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Booth Museum reignites celebration of national honor

The Booth Western Art Museum voted best in country

USA Today readers bestow Best Art Museum award prior to pandemic shutdown

Seth Hopkins dons a mask sewn from a red bandana when he greets a Booth Western Art Museum visitor one recent morning. But this mask serves a different purpose than, say, the one covering the Lone Ranger’s face in the LeRoy Neiman painting upstairs in the Modern West Gallery.

Hopkins' mask protects against an enemy as harrowing as anything fictional cowboys encounter: COVID-19, which closed the Booth Museum for three months this spring. It was a huge setback for the Cartersville museum, which was lining up for a bonanza of a year.

ExploreAn area museum is voted best in the country (hint: It’s not the High)

Sparked by Frederic Remington and Andy Warhol exhibits, the museum was coming off its highest attendance year since it opened in 2003, drawing nearly 70,000 in 2019. Then early in 2020 came the remarkable news that the Booth had lassoed national honors as Best Art Museum in USA Today’s Readers’ Choice 2020 awards.

Now, hold on, partner. A still-maturing Western art museum situated in the Deep South finishing ahead of such stalwart big-city competition as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago and Smithsonian American Art Museum? Yep, and the Booth, not surprisingly, trumpeted the good news far and wide in a media release on Feb. 28. Then, boom, the Booth closed on March 16 for nearly 90 days.

Cue the footage of sagebrush skittering across a desolate Western plain.

The exhibition “New Beginnings: An American Story of Romantics and Modernists in the West” has been extended through Aug. 23. 
Contributed by Howard Pousner
The exhibition “New Beginnings: An American Story of Romantics and Modernists in the West” has been extended through Aug. 23. Contributed by Howard Pousner

Credit: Howard Pousner

Credit: Howard Pousner

"We lost a lot of momentum with that, and now we're trying to pick it back up," Hopkins say. "But back to that point in time, it was incredibly exciting."

When Hopkins learned the Booth was on the list of top 20 American museums selected by an independent advisory panel for voters to choice from, he thought the honor was in the nomination. When the museum won, he compared it to “beating 19 Goliaths at the same time, with one shot.”

Those three months when no one entered the museum in the heart of Cartersville's quaint downtown, save for an occasional employee, gave Hopkins time to ponder the honor.

"I'm under no delusion that we're the best art museum in the country," Hopkins says. "The way I look at it is, we have the most enthusiastic and loyal base of support of any of those museums. (Our patrons) love their museum and got energized."

The voting campaign started locally and organically. Then the Booth threw seasoned wood on the PR campfire.

Booth Western Art Museum executive director Seth Hopkins. Contributed by Booth Western Art Museum
Booth Western Art Museum executive director Seth Hopkins. Contributed by Booth Western Art Museum

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Early on, one of the artists in the Booth's collection sent his whole database a request to vote for the Booth. "We thought, 'Oh, that's a great idea. Let's ask all the artists,'" says Sandy Scott, the museum's marketing director.

Scott sent an e-blast to 455 artist-supporters across the country, and the Booth's candidacy, though voting numbers were never revealed, obviously hit a gallop.

Painter Roseta Santiago from Santa Fe, New Mexico, jumped on her phone and Facebook multiple times to promote the campaign because, she says, “everything they do is personal and interactive.” Visiting the Booth “is an experience with Southern hospitality,” she adds, “and their exhibits are interesting.”

Born in Maine but having spent enough time out West to slip into a laconic cowboy drawl from time to time, Hopkins conveys a native’s enthusiasm as he shows off two of the museum’s current exhibits.

“New Beginnings: An American Story of Romantics and Modernists in the West,” extended through Aug. 23, explores Santa Fe and Taos as a nexus for national and European artists during the 1920s and ’30s and their impact on modern art.

The show is a deep dive into the influence of the iconic northern New Mexico landscape. All 130 works are part of the Tia Collection, created by an Indian national who fell madly in love with the art of the area, like so many before him. The collector, who prefers anonymity, started buying up Western art “voraciously,” Hopkins says, filling a Santa Fe warehouse.

