworks. With its status as a general art museum boasting seven curatorial departments and a broad mission, the museum has offered a wide array of other shows, too.

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But until a few years ago, there was a perception in the Atlanta art community, vented often on arts blogs, that the High had become too focused on its high-dollar collaborations with glossy partners including the Louvre and Museum of Modern Art to spare attention for the metro area’s increasingly vital art-making scene.

In fact, independent Atlanta curator Marianne Lambert dates the High’s declining interest in local and regional art to a full decade before the Olympics. Peter Morrin, the museum’s first 20th century art curator, had launched a biannual “Southern Expressions” exhibition and pushed collecting works by Southeastern folk artists such as the late Bill Traylor, before departing in 1986 to run the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky.

“After Peter left I think the High began to focus on gaining a more national and international reputation,” Lambert said, “and there was little interest in showing regional art.”

Then at the dawn of this decade, a succession of one-person High shows by Atlanta and Georgia artists — including Radcliffe Bailey’s paintings and installation art, Chip Simone’s photographs, Susan Cofer’s drawings, the late Hale Woodruff’s murals and Gogo Ferguson’s jewelry — signaled change was afoot.

“Drawing Inside the Perimeter,” because it’s such a large grouping and emphasizes emerging artists (roughly 60 percent are showing at a major museum for the first time), underlines the High’s heightened interest while building on the momentum of previous Georgia exhibits.

“They’re great drawings, every one of them,” said Michael Rooks, the High’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “I think they can stand up with any contemporary artist working anywhere.”

Rooks is frequently credited for raising the homegrown in the High’s fertile mix. But he says museum leaders were seeking a curator skilled in community outreach when he applied.

“That’s something I have always felt passionate about and I made a commitment to doing since I became a curator,” said Rooks, who arrived with that reputation from, among other stops, the Contemporary Museum Honolulu and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Shortly after starting, Rooks learned about a $50,000 bequest to the museum from Judith Alexander, an art dealer and patron who died in 2004, to acquire work by Georgia artists. Over those years, Rooks’ predecessors had only made one purchase, which might be interpreted as an indication of where local art resided on the priority list.

Working with Lambert, a lifetime friend of Alexander’s and for whom the Lambert Fund was named, Rooks narrowed collecting to metro Atlanta and the medium to drawing, relatively affordable compared to paintings and sculptures. That would allow them to “spread the wealth,” he said, and, indeed, most of the purchases were made at Atlanta galleries. As the works accumulated over the last two years, the curators knew they had the makings of an exhibit, as well.

“Drawing Inside the Perimeter,” which fills the Wieland Pavilion’s main lower level gallery, features works that extend beyond traditional drawing to incorporate a wide variety of materials, including computer-generated imagery, mixed media, paint, collage, printmaking, even blood.

“We’re trying to show that drawing takes many different forms and artists are using different tools to make what we still call drawings, expanding the idea of the practice,” Rooks said.

“For me what’s important for all these artists and the others who will be in the collection ultimately is to see themselves in this kind of a context,” he added. “If you don’t have an opportunity to reflect upon who you are in relationship to your peers, then you’re always comparing yourselves to what’s happening outside, and that’s never good.”

He recalled the “Second City syndrome” of inferiority from when he lived in Chicago, “where you’re always comparing yourself to what’s going on in New York instead of looking around to see [that] we’ve got a really great thing going on here with really amazing artists.”

High director Michael Shapiro praised Rooks and Lambert’s selections for “reflecting the excellence” of art-making Atlanta.

Shapiro acknowledged that balancing local, national and international art is “always a challenge” but also “an opportunity.” He said the High recently hosted leaders from a dozen smaller, independent visual arts organizations, including Eyedrum, Art Papers and WonderRoot, exploring if “there is a way of linking arms together for the greater good.”

The High director said no one is yet sure what form such partnerships should take, but he added that the museum is game.

“Trying to find a way to get a handle on the creative flow in our own town and to assist in its development is certainly part of our mission.”

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