Alfred Holbrook, shown here in apron and pipe, founded the Georgia Museum of Art after a career as a lawyer in New York.
Alfred Heber Holbrook was almost 70 years old when he had an epiphany.
Holbrook, a native of Topeka, Kansas, and a retired attorney from New York, had a deep connection to the visual arts. He shares this bond with his wife Eva, visiting museums, exhibitions and even acquiring an enviable collection of paintings.
After Eva died in 1940, Holbrooke was thinking about their legacy when he met with Holger Cahill, director of the Federal Art Project in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. That conversation turned into an idea that began to blossom in Holbrook’s mind and heart: what if he could create an art museum to share his passion with the public?
Holbrooke was interested in hosting such a museum in the South, where art museums—or any exposure to the fine visual arts—were rare for most of the public at the time. He also believed that a university could best fulfill his ideal of a museum that was both educational and inspiring.
Cahill seconded the idea and suggested the University of Georgia, where renowned artist Lamar Dodd had just become director of the art program. In 1944, Holbrooke traveled to Athens, a city he had never visited, to meet with Dodd. The two shared a vision of what an art museum at the university could look like. Holbrook left Athens impressed not only by Dodd, but also by the existing artistic culture in the city.
Holbrook followed his hunch. He donated 100 American paintings from his collection—including works by Georgia O’Keefe, Albert Bierstadt, and Winslow Homer—moved to the Classic City and became the first director of the Georgia Museum of Art. In 1948, the museum opened its doors on the North Campus in the basement of the University Library, now the Administration Building.
Once in Athens, Holbrook took art classes at UGA with classmates half a century younger. The museum director/student has been known to arrive at class with a pipe, wearing a pink apron and ready to paint.
Holbrook’s work extends far beyond campus. He often took the museum on the road, piling valuable paintings into his trunk and driving across Georgia to speak to church and civic groups about the arts.
Holbrook served as director of the Georgia Museum of Art until 1969, when he turned 90. He died in 1974, a few months before his 100th birthday.
In the following years, the museum continued to expand its collection, reputation and footprint. It became an official Georgia State Art Museum in 1982, began its free monthly Family Day program in 1986 (which continues today), and moved to its current location on East Campus in 1996.
In 2023, the museum celebrated its 75th anniversary. What began as one man’s epiphany at the end of his life has brought “free inspiration” — as the museum’s motto goes — to Georgians young and old for generations.
75 ANNIVERSARY, FAMILY EVENTS, SPECIAL EVENTS
Sunday, November 5 — 1:00 p.m.–5:00 p.m
Join us to celebrate the museum’s 75th anniversary with a family day for all ages as part of UGA’s Spotlight on the Arts. The event will feature art activities for the whole family, prizes, a photo booth, light refreshments and more.
Register here and let us know how many refreshments to order.