Opening of Psychedelic — a new phase in Telfair history?

I always believed that the Telfair Museum of Art should go modern with its new building. I won’t try to recap the decade-old controversy here, but many prominent Savannahians thought the planned new building should “fit in” — i.e, that it should be an elegant new building that looked much like the old buildings in the historic district. Some voiced these objections within the framework of the guidelines for visual compatibility, but the intent seemed clear: to force the Telfair to give up their modern dreams, fire architect Moshe Safdie, and go back to the 19th century drawing board.

No, the Jepson Center for the Arts may not be perfect in every way, but I love it. I love the look and I love the spirit. And I love the great shows it has hosted. (Within the past year the Telfair Museum of Art rebranded itself as Telfair Museums to reflect the straightforward reality of its three properties: the Jepson, the Telfair Academy, and the Owens-Thomas House.)

In the last year, the Telfair Museums’ leadership has begun to experiment more aggressively with diverse, progressive programming to fill the great spaces at the Jepson — and to appeal to a younger demographic. The art galleries themselves will always generally be places for quiet and contemplation, but the public spaces can be put to almost any use.

So it was great to go last night to the opening of “Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art Since the 1960s” and see the sheer energy of the reception. Some vintage 1960s cars were parked out front, dancers from Savannah Arts Academy did numbers on the stairs from Hair and Hairspray, frozen yogurt and pizza were served, DJ Keith Kozel spun the hits, and Stagefront put on a spectacular light show. I didn’t even wander through the exhibit — I’ll save that for a quieter time in the next week or so. I’ve written about SAA student performances here and here. I really couldn’t be more impressed with the artistic quality and with the energy that is coming out of SAA — and I was especially excited to see the students performing outside the confines of the beautiful school on Washington Avenue. It was great, too, to see the traditional Telfair attendees mingling so easily with younger guests, many of whom have little experience with the museum. And it was great to see that a few of the older guests had rummaged through their closets and pulled out their mod fashions from yesteryear.

For traditional arts organizations like museums to thrive in the 21st century, they’ll have to reach out constantly to younger people and to new demographic groups. The Telfair has gotten better at that year by year, but last night’s event felt like something of a watershed to me. I hope I’m right.

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