Flipping, with some effort, through the large rolling racks that make up the storybook-style storage facility for the Morris Museum of Art, Executive Director Kevin Grogan pauses at a painting by Alabama-born artist Charles Shannon. The painting, Saturday Evening , was one of the earliest Morris acquisitions, purchased as part of the Coggins collection in 1989, three years before the museum opened.
Still, 20 years after its purchase and eight years after Grogan took his post, he still finds it surprising.
"I always thought this one was bigger," he said, turning toward Morris Museum registrar Laura Pasch. "It's not really that big at all."
It's not surprising that the Morris collection can still yield the unexpected to even those most closely acquainted with it. Over the course of two decades, it has expanded to more than 5,000 pieces, each with a uniquely Southern story to tell.
The Morris is revamping and redefining its permanent collection galleries. The long corridors of the outer ring of exhibition space have been stripped, and soon, the interior galleries will go through the same process.
When the museum celebrates its "Grand Reopening" in March, only a few of the current pieces -- "the fan favorites," Grogan said -- will remain. Most space will be devoted to paintings, sculptures and other works that haven't been seen for years, if ever.
The reason for the reshuffle is simple: Although the Morris holds thousands of pieces, only a few hundred can be displayed at any one time. Grogan said the collection is also composed of pieces that more fully address the idea of life, history and culture in the American South -- the museum's mandate.
"We now have the luxury of having a number of different things that allow us to interpret the goals of the collection in new and different ways," he said.
Grogan said that while the public galleries are intended to illustrate that goal, they can only serve as a snapshot of the collection. He said that while the museum can display only about 5 percent of its available collection at one time, public exhibition is only part of the museum's mission. He said a large collection is maintained by most museums because it fulfills those other goals.
"We have pieces, for instance, that make a historical case for a certain artist or a certain movement," he said. "And that also applies to the mission of a museum."
Pushing aside several racks, he pauses at a large textile piece by Emma Amos. Because it is a large vertical piece, the work will never find a place in the museum's current galleries -- it just doesn't fit. It does, however, address Southern-centric ideas of race, gender and aesthetics.
It doesn't fit the walls, Grogan explained, but it does fit the collection.
Because the Morris collection has outgrown the exhibition possibilities of its current facility, special, and very specific, care is taken to preserve the works outside the gallery environment. The Morris maintains two separate storage facilities -- one built specifically for paintings and one capable of housing both two- and three-dimensional art.
Paintings are stored vertically, and climate and humidity are carefully controlled.
"The temperature is kept at about 72 degrees and humidity is kept at about 52 percent," Grogan said. "Optimally, this should feel like San Diego."
At the Morris, that means running humidifiers during the drier months of winter and dehumidifiers during Augusta's sticky summers. He said having a purpose-built storage facility makes it easy to monitor and maintain an art-friendly environment.
"It's not always like that," he said. "When I worked at the Phillips Collection (in Washington, D.C.), we affected humidity control by turning on the bathtubs. They don't do that anymore, and fortunately, it isn't something we need to do here."
Acquisitions over the past several years have built exceptionally strong photography and folk art collections at the Morris. They, along with the paintings, sculpture and works on paper are, Grogan said, a clear illustration of the true nature of Southern culture.
"One of the fascinating things about our culture is the perception that it is homogeneous," he said. "Nothing could be further from the truth, and that is what this collection is about. It is, for us, the point of departure."
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ART COLLECTION BY THE NUMBERS
The Morris Museum of Art is revamping and redefining its permanent collection. The basics:
5,000 Approximate number of pieces in the Morris collection
225 Number of pieces that can be displayed at one time
72 degrees Optimal temperature for art storage
52 percent Optimal humidity for art storage
1992 Year of the museum's grand opening (held Sept. 26)
2010 Year of the museum's grand re-opening (to be held March 6)