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A Secular Cathedral
Michael Shapiro's photo

Michael Shapior

      . . . Art Museum Director. Michael E. Shapiro is the Nancy & Holcombe T. Green, Jr. Director of Atlanta‚s High Museum of Art. His series of ambitious and highly successful exhibitions has brought many of the world‚s masterpieces to the Southeast. Prior to the High, Dr. Shapiro was Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, having also served as Chief Curator of the St. Louis Art Museum. Specializing in 19th and 20th century painting and sculpture, Dr. Shapiro has taught at Duke and has numerous exhibition catalogues, books and articles to his credit. His master‚s and Ph.D. degrees in art history are from Harvard.

Excerpts2:34 secs
[This Program was recorded September 20, 2002 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

      Art museums are dedicated to the power of the authentic, according to Michael Shapiro, Director of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. That‚s particularly important in an age when practically everything is replicated, ersatz and/or of souvenir quality. Dr. Shapiro and his hardworking museum staff delight in providing an affirmative answer when people ask, „Is that the real thing?š

      Bring what you will to an art museum, Dr. Shapiro invites the world, just come. Once there, you‚re more than likely to find that the people who make beauty their business have spent a lot of time and energy making it possible for you to morph from spectator to participant. Don‚t think there‚s a „right wayš to experience art, he says.  There‚s no predicting how any of us will respond in the presence of greatness. We all have complete freedom to engage at whatever level we like -- emotionally, intellectually, spiritually or all of the above. That welcoming sweep of opportunities for individual enjoyment is part of what makes great art from across the ages and in all media... great.

      If you somehow still harbor the notion that art museums are opaque storage vaults, think again, he urges. American museums have taken a leading role in being much more open, experiencing dramatic changes in the past decades. The explosion of interest in the King Tut Exhibit in 1976 was key. Most museums now see themselves as places that promote beautiful experiences as well as offering beautiful objects.

      The idea of a secular cathedral has gained ground -- a safe place to gather with other people in the presence of greatness. With the expansion of its award-winning facility in Atlanta, Dr. Shapiro is part of a trend to return to the concept of the heart of the city, providing a community gathering place which offers food and music and a sense of belonging along with unique, rare and special objects.

      What happens when you come close to works of art? Michael Shapiro thinks you begin to see how many inflections there are, how many nuances, subtleties. You can come at it from any number of angles, but it‚s always going to give more back to you

      In the end, works of art are always a mystery, he assures us. The greater the work of art, the deeper the mystery. He delights in human beings looking at inanimate objects which then reflect back on human beings, marveling at what it took to create something unique

      Be present with a unique object, he urges. The experience echoes that of its maker at work. You are also part of the great river of all the people who have been there before you, stood in that same relationship with the object -- experiencing exactly the same thing but differently -- connecting the eye, the hand and the mind, confirming what it is to be human.

Conversation 1

Michael Shapiro tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russellhow museums now encourage people to become participants in the experience of art. Dr. Shapiro explains why he thinks museums will become among the safest places in modern culture.  The idea of a secular cathedral is considered.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:12 secs

Conversation 2

Museums changed with the King Tut Show in 1976, Dr. Shapiro remembers and describes how museums have become a point of connectivity in the community.  He gives examples of how their expanded mission brings museums to life. He talks about the essential „democraticš core of today‚s museums.  He gives examples of the dynamism that is moving significant activities in the art museum world away from the old hierarchy of established art museums to other venues.  There‚s a tremendous appetite for great art in the world at large, he reports. Glad for the advent of „cultural tourism,š Dr. Shapiro says we are in the midst of a significant evolution of taste and a deepening of interest in the arts.

Conversation 2 RealAudio10:55 secs

Conversation 3

Dr. Shapiro is adamant that we all have the same right to enjoy art on our own terms. He talks about what he and others respond to in art. There‚s complete freedom to engage our senses, our intellect and our emotions, he says, and gives examples of new ways museums are reaching out to a wider audience. Museums are quite new, he says, and traces the shifts in patronage -- and the effects of that shift -- over the ages. Museums provide authenticity, he says, in an age when practically everything is replicated. He explains how vital it is to have access to „the authentic.š

Conversation 3 RealAudio10:36 secs

Conversation 4

Museums are dedicated to the power of the authentic object, he continues, using the Mona Lisa to further clarify his excitement. All great art is a reflection back on humanity and a never-ending mystery, he insists, comparing the experience of the observer and the creator of a piece of art. The continuum of observers themselves is also discussed. Dr. Shapiro gently points out how the environment in which artists work has changed. He considers the never-ending fascination people have for the act of creation, and expands on the connection between the eye, the hand and the mind.

Conversation 4 RealAudio10:13 secs

Conversation 5

We‚re all captive of whatever time period we are in, Dr. Shapiro reminds us, offering examples of what it meant to be alive in 19th century France to make his point. Robert Hughes‚ concept of „the shock of the newš is still very much with us, says Dr. Shapiro, who gives further examples. The role of artists as visionaries is affirmed. Dr. Shapiro assures us that his is a very optimistic profession.  The role of contemporary art is considered, including the importance of acquiring it and being prepared to make mistakes. Dr. Shapiro addresses the eternal puzzle of what the common thread is among the arts.

Conversation 5 RealAudio10:30 secs

Conversation 6

With a quick trip through the High Museum of Art‚s collection -- from decorative and African art to photography, sculpture, folk art, prints and paintings, plus a wealth of activities to entice people in -- Dr. Shapiro broadens the notion of what it is to be an art museum in the current era. He confirms how art helps us all know what it is to be human.

Conversation 6 RealAudio5:32 secs


Thank You, Michael Shapiro, for all the ways you are working to bring beauty and community to Atlanta and the SouthEast. We applaud your efforts and look forward to watching as your outreach grows.

We also thank Susan Hadorn for her help bringing this Conversation to pass, as well as the support that came from Lauren Shankman in the High‚s public relations group. It has been our pleasure to work with each and all of you..

Related Links:
Michael Shapiro and everyone associated with Atlanta‚s High Museum of Art cordially invite you to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta where you can stay current with all that is going on there.

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