The High Museum is now free one Wednesday a month

The new Access for All program features free admission along with drop-in activities

The High Museum is now free one Wednesday a month
Sonya Clark’s “Beaded Prayers Project,” (1998-ongoing) part of the exhibit Sonya Clark: We Are Each Other on view at the High until February 18.

Photograph by Rachel Garbus

On January 17, the High Museum of Art’s Access for All program was off to such a good start, the entire parking deck was already full to capacity. It was the first day of the new initiative, which welcomes visitors for free every third Wednesday of the month, and the museum was bustling. On the third floor, a dozen museumgoers were deep in discussion comparing an Adolph Gottlieb oil painting to a nearby Mark Rothko. In the elevator, two young visitors in puffy jackets headed down to a Qigong movement workshop in the lobby, while down in the sunny atrium, a jazz band tuned their instruments ahead of an afternoon performance.

“With the Access for All program, we’re making the collection accessible to people with varying interests, varying levels of experience with art,” says Laurel Humble, head of creative aging and lifelong learning at the High. “Some people feel really comfortable around art, some people really don’t—but this program is an entry point for everyone.”

Access for All is the cornerstone of the High’s new Culture Collective initiative, which welcomes adults into the museum with arts-centered workshops, conversations and performances. The free access is sponsored by the Art Bridges Foundation, which is dedicating to making American art more accessible to the public. The High already offers free admission every second Sunday, an event that usually draws large crowds of families with children; Access for All, though open to everyone, is designed to appeal to adults of all ages, Humble explained. “No matter your age or stage of life, there’s always more to see, to learn, to do,” she says.

That mission demanded programming that would appeal to a wide range of potential adult museumgoers. One such element is the adults-only, hands-on art programs: In “Open Studio,” visitors can experiment with high-quality artists materials like oil pastels and watercolors, while a rotating workshop series focuses on creating a more fully realized piece of art. January’s workshop, Beaded Prayers, is linked to the current museum exhibit Sonya Clark: We Are Each Other, which includes Clark’s ongoing “Beaded Prayers Project,” a fiber art installation collaboratively created by thousands of people all over the world. The High has held several Beaded Prayers community workshops, and recently added two panels to Clark’s installation, full of pieces crafted by Atlantans—a rare and powerful moment of community programming weaving itself into real museum art. “I tear up just going in there and seeing those panels,” Humble says with a smile. Future High exhibitions may work their way into future Access for All workshops, she noted, depending on programming needs.

The High Museum is now free one Wednesday a month
A studio workshop at the High Museum

Photograph by CatMax Photography/courtesy of the High Museum of Art

Another important component of the Culture Collective imitative is Through Lines, a series of free, drop-in art conversations guided by a High staff member that pair two pieces in the museum. For January’s event, Through Lines invited visitors to compare a 14th century religious panel to a modern painting by Ghanaian painter Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe; Sonya Clark’s Gele Kente Flag to the traditionally-woven Adire Cloth by a 20th century Yoruba artist; and Adolph Gottlieb’s Duet to No. 73, a painting by Gottlieb’s contemporary and friend Mark Rothko.

For each 30 minute event, the High provides folding stools for visitors to settle around the artwork and study its details, while a guide provides history, context, and poses questions.

“For me, as someone who loves talking about art, I just love gathering together a group [that doesn’t] know each other, but then they start listening to each other and really connecting over this work,” Humble says. “There’s just something about being in a space together interpreting works of art that just gets you seeing differently.” The High offers a host of other art discussions, from guided tours to their program “Conversation Pieces,” but “Through Lines,” with three drop-in discussions a day, is intended to draw in visitors more spontaneously as they make their way through the museum, intrigued by the conversations taking place as they pass through the galleries.

The High Museum is now free one Wednesday a month
A group discusses artwork at the High Museum

“At the High we really see and believe how talking about art can bring people together and make for a better, healthier community—and a better, healthier museum,” she says. The art museum is an institution with a complicated history, its roots tangled up with Western imperialism and white supremacy. Today, debates rage about who rightfully owns the work on museum walls, which work belongs there, and even who belongs within the walls of a museum, and how they ought to behave while there. For the High, programs like Cultural Collective and Access for All attempt not only to engage those conversations directly, but to open them up more accessibly to the Atlanta community.

“There are perceptive barriers to engaging with museums,” says Humble. “Museums haven’t always done a great of job of welcoming people in different ways, making them feel comfortable in this space. That’s another goal for us, showing that there’s not one way to visit a museum.” Whether that’s a Qigong movement workshop in the lobby or an exuberant dance party in the atrium that goes viral, the High Museum is working to push open their doors wider. “Artwork is made relevant by the people and the communities that come to explore them,” Humble says.

That community-made relevance was on full display as the growing group of museum visitors—from a wide range of ages and demographics—pivoted their attention to Rothko’s No. 73. From the corner, a young visitor in a Braves hat pointed to the top of the painting, where heavy purples had given way to an airy light orange.

“It’s like the lightness was always there, but you had to reach for it,” he said, as the visitors around him nodded. “You had to get through all that darkness to find the light up at the top.”