High Museum’s Rand Suffolk: ‘A place where all of Atlanta is comfortable coming together’
By Maria Saporta
The year 2020 was a year of reckoning with the issues of race, equity and inclusion for a myriad of institutions across our community and nationally.
But the High Museum of Art – the leading museum in the Southeast – has been undergoing such a reckoning for the past five years.
As soon as Randall Suffolk, the High Museum’s Nancy and Holcombe T. Greene Jr. director, came on board in 2015, he embarked on a quest to have the High’s offerings reflect Atlanta’s diversity.
Suffolk has been successful, for the most part, according to a report the High Museum recently released.
In the intro of that report, Suffolk shared his vision:
When I arrived at the High in 2015, the Museum faced a difficult truth: an exceptional collection and world-class architecture could not exclusively make us essential within the diverse and growing city that we call home. That realization forced us to change. We embraced inclusivity as a value and as a measurable objective.
Nearly five years after accelerating our commitment to inclusivity, now feels like an appropriate time to pause and transparently share our progress. While this data has been used in different ways at different times, this is the first occasion that we’ve created a comprehensive assessment of our efforts.
In a telephone interview on July 2, Suffolk elaborated on what the High has been able to accomplish in the past five years.
“We wanted to have the broadest level of public engagement,” Suffolk said. “From a business and sustainable standpoint, it would be crazy for us to ignore half of our audience.”
The Museum dropped ticket prices so a visit would become more affordable (it’s now a flat ticket price of $16.50 for ages 6 and older).
And the Museum also strategically expanded its exhibitions to be more inclusive. Suffolk said 62 percent of the Museum’s exhibitions in the past five years highlighted artists who were Black, Indigenous, People of Color, women and LBGTQ.
“It’s not just a token focus on their work,” Suffolk said. “We have changed the content.”
Suffolk also said the High has “doubled down on programming for families and young professionals” – an effort that pre-dated his arrival – thanks to a $6.6 million grant from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation (part of the Robert W. Woodruff family of foundations) to make the Woodruff Arts Center more accessible to families and students.
“It’s exciting work for us,” Suffolk said. “Eighty percent of the people who come to the museum are under 55; and 69 percent are under the age of 49. And that does not include school tours. Our numbers are different than others in the field.
Also, Suffolk said that 44 percent of the people who come to the Museum have less than a Bachelors’ degree, and 42 percent have a household income of less than $70,000 a year.
“We want to be the place where all of Atlanta is comfortable coming together,” Suffolk said.
Of course, 2020 did provide unique challenges to the High Museum because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Early on we realized that while our business had to change, our mission did not,” said Suffolk, adding the Museum sought ways to continue to be of service by pushing its resources online and creating virtual opportunities. It also reopened last July, with safety precautions and with 30 percent of its normal attendance.
The Woodruff Arts Center’s 2021 fiscal year ended on May 31. The High expects attendance to be at about 50 percent in its first quarter, 75 percent in the second and third quarters and back up to 100 percent (to pre-pandemic levels) in the fourth quarter (March 2022 through May 2022).
Suffolk proudly stated that it ended this fiscal year with a “slight surplus,” and it was able to keep most of its team, with the exception of five people in the education department because there were no school tours.
“We managed to keep the family together,” Suffolk said. “By in large, we were able to move forward because of an increased level of giving. We cut $6 million from our budget. We had a $22 million budget, and we cut it to a $16 million budget.”
The High did announce a major gift last week – $3.1 million from the Sara Giles Moore Foundation – a six-year grant that will go towards the conservation and care for the Museum’s art collections. Suffolk described the gift as “extraordinary” – because it’s an investment in the High’s core business.
The High now displays about 8 percent of the art in its collection, which is a higher percentage than most major museums.
Currently, the Museum is showing the Calder/Picasso exhibition (through Sept. 19) – featuring art from two of the most prominent 20th Century artists – Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso. The exhibit was conceived by the artists’ grandsons – Bernard Ruiz-Picasso and Alexander S. C. Rower.
While it’s wonderful to have Calder back on display at the High, it is a reminder of the void created when the High had to return the strikingly beautiful and iconic Calder mobile that adorned the front space of the Museum until 2014.
“People really miss it,” Suffolk said. When asked if the High could acquire another Calder or another monumental work of art to fill that void, Suffolk said: “It may be out of reach for us.”
But looking back over his tenure in Atlanta, Suffolk proudly talked about the “upside” and the “resilience” of the High Museum – especially through the pandemic.
“We kind of clawed our way back,” Suffolk said. “Let people know we are striving to be a listening organization. We are just trying to make sure we are moving forward.”