CC Magazine welcomes your Class Notes submissions. Please include your name, class year, email, and physical address for verification purposes. Please note that CC Magazine reserves the right to edit for space and clarity. Thank you.
Rand Suffolk ’90 creates gateways for the Atlanta community to connect with its museum.
By Doug Daniels
hen Rand Suffolk ’90 boarded his flight to Italy at age 15, it was the first time he’d ever been on a plane.
Until then, Suffolk had barely even explored the U.S., much less traveled abroad. But one afternoon, in their rural home outside of Akron, Ohio, Suffolk’s father walked in and asked if he would like to move to Rome for a year or two—his father had a job offer there.
“I said, ‘Sure, as long as I’m back in Ohio in time to finish my senior year of high school,’” Suffolk recalls from his spacious office at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia, where he serves as director of the High Museum of Art, arguably the most prominent institution of its kind in the Southeast.
Suffolk spent the next three years at an American school in Rome, where he became fluent in Italian and absorbed the visual beauty of the city’s architecture and art, grew accustomed to the culinary and cultural riches of the country, and took pleasure in the little things, such as smoking cigarettes on the iconic Spanish Steps at the Piazza di Spagna.
The Roman lifestyle may have been a world away from the midwestern United States, but it agreed with Suffolk, and when he returned to Ohio to complete his senior year of high school, he realized he missed Italy and flew back after three weeks.
“Ohio just didn’t feel like home anymore, and as a teenager, even though I wasn’t overtly conscious of what a gift it was to be in Rome and surrounded by beautiful art, there’s no question that through osmosis a certain appreciation developed,” Suffolk says.
But he knew he wanted to attend a liberal arts college in the U.S., and a friend’s mother, who happened to be a Conn grad, suggested he meet with a dean of the college who was traveling in Rome at the time.
After the meeting, Suffolk was sold. That next fall he arrived at Conn.
Immersing himself in English courses and art history, Suffolk decided he wanted to pursue a career in university administration. But throughout graduate school his interest in art history continued to evolve into a driving passion. So after finishing his first graduate program he decided to pursue a master’s in art history at Bryn Mawr College.
Suffolk’s big break came when he was hired by the Hyde Collection, a hidden gem of an art museum in upstate New York, where he quickly worked his way up to director. After seven years at the Hyde, Suffolk caught the attention of the Philbrook Museum of Art, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was recruited to serve as its director and CEO. He was appointed director of the High in 2015 and has already transformed the Atlanta landmark into a stunning example of how art museums can truly reflect their communities, and strike the delicate balance between progress and preservation.
“For me, a big part of the attraction to this job is focusing on accessibility and creating new gateways for people to connect with their museum,” Suffolk explains, emphasizing that the museum belongs to everybody in the city, not only to art collectors and the philanthropic class.
From a cultural perspective, Atlanta has been one of the great beneficiaries of the seismic demographic changes happening more broadly throughout the country. The city has experienced a huge reverse migration of African Americans and also has vibrant LGBTQ and Latino communities, which have created tremendous opportunities for Suffolk and his team to engage the city’s full spectrum of residents—regardless of age, ethnicity, sexual orientation or socioeconomic backgrounds—in ways that the High (and most museums) traditionally hasn’t been willing or able to do.
Suffolk is quick to point out that discussing diversity in a philosophical sense holds little value if that philosophy isn’t reflected in practice.
“I also believe that museums have an important role to play in society, and that nonprofits like ours exist to make the world a better place. Our filter for doing that is, hopefully, via engagement with complex visual culture.”
Since Suffolk took over, he has translated his belief into action. Over the past two years, more than 60 percent of the museum’s exhibitions have highlighted or focused on artists of color, gay artists or women artists. In 2015, the High averaged 15 percent nonwhite participation, 6 percentage points higher than the national average but still unacceptable to Suffolk. Within two years, that number tripled, to more than 45 percent, and last year alone nonwhite participation hit 50 percent, almost exactly representative of metro Atlanta’s 51 percent minority population.
Suffolk is determined to continue that momentum and make sure the High serves as the premier destination for community engagement for everybody in the city.
“If we’re going to reflect the audience we serve, we’d better not just talk the talk; we’d better walk the walk,” Suffolk argues.
