Much ink has been spilled weighing the benefits of the self-sufficiency of Williams in its Purple Valley paradise against the partnership opportunities available to certain other schools with nearer neighbors. Few deny, however, that the availability of the Clark provides significant benefits to the College and shapes life at Williams greatly for the better.

Is such convenience necessary for an art museum to add value to a liberal-arts college? In his role as Director of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, Michael Shapiro (MA ’76) is about to find out, as he launches a new partnership with tiny Brenau University:

The High and Brenau will formally announce Tuesday a three-year collaboration beginning in August in which the university gets close access to the museum’s exhibitions, collections, programs and staff expertise. The partnership is the first of its kind for both institutions…

Brenau President Ed Schrader called the partnership “creative and groundbreaking” in an exclusive interview with the AJC, and he said he hopes it will be a model that the new partners can teach to other art and academic institutions nationwide . . . Teaching modules that tap into High exhibits and collections will be developed for Brenau art majors and as a part of the school’s freshman seminar.

Who here has heard of Brenau? It’s not one of the usual schools I associate with Atlanta: Emory, Georgia Tech, Morehouse, Spelman, Oglethorpe. It turns out to have a women-only liberal arts college as its undergraduate core. This main campus is not in Atlanta at all, but up in Gainesville, a long sixty mile drive northeast of the High Museum. (Brenau does have graduate programs in Atlanta and its suburbs).

Although it’s not apparent from the university’s website, Brenau apparently connected with the High because of a deep commitment to art:

Brenau was selected as the High’s initial academic partner because of its history of presenting art exhibitions and for the way art is integrated into daily life on the Gainesville campus, High spokeswoman Nicole Johnson said.

The school presents exhibits in three campus galleries and has a permanent art collection numbering 2,000 works, much of it on view in offices, hallways and other public spaces. The collection includes pieces by modern masters such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol and many works by female artists.

“We have a really fine collection of modern work, and I think that really put us on a different plane” in terms of the High’s consideration, said Schrader, who has works by Renoir and Cezanne displayed in his office.

That’s a nice perk — although I’m not sure I would characterize “in the president’s office” as “on view” in a “public space.” But maybe 900 undergraduates is small enough that students and visitors can more easily drop into his office for a coffee.

It would be easy to write this arrangement off as a nice press release for both institutions. Not so fast. Shapiro has made a name for himself and dramatically increased the profile of the High Museum through previous partnerships. As the New York Times explained recently:

Other museums have forged partnerships. But since the mid-1990s, the High’s director, Michael E. Shapiro, has been the master, sealing multiyear links with museums including the Louvre, the Museum of Modern Art, the Bargello and the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiori in Florence.

“If you’re not Boston, New York or Chicago, how else do you get the greatest art for your part of the country?” Mr. Shapiro asked, noting that museums in those cities own top-notch works that can be used as chits for reciprocal loans. “If you haven’t been around since the late 19th century, you need to find another way.” . . .

“Embedded in our partnerships is a deep and sustained give-and-take,” Mr. Shapiro said. “It’s not a rental.” Curators have co-organized the exhibits; they have conducted joint research and international workshops; staff members have crossed the Atlantic on exchanges. The Louvre, which can no longer depend totally on government financing, learned how to raise money from the private sector and how the High devises educational programs. With the Bargello, the High helped conserve Verrocchio’s “David,” the Renaissance bronze it then borrowed…. But there is no question that the High’s biggest gain is in visitors — more than 1.3 million flocked to the museum for seven exhibitions of nearly 500 Louvre treasures — and visibility.

With this partnership, it seems likely Shapiro has something else in mind. I’ll be interested to see what develops. But I’ve made the drive between Atlanta and Gainesville, and it sure isn’t a quick walk down South Street. If these two institutions expect to see real benefits, it’s going to require a very special commitment.

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