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Q&A with Julia Forbes

Explaining the High's golf exhibit

Opening February 5 at the High Museum, The Art of Golf features works by the likes of Rembrandt, Norman Rockwell, and Andy Warhol. Atlanta golf legend Bobby Jones Jr. warrants his own room. The exhibition’s managing curator Julia Forbes, a golfer herself, explains the origins of the show running through June 24.

"Sir James MacDonald (1741–1765) and Sir Alexander MacDonald (1744–1810)" by William Mosman, National Galleries of Scotland, courtesy of the High Museum of Art

So this is the first time a major art gallery has organized an entire exhibition dedicated to artists’ depiction of golfing? At least in the United States. We’ve done our homework. We don’t think anyone else at a major American art museum has had an exhibition focused on the art of golf. This is the latest result of the High’s ongoing partnership with the National Galleries of Scotland. At one point, Michael Clarke, the director of the National Galleries of Scotland said to our director Michael Shapiro, “You know, we own ‘The Golfers’ by Charles Lees, what we think is the most important golf painting ever made.” Michael Shapiro replied, “Really? Is there a most important golf painting ever made?” This was not an area of art history terribly familiar to him and not being a golfer himself, he wasn’t necessarily aware of the work. And now, this large wonderful 1847 Victorian painting by Scottish artist Charles Lees is the centerpiece of our show.

And it’s never been displayed in the United States? It’s never been here. I don’t believe it’s ever left Scotland. We have an entire room dedicated to that painting, along with many of Charles Lees’s sketches and photographs as well.

How do you go about assembling the various pieces of this show? You’ve got everything from a 1654 etching by Rembrandt to a 1977 screen print of Jack Nicklaus by Warhol in this show. It required a lot of incredible detective work. Because nobody had assembled this kind of work before, it was in a hodgepodge of places. You have to go through old books and pore over old records. You start searching databases around the country and discover things like the Cincinnati Art Museum has “Golf Course [California]” by George Bellows. There were many, many sources we drew from.

I’ve heard the first part of the show depicts the history of golf, including kolf, a distant cousin of the game played on frozen canals in Holland in the seventeenth century? Believe it or not, in the 1600s, kolf was very popular and often provided inspiration for Dutch painters who depicted this game in their works. The game was played on ice with a stick, a ball, and maybe used a tree stump as a target. It was played in teams and in a lot of these paintings you see the two teams and the balls heading toward the targets. These beautiful Dutch paintings lend a lovely historical air to our exhibition.

How did being a golfer yourself aid in the The Art of Golf curating process for you? I have a lot of passion for what I do here, and I also love the game. It was nice to merge the two. Understanding the game is important in terms of knowing what you’re looking for. But at its essence, this is an art exhibition. This is what our business is at the High Museum of Art. Putting together an engaging exhibition that tells a great story is what we do. It just happens that this time we are doing it about an entirely new subject that will hopefully bring a lot of new people into the High.

Ordinarily, wives complain that they can never get their husbands to go to the High with them. I’m thinking this will be less of an issue with The Art of Golf? Let’s hope so! Much like The Allure of the Automobile exhibition we did a couple of years ago, we’re hoping to attract new people in to see this show. At that show, I talked to lot of people who had never been here before and they had an opportunity to see things here in addition to the autos. We’re hoping this show will have a similar effect.

How do you respond to criticism from the serious arts patrons who will likely click their tongues and say “First, they turned my beloved museum into a classic car show and now they’re transforming it into a Dick’s Sporting Goods outlet?” They should come and see the show. A lot of people who came to see The Allure of the Automobile realized we brought spectacularly beautiful moving sculpture in for that. With The Art of Golf, they’ll get to see works of art spanning 400 years and artists that they love and whose work they admire. Artists who happened to be fascinated by the landscape and the personality of a sport as their subject. I think that’s really exciting. Hopefully, our patrons will too.

*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE INTERVIEW THAT RAN IN OUR FEBRUARY 2012 ISSUE

Rich Eldredge is one of our editorial contributors.
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