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High Museum chief Michael Shapiro assesses ‘Allure’ as its run nears end

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

The High Museum of Art’s design exhibit “Allure of the Automobile” closes Sunday, and looking in the rear view, it appears to be an experiment that succeeded.

The show of “rolling sculpture” – 18 rare custom-made cars from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, including “masterpieces in metal” by Bugatti, Duesenberg, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Ferrari – was something a little bit different for the Midtown museum.

“Allure” drew well and brought in many guests who’d never before stepped foot in the High, racking up attendance of 130,186 over 14 weeks (through June 20). It even proved more popular than the museum’s major exhibit last summer, “Monet Water Lilies,” which attracted 91,106 over 11 weeks.

The High added some fun programming with the auto exhibit, including specialty car convoys down Peachtree, an outdoor screening of “American Graffiti” and “Hoods Up” events during which motorheads could ogle the engines of some of the rare autos on display.

We talked to High director Michael Shapiro about “Allure” earlier in its run and again this week.

Q: Has the tough economy, both in terms of fund-raising and the need to get people in the door, changed the way the High is doing business and planning its calendar, and how?

A: The High has not fundamentally changed its approach in planning exhibitions because of the economy. We continue to seek out a wide range of projects that will bring the greatest possible works of art to Atlanta. We continue to broaden the menu of what we present — whether it be the Terracotta Warriors from China or the rarest, most beautifully designed automobiles of the 20th century.

The economy has certainly focused our attention on keeping our costs down, while continuing with our mission: delivering truly one-of-a-kind artistic experiences to our community. Of course, we also continue to develop ground- breaking partnerships with other leading art museums – most recently with the National Galleries of Scotland [to bring 25 masterworks of the Venetian Renaissance to the High in mid-October].

Our audience is responding positively: Our membership levels are at record high levels, over 54,000 households, one of the highest of any art museum in the nation.

Q: Though “Allure” was doubtlessly planned before the recession, it seems to be a reflection of the times we’re in and of the High reinventing itself to fit these times. That is, it seems like an exhibit the museum might not have tried a decade or even five years ago, but shows the museum trying to connect with people who might not be the audience excited about Venetian Renaissance art. Does a tough economy make it even more imperative to be crowd pleasing and to deliver big audience numbers?

A: The automotive design show was inspired by my seeing three fantastic looking American cars in front of a hotel in Paris several years ago. In a way, it is similar to our Norman Rockwell exhibition of 1999, which was also a more “populist” exhibition but still included accessible works of art with inherent craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty, that helped inspire a new audience to come to the High.

We have consistently explored topics of high artistic quality with broad appeal. I love the idea that we will have the Titian and Dali exhibitions on view at the same time this fall. Nonetheless, regardless of the economy, an art museum is always focused on building its audience and looking for ways to get new visitors in the door while staying true to its identity and caliber of exhibitions.

Q: So many arts institutions have cut back on programming and ambitions in order to survive the storm. Yet the High has struck partnerships to bring in Dali and Museum of Modern Art exhibits and Titian. What kind of challenge has it been to move forward when others seem to be working so hard to hang in there?

A: We have worked hard to trim our operating budget over the last two years to help weather the changes in the economy, but we have also tried our best to continue to program boldly so that the experience of visiting the High remains the same.

Our momentum, first generated by our Olympic exhibition of 1996, continues forward today. We are intent upon making the High Museum one of our nation’s most innovative and dynamic art museums.

Q: Now that “Allure” is winding up, do you feel it was a successful endeavor, and did you take anything away from how well this show did?

A: The exhibition was a wonderful experience for us and our visitors. It had a multi-generational appeal. It had people having lots of conversation in the gallery. Everyone has a perspective or a story relating to automobiles.

There was absolutely no doubt that the automobiles were great works of art, and that they looked both astonishing and natural in our galleries. And I think that was important for the collectors, because I’ve come to learn that it’s a little bit like some years ago, when people were still fighting the fight that photography was fine art. That battle’s been won,.but I think that the idea of certain automobiles being works of art is still in play. But I think we’ve made a really wonderful major statement that people have enjoyed and reveled in.

I’ve been surprised that some people have said this is daring or brave. It’s intriguing, because I feel 100 percent that these are great things. But I must say, I’ve been enormously pleased at how beautiful the automobiles look in the museum.

So I think we’ve made some new friends, I think we’ve attracted some new people to Atlanta to see the show. I think it’s opened some doors in our own thinking to what could be some future design projects. Will there be a sequel? I think it would be wonderful.if we could think of one that was logical and of similar quality. So there are a few ideas kicking around; I don’t know if they’ll pass the spaghetti test.

Q: As far as those “new friends,” is that a reference to some visitors who’d never been in the museum before?

A: Absolutely. I think [the exhibit’s appeal] cut across all strata: age, economic, actually gender too. It was skewed a little toward the male, but there were a lot of femalemotor-heads, as I came to learn that vocabulary word. It broadened my vocabulary. It was geography too: People came from all over.

And whether you were a 10-year-old boy or a grandparent, when those elevators doors opened, “Oh, wow” was the universal response. And we can’t ask for more than that.

On view

“Allure of the Automobile”

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. Music and barbecue, 2-5 p.m. both days. Advance reservations recommended. $18 adults, $15 65 and older and students, $11 ages 6-17, free 5 and under. 404-733-4444, www.high.org.

One comment Add your comment

Sherri Butler

June 24th, 2010
2:33 pm

I joined the High Museum quite a few years ago. This year, I raised my membership level. Year in and year out, the High Museum continues to bring rich and rewarding experiences to Atlanta and Georgia. I travel to Atlanta three or four times a year from the bottom of south Georgia – to go to the High. I’ve never been disappointed.