Overview of Telfair Museums’ Collections
- Collecting for the Museum
18th Century to Early 20th Century
American and European painting from the 18th century to the early 20th century represents a core area of strength for the museum’s fine arts collection. Of particular note is the museum’s collection of American Impressionist and Ashcan School works. Many of these works, acquired by the museum’s first major collectors, Director Carl Brandt and Fine Arts Advisor Gari Melchers, continue to be considered the highlights of the collection and form the cornerstone of the museum’s national reputation.
Many of the works are on long-term display in the Telfair Academy Rotunda and Sculpture Gallery and are also utilized for special exhibitions at the Telfair Academy and Jepson Center. These works are also the objects most often requested for loan by other museums for temporary exhibitions.
18th and Early 19th Century American Portraiture
The collection contains several excellent examples in this category, despite the fact that American portraiture was not a collecting priority in the first few decades of the museum’s history. These works were largely collected from the mid-20th century onward, primarily through donations.
19th to Early 20th Century
Carl Brandt’s acquisitions for the Telfair consist primarily of academic painting, although Gari Melchers made significant acquisitions in this area as well. Telfair’s collection consists mainly of excellent paintings by artists who were very highly regarded in their time but have fallen out of fashion in recent decades and are little known today. However, this component of the collection is of great historical significance to the institution and should continue to be cared for, displayed, and researched.
Largely collected by Gari Melchers, these works are the cornerstone of the Telfair’s national and international reputation. They are the Museum’s greatest fine art collection strength, including several top examples of work by top-tier artists (particularly Hassam, Frieseke, Metcalf).
Ashcan School / The Eight
Another area of great strength, also largely collected by Gari Melchers, this portion of the collection similarly contains several top examples of work by top artists (most notably George Bellows and Robert Henri).
Kahlil Gibran Collection
Telfair has the largest collection of Gibran’s visual art in the United States, thanks to a bequest by Mary Haskell Minis, Kahlil Gibran’s benefactor. The collections spans the entirety of Gibran’s visual arts career, including a work from his first exhibition at Fred Holland Day’s studio, to works used to illustrate a number of his books, as well as sketches and portraits of himself, Mary Haskell Minis, and several friends. Archival objects that broaden the appeal of this collection include photographs, Gibran’s “feeling stone,” and a portrait of the young artist painted by Lilla Cabot Perry.
Post-World War II American Abstraction
The Museum holds a small collection of post-World War II American abstract art, primarily paintings by artists associated with Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. Mostly small works by first and second generation Abstract Expressionists, this category includes several key larger works by Abstract Expressionist James Brooks and by Washington Color School painters Sam Gilliam and Howard Mehring and others. None of the most prominent artists associated with Abstract Expressionism (i.e., Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko) are represented in the collection.
Late 20th Century and 21st Century Contemporary Art
Telfair currently holds a small number of minor works by significant late 20th century artists. This grouping includes artists associated with pop art, conceptual art and contemporary abstraction. A cornerstone of the Museum’s contemporary holdings is the Kirk Varnedoe Collection, arguably the Telfair’s strongest and most cohesive collection of late 20th century and early 21st century art. Formed after the death of Savannah native and former Museum of Modern Art Curator Kirk Varnedoe, the collection includes works by some of the most renowned artists of the last four decades. Donated directly to Telfair by the artists and their representatives, the 27 works on paper include prints, paintings and mixed media works.
The Museum has a solid photography collection comprised of approximately 440 photographs dating from the mid-20th century through the present. The greatest strength in this area is the photography of Helen Levitt, and many of the other photographers in the collection had close ties to Levitt and found their way to the Telfair’s collection through her influence. It is worth noting that the Telfair did not begin collecting photography since 1996; the institution has made remarkable strides in this area over the past two decades.
Regional / Local Art
As Savannah’s premier art museum, Telfair has had a longstanding commitment to collecting works by key artists who have worked in Savannah and the region over the last two centuries. These works include early 19th century portraits, works by artists associated with the Savannah Art Club, and contemporary art from the region. In addition to works by professionally trained artists, more than half of the works by self-taught artists in the collection are from Savannah area. In all Telfair holds some 650 works various fine art media created in the Savannah area, along with noteworthy works produced in Georgia and the Southeast.
20th-Century Savannah Artists
Telfair’s collection includes many works by core members of the Savannah Art Club, founded at Telfair in 1920. Although the Museum holds works by one visiting New York painter who taught for the group, the acquisition of significant works by other SAC art instructors is desired. The collection also includes work by visiting and local artists associated with the Factors Walk artists’ studios and colony, active from the 1930s-80s.
Self-Taught Art / Folk Art
The Museum’s collection includes over 80 works by self-taught artists from the southeastern United States dating from 1935 to the present. These works include paintings, works on paper, relief and sculptural mixed media art. Although this collection does not focus on traditional craft, this group includes 16 examples of African American walking sticks and wood sculpture from Savannah area.