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High anxiety

The High Museum won the popularity contest with its brand-name blockbuster shows, but at what cost?

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Another high-ranking staff member agrees, accusing the "core leadership" of too narrow a focus. "Shapiro has built up a board around himself that insulates him from the outside world," the staffer says, adding that when it comes to the museum's programs, the board does little more than rubber-stamp Shapiro's ideas. "The board hasn't been asking those awkward questions. 'Are we doing this the right way?' Voices of dissent and critical discussion [aren't there]. That's not the environment that is encouraged."

Museum sources name a handful of board members who are individually sympathetic to supporting more dynamic contemporary art, including Atlanta lawyer and board chair James Henderson III, as well as board members Elaine Levin and Paul Steinfeld. But they have not altered the balance of the full board and its reportedly compliant relationship with the museum's director.

Shapiro disagrees that the museum's curators face obstacles in mounting the kind of high-quality shows Atlanta's contemporary art enthusiasts have been clamoring for. Citing former photography curator Julian Cox as an example, Shapiro says, "Julian was extraordinarily productive. If you got just the publications that he did in a five-year period it would be half a bookshelf. One of the things that a midsize museum like ourselves can offer are opportunities for rising stars like Julian."

Cox left the High in August to become chief curator at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Michael Moon, Emory professor of literature and an expert on folk artist Henry Darger, says he believes the High has struck a proper balance of programs. He was impressed by the museum's major Darger exhibition in 1998 and thinks the museum "probably does need to have some blockbusters" in order to stay in the black. He adds that he doesn't fault the institution for having to "run as a business in the absence of government funding."

Michael D. Harris, who served as consulting curator of African-American art from 2005 to 2009, says he wanted to accomplish more during his tenure but recognizes the fine line the High must walk. "The museum is poised between its community relationships and responsibilities and its need for funding," he says. "It survives so much on private donations, so you have to serve that master."

Rooks takes a similarly nuanced view of the museum's programming. He says that when the art world calls for "risky" work, it would do well to remember that risk is in the eye of the beholder. "There is a misperception about the museum's emphasis on big shows. To do this show of Titian paintings from Scotland — they've never left Europe. It's a huge deal. And it's not going to be the same kind of commercial success [as Dalí]. It just won't. These things may not seem risky in a contemporary context, but they are."

Artists born before Columbus who set foot in the New World are all well and good, but Rooks knows Atlantans don't want to stop there. And he believes the museum will have to overcome a squeamishness about taboo subject matter, including works that deal blatantly with sexuality or politics, or works that push the boundary of what counts as art, such as performance artist Andrea Fraser's critiques of museums delivered as faux lectures.

"The current curatorial approach at the High feels as though they are teaching art history," said painter and SCAD student Brian Steele in an e-mail. "I want a living, breathing approach that feels like work that is reflective of our current times."

Ruth Dusseault, artist-in-residence at Georgia Tech's School of Architecture and a photographer whose work is in the High's permanent collection, says she and her colleagues have mixed feelings about what to do with visiting scholars who want a taste of Atlanta's museum culture. "Sometimes the faculty tell the visitors to go to the High, [but] they tell them they'll be disappointed. Sometimes they go [anyway] and come back disappointed."

For his part, Shapiro asserts that the museum is as dedicated to contemporary art as ever. "We acquire it. We exhibit it. We have curatorial expertise in that area." He pauses, then adds, "We would welcome financial support to do more than we're able to do currently."

The financial pressure on the museum's bottom line comes as no surprise to long-term observers. Completing the 2005 Renzo Piano expansion doubled the size of the museum and also doubled the pressure to finance it and to showcase it. Maxwell L. Anderson, former director of the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University and the Whitney Museum of American Art told then-CL art critic Felicia Feaster in 2005, "What happens is that by building large institutions, there is a greater risk that organizations will drift toward providing programs that are solely intended to grow audience rather than thinking about programmatic quality."

With that kind of do-or-die pressure, it's an open question whether the museum's leadership will follow through with the incentive to further diversify its offerings.

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