The High Museum, a highlight of Atlanta

Before my sophomore year, I didn’t give much thought to the art museum downtown. It was a place my family visited on occasion, usually when my grandparents were in town, and every so often it would have a really exciting exhibit. I’ve always liked art, and I absolutely loved museums like the Art Institute in Chicago, the Hirshhorn in D.C. and the Guggenhiem in New York, but for some reason the High Museum didn’t capture my imagination in the same way.

Everyone knows about the High, to be sure, but I often feel like it gets dismissed by people of our generation, myself included. For some reason, it seems more like a fixture than the constantly evolving, world-class museum that it is. It took an Intro to Art History class that visited frequently and went behind the scenes of exhibits to change my mind about the museum.

The High Museum attracts impressive traveling and temporary exhibits, from collaborations with the Louvre and MOMA, to Dream Cars and spotlights on local, contemporary artists, but the current mix of featured exhibits may be my favorite. This past weekend, I was treated to The Forty Part Motet, Gordon Parks: Segregation Story, and José Parlá: Segmented Realities. I came away with my head spinning.

 When you get off the elevator on the third floor, you’re greeted by music and people standing or sitting absolutely still, ringed by speakers. This is The Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff. The “sound sculpture” is a recording of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing a 16th-century motet, or short, sacred choral piece, by English composer Thomas Tallis. This particular motet has 40 distinct voice parts. Each singer has a speaker, with eight groups of five voice parts each arranged in “choirs.” The sound in the room rises and falls as choirs alternately take turns and combine, to mesmerizing effect.

If you walk through the gallery where The Forty Part Motet is housed, you’ll eventually find yourself in a smaller gallery dedicated to Gordon Parks: Segregation Story. Gordon Parks was a trailblazing photographer for Life magazine, and the photographs on display were originally published in Life in 1956, during the height of Jim Crow segregation, under the title “Restraints: Open and Hidden.” The exhibit follows four generations of a single family, the Thortons, as they go about their everyday lives living under Jim Crow laws in Mobile, Alabama. The exhibit is made up of color photographs accompanied by sparing text, as well as the original photo essay. The presentation is forceful, and the subject matter feels timely. Much like the film Selma, it addresses issues of race that are very much on the national consciousness, and, like Selma, isn’t intended to make you feel good about where we stand as a nation. It’s intended to make you think and question, and it does that job admirably.

In the gallery space adjacent to the High’s main building is an exhibit entitled José Parlá: Segmented Realities. This is a collection of ten sculptural paintings, or concrete blocks painted in such a way that they “suggest cultural fragments salvaged from urban sites that that experienced social and cultural upheaval and transformation… Parlá’s sculptures bear witness to waves of history that seem to be inscribed on their surfaces.” That description, posted in large letters on the gallery wall, helped me to imagine these blocks as similar to fragments of the Berlin Wall. To my mind, they read more like paintings than they did sculpture, but as most are taller than a man and all have a thickness of about 6 inches, they have an undeniably imposing presence in the room. My family and I enjoyed comparing the different blocks and finding words hidden on their surfaces, including one instance of botched Spanish translation by my non-Spanish-speaking sister and me.

If you can, I absolutely recommend making the trip down to the High before these exhibits are gone. With your student ID, admission to the museum is discounted, and these exhibitions, though universally excellent, are so varied that there’s sure to be something for everyone.