Art has a new home in northeast Georgia

(Reception Photos)

The opening of the Mason-Scharfenstein Museum of Art at Piedmont College this week marks a new era for the study and appreciation of fine art in northeast Georgia.

That was the unanimous impression of some 200 guests, including Gov. Nathan Deal, his wife, Sandra, and three past and present Piedmont presidents, who attended a gala reception at the museum on Friday, Sept. 23. It was a first chance for most to get a look at the museum, which has been under construction in Demorest for more than a year.

The museum began with a gift of some 117 paintings and sculptures by Piedmont alum Dr. Bill Mason and Bob Scharfenstein, both of Birmingham, Ala. With so large a collection, the college realized it would need a new space to do it justice.

With help from some 43 donors, the college began renovating two brick buildings that dated from 1916 in downtown Demorest. The buildings previously housed several of the college’s art studio classrooms and a small gallery. Architects Armentrout Matheny Thurmond of Athens created a plan to join and modernize the interior of the two buildings, while preserving the historic exterior and much of the interior brick work. Then it was up to Scroggs and Grizzel Contracting of Gainesville to turn the plans into concrete and steel, as the entire interior space was rebuilt. The almost 100-year-old floors were removed, remilled, and replaced, preserving the original building’s early 1900s warmth of wood and brick.

Graham C. Boettcher, curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama, and Terry Beckham, exhibit designer at the BMA, then organized the collection and designed the museum exhibits with Piedmont art department chair Chris Kelly.

The result, is a "first-class art museum," said Piedmont President Danny Hollingsworth upon seeing the finished museum. "How privileged we are to have people like Bill and Bob who would be so generous to provide such an outstanding facility to Piedmont College. This will be a showcase for the entire region and a central piece for Piedmont’s fine arts."

Mason and Scharfenstein, who had deliberately waited to see the museum until it was finished, toured the building with Dr. Hollingsworth for the first time the day before the reception. "I’ve not seen it until now, and I am overwhelmed at how gorgeous the building is and how well the art is displayed," Mason said. A member of Piedmont’s Class of 1957, Mason said, "I’m glad the art is at Piedmont. These are our children. We bought them to love, and now they will continue to be loved."

Scharfenstein said he was almost speechless when he first entered the museum. "I can’t describe it," he said. "It is really beautiful. I told Chris [Kelly] that the paintings look so different here than on the wall at home." Scharfenstein, too, said that as a collector, he has an emotional attachment to the works. "Some of these we have had for forty years," he said.

At the reception, Boettcher, who is the William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art and specializes in American art made before 1945, presented a lecture outlining the importance of the Mason-Scharfenstein Museum’s collection, which includes a mix of landscapes, portraits, still life, and nautical scenes, as well as sculptures, some of which are displayed in an outdoor courtyard next to the museum.

Boettcher noted that the collection includes two bronze sculptures by Antonin Mercié, a French sculptor who died in 1916 and is known for monumental bronze works in the U.S., including the large equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., and the Francis Scott Key monument in Baltimore, Md. The pieces, called "Gloria Victus," and "Quand Même" were produced to commemorate the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and Boettcher said it is rare to find both of them displayed together.

Art Department Chair Kelly said the new museum "will be a core part of teaching art at Piedmont. The college has also recently added a major program in arts administration, which will include courses in curation, preservation and gallery management."

In addition to the permanent collection, the Mason-Scharfenstein Museum of Art includes space for exhibits by students and visiting artists. The first show will be held Sept. 29-Oct. 8 with an exhibit by current Piedmont art faculty and works by past art department chairs. A public reception for the first show will be held at 6 p.m., Sept. 29.