History and Art

LaGrange Art Museum showcases creativity of LaGrange

By Alicia B. Hill
The LaGrange Daily News

A 126-year-old example of Victorian architecture draws the eye of first time visitors and locals alike exploring downtown LaGrange.

The building that now houses the LaGrange Art Museum was originally constructed in 1892 to serve as the Troup County Jail and did not find its current use until 1978. In the time between, it served a variety of purposes including the city welfare office, department of agriculture offices and a location for the Boy Scouts of America in the 1940s, according to information from the Troup County Archives. Additionally, the building housed Hinson Furniture — now Hinson Galleries in Columbus — beginning around 1950 when LeGrand Hinson converted the building. By 1958, The LaGrange Daily News was using the building. The Daily News would relocate to its current location on Ashton Street around 1973.

“The building was built in 1892 as the jail, and it was several things,” said Laura Jennings, executive director of LAM. “The LaGrange Daily News was here. It was a furniture store, and eventually, the Callaway Foundation bought it to be an art museum. That all happened in the mid 70s, and it has served us well all these years.”

In 1963, while the Daily News was still in the building, the Chattahoochee Valley Art Association was created by a group of local artists and art patrons, according to information from the museum. In 1978, the Callaway Foundation donated the building to CVAA to allow it to showcase the work of local artists. At that time, the group began to build a permanent collection when Lamar Dodd, a LaGrange native of national renown, donated a painting.

The building became a museum in 1990, when the board voted to change its name and purpose and became the Chattahoochee Valley Art Museum. In 2007, the name changed again to the LaGrange Art Museum. Despite the name change, the museum’s commitment to local art has remained constant through the years with a permanent collection that stands as a testament to the work of area artists.

“The history of visual arts in this area and the creative people that surround us every day [is interesting],” said Lauren Oliver, deputy director of LAM. “It is nice to highlight their work.”

Because of the museum’s location in downtown, staff normally see visitors and locals wander into the free museum, almost on accident.

“It gives ready access to everybody, and we do have people come in and say, ‘Is there a charge to come to the museum?’” Jennings said. “We tell them no, and it is nice to be able to have an open door where anyone can come and avail themselves of the opportunity. We have teenagers who are just walking around downtown killing time, and they’ll wander in here and usually have a great experience. We’ll talk about what their favorite piece of art was, and it is nice for them to see that. It is nice for us to see people come in just off the street.”

In fact, while the museum regularly hosts visitors from across the country, Jennings said that she regularly meets locals visiting LAM for the first time.

“People who come in for the first time are confused about what it is or what it was, and I am still amazed at the number of people who have never been in here,” Jennings said. “They say, ‘I’m in here for the very first time.’ Yesterday, we had some people from Vermont and Missouri. People who love art seek out art museums.”

Perhaps part of that odd divide stems from the exhibits featured at the museum which range from internationally recognized artists to local artists just making their start. The museum has featured a wide variety of exhibits over the years ranging from a collection of Andy Warhol’s work to Russian icons to the work of Norman Rockwell to Lamar Dodd’s work. In 2017, the LAM received the bronze award from the Southeastern Museum Conference Exhibition Competition for its exhibit “In the Land of Pasaquan: The Story of Eddie Owens Martin.”

“We do have high caliber artists who we exhibit, and it is always exciting to be able to work with different artists from around the area and some from around the south east,” Oliver said.

Because the LAM is a local art museum, remarkable local artists like Austin Wieland, Gail Grice, Thea McElvy and Sarah Swanson have also had their work displayed. In fact, the museum will feature an exhibit by the Visual Artists Alliance of LaGrange, a group of local artists, starting on Sept. 8.

The museum has been a regular host to the Southeast Regional competition, which attracts entries from throughout the southeastern part of the United States and strikes a balance between known local artists and new artists from other areas.

“Our biannual competitions are my favorite,” Oliver said.

“To be able to see the current artist trends and different techniques [is exciting]. It has such a wide range.”

That partnership has only grown stronger under Jennings’ leadership with a variety of sculptures by local artist Chuck Moore now installed around LaGrange. One of Jennings’ stated goals when she became the director was to encourage more art out in the community, but she is quick to admit that the museum got lucky in finding some of the recent artistic opportunities.

“We don’t have money to buy sculpture to put around town, and so we are so fortunate that Chuck Moore called us and asked us to come out to see some of his sculpture that he was ready to do something with,” Jennings said. “The same with Bob Clyatt, the sculptor who was just here. He sent us a proposal, and it looked amazing, and the best part was, he bore all the expenses. So, that was divine intervention. I hope that we can find a way to continue that.”

New York sculptor Bob Clyatt’s Shared Spaces project allowed people from throughout the community to help create a flag defining what their community — and by extension America — means to them. Jennings was pleased with the participation and interest in the arts generated by the project and Moore’s work, and she said that she hopes there will be more projects and sculptures out in the community in the future.

“I really would like to keep making relationships with artists who would be willing to temporarily even share their sculpture around the community,” Jennings said. “When you come to LaGrange, we are such an artsy community, but you don’t see that. The architecture of the buildings is great. The art downtown is wonderful. The fountain has a great sculpture of Lafayette, but we need to move to that creative wow when you arrive in town.”

While LAM is making a point of featuring local artists, it is also making a point of nurturing the next generation of artists and art lovers. Over the summer, children from throughout the community visited LAM through camps and summer programs.

“It is always fun to see kids’ faces light up when they notice something in a piece of art, and a lot of them are visiting a museum for the first time,” Oliver said. “They have lots of questions and some of them just smile, but they are really interested and enthusiastic about learning. That is always exciting.”

Some of the student groups that visited included The Boys & Girls Club, Troup County School System summer school, the LaGrange Housing Authority and a variety of participants in age group based programs. The museum also hosted an Advanced Placement Art Portfolio class, which gave students the opportunity to receive college credit for their work, and one of the students got to assist Clyatt when he visited.

“This is the most experience I’ve ever gotten, and honestly I am very thankful to the art museum for contacting me about all of these,” said Emma Strickland, a student taking classes at the museum. “I happened to bring a resume up here because I was interested. During the school year, I took classes here, and I loved the experience I had. They have helped me so much with the kids and doing this [Advanced Placement class] work and doing the Bob Clyatt work. That was all incredible for me. It was a good experience.”

During the school year, LAM hosts a variety of paid classes for children and adults, but thanks to a sponsorship from the local chapter of the Junior Service League, the museum is able to host a free activity on the third Saturday of every month from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

“We have had a long-time relationship with [the Junior Service League] ever since the museum started, and they help fund our Super Saturdays and the summer camp,” Jennings said.

The camps aren’t the only part of the museum that are donation driven though. Because LAM is free to the community, it is completely reliant on grants and donations.

“We are totally dependent on donations,” Jennings said. “As with our other arts organizations, we are very dependent on the Callaway Foundation for operating money. We also seek grants from foundations, from the city and from the state, and thankfully, many individuals in the community support us. Operating money is difficult to come by, and so we are very dependent, especially on individuals, for operating money.”

To learn more about the LaGrange Art Museum, visit Lagrangeartmuseum.org or visit the museum at 112 Lafayette Parkway Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or on Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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