High Museum’s new director seeks to bridge the gap between old Atlanta money and new Atlanta art

Rand Suffolk is tasked with growing the museum’s annual attendance
High Museum of Art
Illustration by James Taylor; photographs courtesy of the High Museum of Art

In the fall of 2014, Michael Shapiro, the High Museum of Art’s director since the turn of the millennium, announced he would be leaving the South’s leading art institution. His departure this past summer ended a tenure marked by an unprecedented expansion of the museum’s permanent art collection, as well as criticism over popular exhibits such as The Allure of the Automobile. In searching for Shapiro’s successor, the museum board had two options: hire from within—as it had done with Shapiro, who had worked at the High five years before succeeding Ned Rifkin—or, for the first time in nearly a quarter century, bring in an outsider.

In July, the museum announced it had hired Rand Suffolk—the 47-year-old president of the Philbrook Museum of Art, a Tulsa institution housed inside a stunning 1920s villa and surrounded by 23 acres of gardens. “We wanted someone who could take the High to the next level and build upon Michael’s successes,” says Charles Abney, the High’s board chair. Suffolk, who starts work this month, will be tasked with growing the museum’s annual attendance (currently 400,000 visitors per year), in part through an increased focus on broadening its audience.

The Akron native, who lived in Italy as a teenager, spent his early career working at the Hyde Collection art museum in upstate New York before joining the Philbrook in 2007. When the Great Recession shriveled donor bases across the country, he offset the impact by expanding partnerships with local nonprofits to strengthen the museum’s community ties, going so far as to give homeless residents and dementia patients free admission to the museum. He even encouraged the gardening staff to plant a decorative vegetable garden, from which local food bank volunteers were able to harvest thousands of pounds of produce.

“In this day and age, you have to find ways to connect with your community,” says Suffolk. “Being mission-driven as a visual arts organization and being a community resource aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Suffolk—who is married, has a 12-year-old daughter, and collects abstract art—aims to make the High more than just a place for traditional patrons to see famous paintings. He hopes to align the interests of the museum and its exhibitions with a wider audience. Under his watch, the Philbrook’s attendance increased 63 percent, membership grew 22 percent, and participation in educational programming nearly quadrupled.

Photograph courtesy of the High Museum of Art

Some observers say the effort to sell more tickets shouldn’t come at the expense of the art. Matt Arnett is a curator who also manages Lonnie Holley, an acclaimed Alabama artist whose works are part of the High’s permanent collection. Arnett believes exhibitions like 2011’s The Art of Golf, a fairway-themed collection of paintings, drawings, and photographs, “pander” to certain audiences.

“[The High] has a difficult task: being the leading art museum in the region, which should be presenting the best our region has to offer, while also bringing the best of the rest of the country and the world,” Arnett says. “I’m not sure it has always done the best job of balancing those two responsibilities.”

Beth Malone, a former program coordinator at the High who cofounded the curatorial organization Dashboard, says a bigger problem lies with a museum board that she believes has hindered the institution’s ability to keep pace with the city’s rapid cultural changes. “There is more [of] a disconnect with the metro area’s diverse populations, made most apparent by a lack of diversity at the board level,” Malone says. (Of the 77 members appointed to the High’s board, about two-thirds are white.)

But High board member Alexis Scott, the longtime publisher of the Atlanta Daily World, says the board has sought to increase its diversity across race, age, gender, and ethnicity. And in recent years, as she points out, museum officials have expanded outreach efforts by establishing the annual David C. Driskell Prize, a $25,000 cash award given to a black artist or arts scholar.

Last February, the museum opened an exhibition celebrating the centennial of the iconic Coca-Cola bottle, produced in partnership with the Atlanta-based soft drink giant, which has donated millions of dollars to the Woodruff Arts Center. It’s programming like this that frustrates Malone. “Producing exhibitions that cater to corporate funders embarrasses me,” she says. “We need to see the institution taking risks to elevate artistic excellence.”

Board chair Abney counters that the museum seeks to address a wide range of subject matter. “It’s always been part of the High’s mission to present a robust mix of exhibitions that help the High continue to diversify and expand our audiences and allow us to continue the High’s reputation as the leading art museum in the Southeast,” he says.

The High’s international stature means it’s uniquely positioned to promote local artists to the world. “Smaller organizations, artists, culture-seekers look to the High to bring what’s happening in Atlanta’s visual culture to an audience outside the region,” says WonderRoot executive director Chris Appleton, who points to the museum’s inclusion of Atlanta artist Fahamu Pecou (now a High board member) in its Imagining New Worlds exhibition last year as one example. “There’s a void of additional visual arts organizations [in the region] with a national and international reach, making the High Museum the sole organization that can bring that kind of visibility.”

Considering Suffolk’s success at the Philbrook, where he managed to quadruple minority participation, similar efforts at the High could make the museum more welcoming to people from all walks of life. “If art museums can use their resources to create a space where all Atlantans are comfortable coming together, and we can foster a dialogue that’s meaningful, you’re meeting the tenets of your mission,” Suffolk says. “We want people to not only love the High, but for Atlanta to be proud of the work we’re doing day in and day out.”

This article originally appeared in our November 2015 issue under the headline “Higher Ground.”