Carlos Museum—the transformation

This is part five of a seven-part history of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, in celebration of the museum’s centennial, drawing on the archives of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library and the office of the museum registrar.

When James Laney became dean of the theology school in 1969, he had ambitious plans, and he needed the 5,000 square feet of museum space in the basement of Bishops Hall for offices for his growing faculty. Happily, in 1972 the law school moved out of its original home on the Quadrangle and into Gambrell Hall; the old law building thus became the new home for the museum.

And yet, without a clear sense of mission and direction, the museum seemed threatened to remain a backwater. A 1971 study of the museum by professor of English Frank Manley acknowledged that the museum had “enjoyed a slow, leisurely growth like the collection in the attic of a large family that has lived in the same place for a number of generations.” Manley concludes by recommending that the University determine its commitment to the museum and clarify the museum’s mission.

That clarification and commitment came in the early 1980s. By then, Laney had moved to the presidency of Emory. Following the boon of the Woodruff gift in 1979, Emory was renovating all of the old Quadrangle buildings. Henry Bowden, the retired chair of the board of trustees, told Laney that his friend Michael Carlos, chairman and CEO of the National Distributing Company, might help. Laney called Carlos one day in 1981 and invited him to meet.

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Michael C. Carlos

As they talked, Laney commented that Emory needed to renovate the old History Building. In view of Henry Bowden’s historic role in helping to dismantle the segregation of private higher education in Georgia, it would be appropriate to rename the building for him. A $1 million gift would help cover the renovation. Would Mr. Carlos be interested in helping?

Carlos thought about it but wondered what else Emory needed. Well, said Laney, Emory needed to renovate the old Law Building, which had been housing the museum for the past seven years. This would require $1.5 million. Carlos said, “You have a deal.” And that was the beginning of the Carlos family’s enormous generosity to the museum.

Laney credits Monique Seefried for calling his attention to the diamond in the rough that was then the museum. She had moved to Atlanta with her husband in 1977, while finishing her PhD at the Sorbonne in ancient art. A friend took her to the Emory museum, where she was stunned by the mishmash of things—valuable archaeological treasures next to dead starfish and snake skins and an ancient Maytag washing machine. Her immediate impression was that she would have to move back to Europe. How was such an enfeebled state of culture possible? But her husband persuaded her that she should try to change things rather than move away.

Discussions with friends followed, and one of them arranged a dinner and seated Seefried next to Laney for the opportunity to tell him what needed to be done. She told him that if Emory truly wanted to stand among the best, it could no longer have a laughingstock of a museum. Shortly after that dinner, Michael Carlos met with Laney to talk about a possible gift, and change was set in motion.

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Current museum director Bonnie Speed (left) with Monique Seefried.

In 1982, the University announced that the newly renamed Emory University Museum of Art and Archaeology would focus on art, archaeology, and ethnology, and that everything else in the collections would be disbursed. After twenty-eight years as part-time director of the Emory museum, a role he had taken on in retirement, Dr. Woolford Baker retired again at the age of eighty-nine, but he would live for another eleven years to see the dedication of an entire new museum building.

Clark Poling, professor of art history and a specialist in twentieth-century art, was named director of the museum and set about guiding its reorganization. The five years of Poling’s directorship brought extraordinary activity and achievement. Fossils, rocks, minerals, and animals all returned to Oxford, while sea shells, marine specimens, birds, insects, and dental office equipment were packed off to the Fernbank Science Center, and reptile skeletons and specimens were shipped to the Savannah Science Museum. The Art History Department collection was merged with those in the museum.

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Clark Poling

With the gift from Michael Carlos in hand, the University sought out the renowned postmodernist architect Michael Graves to design a renovation, and the rededicated building, now called Carlos Hall, opened in March 1985. In its first five years in the new space, the museum mounted twenty-nine exhibitions and organized and hosted international symposia around some of these exhibitions. When Poling announced his desire to return to teaching in 1987, a search got underway for the museum’s first full-time director. Emory found that person in a thirty-one-year old assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Maxwell Anderson (left) with President James Laney (center) and museum board chair Charles Ackerman.

Manhattan-born and -bred, Ivy-educated, and bearing the name of his Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright grandfather, Maxwell Anderson arrived in Atlanta in the fall of 1987 with a truckload of ambition. Within months, he had laid out a packed agenda that would build the scholarly eminence and the popular appeal of the museum. In July 1988, the museum mounted the first of a series of exhibitions through the innovative Emory University Museum International Loan Project, as Anderson persuaded renowned museums like the Louvre and the Museo Nazionale Romano to reach into their basements and lend Emory some of their treasures that the public rarely sees.

The following spring brought two more initiatives that began to build enthusiasm among Atlantans. The first would become a staple of fund raising for the museum. It was Veneralia, celebrated under a huge tent on the Quadrangle on April 1 that year. As a writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted, the gala “celebrated the ancient festival of Venus, when Roman women asked the goddess of love for fulfilling sex lives.” Live mannequins, spray-painted to resemble marble statues, stood in various poses around the elaborately decorated banquet tent as Peter Duchin and his band entertained the guests. The Emory Museum was moving up in the world.

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It was also moving out, into the metropolitan area through educational programs, as the spring of 1989 inaugurated B.C. Fest!. Over the next half-decade this series of annual festivals brought hundreds of Atlanta schoolchildren and their families to the Emory Quadrangle to explore the history and cultures of ancient civilizations.

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Meanwhile, the collections continued to grow. The museum acquired large collections of art of the ancient Americas, and Michael and Thalia Carlos began to develop the Carlos Collection of Ancient Greek Art. The museum once again needed more space, and once again Michael Carlos came forward. Just six years after the rededication of Carlos Hall, Carlos offered $3.5 million toward a whole new building that would more than quadruple the size of the museum. Breaking ground in November 1991, the museum moved into its new Michael Graves-designed building in May 1993.

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Within another two years, though, Anderson was gone, seeking new challenges. By the time he left, he had helped guide the museum into the Internet age and had built the museum staff to include twenty-two full-time and twenty part-time professionals. One of those professionals, Catherine Howett Smith—who had grown up on the Emory campus as the daughter of art history professor John Howett, and who had earned B.A. and M.A. degrees from Emory—would step in as acting director while the University searched for a new director.

Next: From Tibet to Niagara Falls

Gary S. Hauk

 

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