In addition to works firmly rooted in the American West, Hopkins likes to exhibit artwork by artists from other regions who look westward for inspiration.

Thus the 46 gleaming vessels turned from western woods by Philip and Matt Moulthrop that are lined up in the gallery across the hall from “New Beginnings.” Like the late Edward Moulthrop, Philip’s father and Matt’s grandfather, the Atlanta craftsmen favor native southeastern woods. But Hopkins challenged them to “investigate some western woods that would be unique to us and tie to our theme.”

And so "Edward, Philip and Matt Moultrop: Western Woods," continuing through Oct. 4, features gorgeous pieces that the father and son turned out of California redwood, Texas mulberry, desert mesquite and more.

Wood-turned vessel by Philip Moulthrop of big leaf maple (left) and two by Matt Moulthrop of California redwood are included in the exhibit "Edward, Philip and Matt Moulthrop: Western Woods," on view through Oct. 4 at Booth Western Art Museum. 
Contributed by Booth Western Art Museum
Wood-turned vessel by Philip Moulthrop of big leaf maple (left) and two by Matt Moulthrop of California redwood are included in the exhibit "Edward, Philip and Matt Moulthrop: Western Woods," on view through Oct. 4 at Booth Western Art Museum. Contributed by Booth Western Art Museum

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

The Booth’s permanent collection is always evolving as well.

In recent years, the museum committed a space in its contemporary wing to photography, hired a full-time curator and has amassed a 500-piece-and-counting collection. Opening Aug. 22 in the Picturing America gallery: “American Dreams or Imagined Lands,” experimental western landscape images by five photographers. As the gallery name suggests, the collection and changing exhibits are not limited to western subject matter. Hopkins lets slip that he’s negotiating for an exhibit of photographs taken across the U.S. by the late singer Kenny Rogers.

While the Booth Western Art Museum typically faces westward, from the beginning it has boasted a simultaneous patriotic bent. The popular Carolyn & James Millar Presidential Gallery includes one-page signed letters and other materials from every U.S. President. That includes Donald Trump, whose supersized signature competes for the most forceful on view. Trump is also the first president among the 45 whose display features a reproduced Tweet.

Meanwhile, female artists also are commanding more attention at the Booth. In the Modern West Gallery, Hopkins proudly points out evocative equine paintings by Douglasville artist Susan Easton Burns and Amy Wilmoth Watts, who manages a horse farm outside Athens. Available virtually on the Booth’s website is the exhibit “Making Their Mark: American Women Artists.”

“We’ve tried to incorporate women artists and women subjects as often as we can, because that’s so lacking in Western art,” he says.

As the threat of COVID-19 continues to linger, Hopkins acknowledges that museum attendance for the remainder of 2020 may poke along like a wagon-train, with normal traffic at least a year away. In anticipation of limited school visits this fall, the Booth has four virtual field trips ready to share with schools. And a promotional push around USA Today’s Best Art Museum honors is planned to support the Oct. 10 opening of the exhibit “Southwest Rising: Contemporary Art & the Legacy of Elaine Horwitch.”

Part of the marketing effort this fall will be aimed at persuading metro Atlantans to cross over what Hopkins calls “the 285 hump” to make the drive to Cartersville. After all, the museum is only a half-hour north of the Perimeter’s top end.

Before the pandemic halted social gatherings, Hopkins said he often encountered folks at Atlanta events who offered, weakly, that, well, they've been meaning to pay a visit.

"And I say, 'I realize it's been a busy 17 years,'" the Booth leader recounts. "So, I try to be whimsical, but with a little jab, not let them off the hook totally."

It’s easy to visualize the wry smile beneath that red bandana mask.

MUSEUM PREVIEW

Booth Western Art Museum. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday. $12. 501 Museum Drive, Cartersville. 770-387-1300, www.boothmuseum.org.