Founded in 1905, the museum that planted the seed for the modern High was a modest facility known as the Atlanta Art Association. As the collection (and funding) grew steadily over the years and decades, major expansions and relocations were required. Today, the 312,000-square-foot museum is in itself a work of art. Initially designed by the famous architect Richard Meier and completed in 1983, the building won him the Pritzker Prize for architecture. It was expanded in 2005 with a large addition designed by renowned Italian architect (and fellow Pritzker Prize recipient) Renzo Piano.
“Both [architects] realized that they were creating spaces for the presentation of artwork, and I think the buildings have
stood the test of time, even though we have done some recent architectural work to improve the flow and control the light somewhat,” Suffolk says.
Natural light. That is one of the most striking features immediately apparent to anyone entering the museum, a feature that has challenged curators over the years and required some light-mitigation measures. In the past, some critics have bemoaned the amount of space dedicated to the massive atrium—space that might otherwise have been used for galleries. But as a former Atlanta resident with a deep, 30-year fondness for the High, I still never tire of that glorious atrium and the winding ramp that climbs elegantly up the inside walls of the museum, farther and farther, depositing visitors on each level to explore the various exhibits, as the people lingering in the atrium below grow smaller and smaller.
While giving me a personal tour of the museum, Suffolk was kind enough to indulge my request to walk up the spiraling ramp instead of taking the elevator, and we discussed how he views his role as museum director in such a volatile era of politics and race relations.
“I see my role as the museum’s chief diversity officer, and we have four main pillars that inform everything we do: growth, inclusivity, collaboration and connectivity,” he explains. “I think the key for me was to change the museum from within and challenge the exclusivity that is typically associated with art and museum patronage.”
A major part of that outreach effort has involved partnering with new entities that fall outside the insulated cone of fellow cultural organizations such as the symphony or the ballet. While Suffolk says those partnerships are still essential, they now only account for about a quarter of the time the High spends on outside collaborations, with the other 75% focused on building relationships with nonprofit and community organizations that challenge the museum to think about its mission in innovative and creative ways.
He points to a few particular exhibitions and outside partnerships that address racial justice in especially relevant ways and that would have been virtually unimaginable at the High a few years ago.
The first is called With Drawn Arms, by Los Angeles artist Glenn Kaino, who collaborated with Olympic gold-medalist Tommie Smith. Smith, an African American, became a civil rights icon when he raised his fist in protest during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. The gesture was intended to demonstrate solidarity with the civil rights movement, and 50 years later that sentiment continues to ripple through history in the form of NFL players who have chosen to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequity and police violence. The exhibition includes a variety of drawings and sculptures, along with a collection of student drawings submitted from around the country.
Suffolk then leads me into a small screening room to watch a short film by the award-winning video artist Arthur Jafa titled Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death. The film stitches together a breathtaking tapestry of found footage including cell phone videos and media coverage of police brutality and street protests from across America that potently capture the country’s historic and current struggles with racial injustice. The film is simultaneously mesmerizing and difficult to watch, and Suffolk is clearly quite emotional once the lights come back on in the screening room, despite having seen it multiple times.
“Every day we come to work and ask ourselves, ‘What are we going to do to change Atlanta?’” Suffolk says. “What does it mean to be the place where all of Atlanta feels comfortable coming together? Where the richest of the rich can be with the poorest of the poor? Everybody from the LGBTQ rainbow can hang out with everybody from the ethnicity rainbow. Every day we work at being that place.”
The astounding transformation of the museum, from the standpoint of diversity, a new dedication to showcasing local artists and the new layout of the museum, has coincided perfectly with a recent reinstallation of the permanent collection, which consists of nearly 1,500 pieces, 400 of which are newly acquired.
The renovations also saw an expansion of the kids’ area, comprising numerous interactive stations and games for families to engage with art and culture.
Channeling the excitement of a kid himself, Suffolk enthusiastically leads me into the kids’ wing to show off all the cool new toys. The level of creativity and cleverness that went into this space is remarkable, with a blend of advanced technology to engage with and old-fashioned stations where children can simply draw.
Most of the elements in this section are so pleasantly unusual and original, they defy description. One particularly—and inexplicably—fun piece is the “noodle forest,” composed of myriad dangling foam cylinders of every imaginable color, which sway and jiggle soothingly, like the dancing cloth strips of a car wash.
“You have to run through the noodle forest!” Suffolk tells me. So I do, and it’s pretty great.