The Magazine of South Carolina

Giant Step for Fine Art

The Columbia Museum of Art Settles Into Its New Home


"Terni Waterfall Near Civita Castellana," Hendrik Voogd, 1839

Exterior of the new Columbia Museum of Art

"Radioactive Cats," Sandy Skoglund, 1980

"The Rector's Kitchen and View of St. Michael's," Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, c. 1915

Article by Suzanne M. Flowers/Photos Courtesy Columbia Museum of Art

For years, it’s been in the news: The Columbia Museum of Art is moving. In July 1998, the museum finally opened in its new location at the corner of Main and Hampton streets in Columbia.

The new facility was "only" about 10 years in the planning. That seems like a long time—but not when you consider that plans for the first museum took 35 years. Museum supporters formed the Columbia Art Association in 1915. Art exhibitions, socials, lectures, concerts and meetings were held in private homes, public halls, businesses and schools until the Taylor House, a turn-of-the-century home on Senate Street, was purchased in 1950 and became the museum’s first permanent location.

The museum thrived there—so much that it quickly outgrew the house. Over the years, the museum acquired adjacent property—eventually, the whole block—and added to the home and site. Its art collection grew from nothing to what is now the largest international art collection in the state. In the collection are a Monet, a Remington and a Rembrant, just to name a sampling of its treasures.

Although the Taylor House served well, it was never intended to be an art museum. The ability to bring large traveling exhibitions to the old museum was limited. The space devoted to changing exhibitions in the Taylor House was only 1,400 square feet, and the ceiling was too low for certain kinds of contemporary art. As the permanent art collection grew, limited storage space diminished. Some offices were located next door in the Horry-Guingard House.

In 1987, Sal Cilella was named director, coming here from the Smithsonian. His main goal 10 years ago: "to build a new Columbia Museum of Art."

Many different options to solve the needs of the museum were studied. Renovation of the old facility and moving to such sites as Arsenal Hill, the Congaree Vista and the Belk building on Main were a few. Some community leaders believed support wasn’t wide enough to raise the money for such a large project.

The Columbia Museum of Art’s growing pains are much like those of other museums across the nation. "A museum built 40 years ago never would have included amenities such as a gift shop, cafe, state-of-the-art auditorium, art studio, children’s gallery and reception space," Cilella pointed out.

In 1994, when Richland County Council committed $3.5 million toward the renovation of Macy’s department store on Main Street and the City of Columbia bought the closed Macy and Belk buildings, the new museum project began to move quickly. "We have done something that has a positive impact on development and education in our city and county," said County Councilman Paul Livingston.

Like many Main Streets across America, retail establishments were moving to the malls and leaving storefronts empty. One of Columbia Mayor Bob Coble’s goals was to do something about the problem. "I saw this as a good solution for both the need for a new, expanded museum and to bring people back to Main Street. The museum will add to the value of other properties, eventually helping other people and businesses in the city."

The new museum can accommodate most traveling exhibitions available worldwide. "We will be bringing shows to Columbia that are comparable to the exhibitions seen at the High Museum in Atlanta and the Mint Museum in Charlotte," said Bill Bodine, chief curator of the museum.

The new museum has tripled the exhibition space and offers state-of-the-art lighting, climate control and security systems. "The exhibition galleries are worthy of any of this country’s great museums," Bodine said. Gallery space exceeds 20,000 square feet, with undeveloped space for future expansion.

On the main level, in the Dawn Christopher Galleries, contemporary art from the permanent collection is on view. These galleries include American and European art from World War II to the present. On the second level, 14 galleries provide an elaborate tour of international art from the late Middle Ages to World War II. Included is the Samuel H. Kress collection of Italian Renaissance and Baroque paintings as well as European and American art of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

The temporary exhibit gallery on the main level, the Guy Lipscomb Gallery, has flexible space to accommodate shows requiring 4,000–7,000 square feet. The opening exhibition, "Heroic Painting," is on view in this gallery. Works by seven important contemporary artists are included in this special exhibition.

A wing of the museum on the main level facing Main Street is devoted totally to art education. Included is an orientation gallery where school children gather before tours, two art studios, a student gallery, a teacher resource room and a volunteer meeting room. Also on the main level is a large art library housing more than 13,000 volumes, auction catalogues, periodicals and research files on the permanent collection. A state-of-the-art, 160-seat auditorium will be used for films, music series and lectures.

So once again, Columbia gets a new art museum. "The focus for the last 10 years has been financial," Cilella said. "The focus of the Columbia Museum of Art in the next decade will be art. We can get down to what we are all about, which is art exhibitions, acquisitions and education through programming. We have already begun with many important art acquisitions, a fabulous exhibition and a program schedule through the year 2001."

The new Museum Shop is 3,000 square feet—much larger than the old one. The Museum Shop faces Main Street and is open to the public during museum hours. Admission is not required to shop. Featured are varied gift and decorative items, most of which relate to art.

The reception space, where opening preview receptions are held, is a popular place for wedding receptions or corporate social events. The space is available for rent in the evenings when the museum is closed.

As one of South Carolina’s largest attractions, the new Columbia Museum of Art soon will become a tourist destination to visitors from all over. No matter where you live, there is something for you at the museum. It has atmosphere, environment, excitement and diversity. With admission less than a movie ticket, it is one of the best entertainment bargains anywhere.

Museum hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Wednesday evenings until 9; Sunday, 1 p.m.–5 p.m.; closed Monday. Admission: $4 adults, $2 students and seniors; free to children 5 and younger and to museum members. For more information, call (803) 799-2810.

Suzanne M. Flowers is former director of marketing and public relations for the Columbia Museum of Art.


* Wachovia Corporation

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