Arts & Humanities Campus News Society & Culture

Georgia’s art museum turns 75

Alfred Heber Holbrook was nearly 70 years old when he had an epiphany.

Holbrook, a native of Topeka, Kansas, and retired New York attorney, had a deep connection to the visual arts. He shared that connection with his wife, Eva, by visiting art museums, exhibitions, and even acquiring an enviable collection of paintings.

After Eva died in 1940, Holbrook was thinking of their legacies when he met with Holger Cahill, the director of the Federal Art Project in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. That conversation turned into an idea that had begun to blossom in Holbrook’s mind and heart: What if he could create an art museum to share his passion with the public?

Holbrook was interested in hosting such a museum in the South, where art museums—or any exposure to fine visual arts—were a rarity for most of the public at the time. He also believed a university could best fulfill his ideal for a museum, one that was both educational and inspirational.

In this black and white photo, two men handle a large white piece of paper that appears to be building blue prints.

UGA art program Director Lamar Dodd (left) and Alfred Holbrook partnered together to bring an art museum to the University of Georgia.

Cahill supported the idea and suggested the University of Georgia, where prominent artist Lamar Dodd had just become director of the art program. In 1944, Holbrook ventured to Athens, a city he’d never visited, to meet with Dodd. The two shared a vision of what an art museum at the university might look like. Holbrook left Athens not only impressed by Dodd but also by the city’s existing art culture.

Holbrook followed his hunch. He donated 100 American paintings from his collection—including works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Albert Bierstadt, and Winslow Homer—moved to the Classic City, and became the Georgia Museum of Art’s first director. In 1948, the museum opened on North Campus in the basement of the university’s library, now the Administration Building.

Once in Athens, Holbrook took art courses at UGA with classmates a half-century younger. The museum director/student was known to arrive to class carrying a pipe, wearing a pink smock, and ready to paint.

Holbrook’s work extended well beyond campus. He frequently took the museum on the road, stacking treasured paintings into his trunk and driving across Georgia to speak to church and civic groups about the arts.

In this black and white photo, an elder man in a brimmed hat stacks paintings into the trunk of his car.

Alfred Holbrook prepares to take paintings on the road to share the museum’s collection with Georgia schools and civic groups.

Holbrook served as director of the Georgia Museum of Art until 1969, by then well into his 90s. He died in 1974, a few months shy of 100.

In the years that followed, the museum continued to expand its collection, reputation, and footprint. It became Georgia’s official state art museum in 1982, began its free monthly Family Day program in 1986 (which continues today), and moved to its current location on East Campus in 1996.

In 2023, the museum celebrated its 75th anniversary. What began as one man’s late-in-life epiphany has delivered “free inspiration”—as the museum’s tagline goes—for Georgians young and old throughout generations.

Sunday, November 5 — 1:00 p.m.–5:00 p.m.

Join us to celebrate the museum’s 75th anniversary with a Family Day for all ages as part of UGA’s Spotlight on the Arts. The event will feature art activities for the entire family, prizes, a photo booth, light refreshments and much more.

Register here and let us know how many refreshments to order.