Gala supports Southern art repository

When the Morris Museum was founded, it was the first museum in the U.S. dedicated to Southern art and artists. But it had just a $50,000 endowment.

An endowment is an investment fund that provides a non-profit income for its continual support. Even though profits are invested back into the fund each year, that amount wasn’t going to go very far.

Major art museums enjoy endowments in the hundreds of millions, such as the Art Institute of Chicago ($565 million). Even museums in smaller-sized towns like Cleveland and Indianapolis enjoy endowments of more than $300 million, according to Arts Journal, a digest of arts and culture.

But although it may have started small, the Morris Museum has used its annual gala to increase the size of its endowment to $3 million over the last 15 years, according the Special Events Coordinator Janna Crane.

And their fundraising shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, it’s getting even harder to get a ticket to their annual flagship event, the Morris Museum Gala.

At press time, they had only about 30 tickets remaining out of an available 550. Tickets go for $200 each.

“It’s become the sought-after and looked-forward-to event in Augusta, and the museum lends itself to it so well. We’re so lucky to have a museum dedicated to Southern artists,” said Elaine Clark Smith, who is on the planning committee.

The endowment is invested in perpetuity to provide income for their museum’s continual support. Each year, the dividends and interests earned are used for programs and projects while the principal fund remains untouched — and grows with further contributions to the endowment, such as those funds raised through the gala.

Smith said that the money generated from this glitzy black-tie affair go right back into local arts.

“Proceeds from the gala benefit the museum’s endowment to benefit the programs that the museum provides for the CSRA,” Smith said.

One thing it does not provide for is a free-standing museum building. That rumor circulates regularly, according to museum director Kevin Grogan, but he denied that any such plans are in the works at present.

But Crane said that the programs they offer now include exhibitions, school services, outreach activities and publications. They offer art classes, artist lectures, lectures on history and current exhibitions, guided tours, films, educator guidance and art therapy programs for Alzheimer’s patients. Admission to the museum is free on Sundays.

They offer all of this, Crane said, because one of the goals of the Morris Museum is to expose as many people as they can to Southern art. Even their concerts have a Southern flair, especially their Southern Soul & Song series that features artists such as bluegrass musician Rhonda Vincent, whose show recently drew 700 people to the Imperial Theatre.

But after more than a decade of planning and hosting the gala, some things must change to ensure that the event stays fresh for the community. So this year, the museum has changed the serving style, added a theme and included a gift for all attendees.

Instead of a sit-down dinner, this year the gala will have food stations. But they’ve injected a little more fun into the concept by playing off of their featured artist, John Baeder. (See our feature story on the artist at

“The theme this year is, of course, the diner. The title of [Baeder’s] work is ‘Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats along the Way,’” Smith said, in which the painter focuses his photorealist style on those gleaming icons of the American highway: the diner.

“The clarity and the beautiful realism in these paintings are just amazing. To me, his paintings and his prints absolutely personify Americana. We all remember going down the country roads and seeing these little roadside diners. They bring back such a sense of nostalgia.”

They’ll offer miniature diner foods at the reception in the museum before the party officially gets underway — tiny cheeseburgers and milkshakes, for example — and what Smith termed “upscale diner food” for the tented party in the adjacent parking lot. It’s not obvious what’s “diner-y” about roasted duck breast and crab cakes, but if delicious is one quality of diners, caterer Dennis Dean from Atlanta brings it.

And although the tension-building live auction from last year will not recur, the gala’s new format allows greater participation by moving the auction to an online forum.

It enables absentee votes from those who may not be able to attend and bid on furniture, antiques, artwork and events and trips. Artist Paul Pearman’s handmade mosaic belt buckle has generated a lot of interest, Smith said.

Before this year’s event is even upon us, however, the Morris Museum had already booked its artist for next year: Jim McGuire, photographer to the stars, whose book, “Nashville Portraits,” is currently available in the Morris Museum’s gift shop.

The book captures 60 portraits of leading figures in country music — everyone from historic figures such as Bill Monroe and Minnie Pearl, to contemporaries like Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith.

Marty Stuart, who will return to the Imperial Theatre for the Southern Soul & Song series on March 14, is featured in the book. With museum connections, who knows? There might be a private party concert in the works for next year.

The gala will the last chance to see Baeder’s extensive exhibition. Shortly after the gala, the exhibition at the Morris will come down and begin a three-city tour.

Annual Morris Museum Gala
Friday, March 7


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