Community Collaboration and the Greene Family Learning Gallery: A Look Back at Our Beginnings

High Museum of Art
High Museum of Art
Published in
8 min readFeb 23, 2024


Learn more about the evolution of the High’s family spaces with Julia Forbes.

By Julia Forbes, Senior Head of Institutional Research, High Museum of Art

When the High Museum of Art opened its Junior Activities Center (JAC) in October of 1968, it already had a solid track record with Atlanta’s families. Atlanta’s Junior League had been offering children’s theater at the museum for forty years. [1] By the early 1960s, Junior League volunteers were organizing special educational museum tours, and in concert with the volunteers of the museum’s Members Guild Junior Committee, had developed a range of programs for children including, “Adventures in Looking,” “Creative Packages,” and “Art to the Schools.” The museum’s annual report covering 1964 through 1968 states that the museum served nearly 90,000 children through these programs. As early as 1959, the museum was also putting on small exhibitions with content for children in a space alternately referred to in the monthly calendar of events as “the children’s room” and “the junior gallery.” [2]

It may seem like the High was late to the children’s space party, as the first museum spaces dedicated just for children began to crop up at the turn of the twentieth century. That said, art museums were at the forefront in creating spaces for children, and the interactive innovations made at the High in the 1960s helped push the field forward.

One of the first documented children’s spaces is the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, which opened in 1899. It was the brainchild of curator of fine arts William Goodyear at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (now the Brooklyn Museum of Art). [3] Just a few years later in 1901, the Smithsonian Institution opened The Children’s Room. [4] During the first half of the twentieth century, many art museums began to experiment with spaces just for children. When the Cleveland Museum of Art opened its Children’s Museum in 1916 on the second floor of the new museum, the goal was to bring together “material of various kinds likely to be useful in stimulating the childish imagination and in visualizing school studies such as design, history, geography.” [5]

The idea of a junior gallery for the High was originally brought forward by mothers in search of cultural activities for their children. Many of these women were in the Junior League of Atlanta or on the museum’s Members Guild Junior Committee. Wicke Chambers, Frankie Cox, and Margaret Perdue, among others, inspired the League and its members to pledge funds annually toward the research and development of the Junior Activities Center to showcase interactive exhibitions. [6] A great deal of thought went into creating the Junior Activities Center. It was, as Wicke Chambers said, “a marriage between the League volunteers and the museum.” [7] A Junior Activities Steering Committee formed to work on the development of this new initiative.

One of the High’s inspiration spaces was the Children’s Museum at the Art Institute of Chicago, which opened in 1926to cultivate taste and the museum habit in children who would later be civic leaders and patrons of the arts.” The Art Institute mounted exhibitions, collected objects, and offered tours, lectures, and classes. There were displays that allowed tactile exploration and drawing. [8] In 1940, the space was reinvented as the Gallery of Art Interpretation and later called the Junior Museum. [9] While plans for the High’s first interactive exhibition in the Junior Activities Center, Color-Light-Color, were underway in 1967, the High invited Lois Raasch, supervisor of children’s education and in charge of the Art Institute’s Junior Museum, to speak in a program focused on children and their visual awareness. [10]

The High’s Junior Activities Center opened along with the rest of the Memorial Arts Center on October 5, 1968. The JAC was on the third floor of the High in the Memorial Arts Building, where the museum was located at the time. High director Gudmund Vigtel (1963–1991), commonly referred to as “Vig,” states in his biography (in the 1968 Atlanta Arts Alliance press packet) that “a museum and workshop within the museum, should have educational techniques and programs designed to give youngsters an understanding of art and to develop their visual awareness. With this center, [. . .] the museum and its resources could reach out to thousands of children in the community.” [11]

The Junior Activities Center consisted of a Junior Workshop of more than 4,200 square feet, used for demonstrations and experimentation and a gallery for exhibitions designed for children. The primary purpose of the JAC was to reinforce the role of the museum as an educational resource and to offer challenges to a child’s imagination and intellect. The JAC’s stated goal was to be concerned with the children of the community and their creative development. [12]

Poster for Color-Light-Color, courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.

Color-Light-Color: 1968–1970

Color-Light-Color was sponsored by the Georgia Power Company and opened in October 1968 to great fanfare in the Junior Activities Center. The Atlanta Journal for October 27 that year says more than one thousand children visited on the first day! [13] The project was in part a collaboration between the High and the Atlanta School of Art (another founding member of the Atlanta Arts Alliance), as the exhibition was designed by Atlanta School of Art teacher Fred Gregory under the leadership of a new High Museum of Art staff member, Susan Burkhart, the supervisor of children’s education. The purpose of the inaugural exhibition was to teach children through engaging, interactive play about the properties and functions of color and light and unpack how artists use these elements as tools in the visual language of making.

Brochure cover for Shapes, courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.

Shapes: Adventure and Discovery: 1970–1974

In 1970, the second exhibition opened in the Junior Activities Center. Shapes was described in its colorful shape-filled brochure as an adventure, a journey to discover forms and shapes. It was designed by Bob Allen (an architect at Tombs, Amisano and Wells) and was sponsored by Mr. & Mrs. Lindsey Hopkins Jr. and the Members Guild of the High Museum of Art. Unfolding across ten galleries, children could move in and through various shapes. The exhibition gave special preference to the senses of touch and sight and invited participation at each step along the way.

The museum worked with the Library for the Blind to ensure that the experience was designed for both visitors who were blind and visitors who were sighted.

From the start, the exhibition introduced the ideas of illusion and reality with a title wall (fig. 1) that presented the word “shapes” across two intersecting curved walls. Depending upon where one stood, the h, which sat at the connection of the two walls, appeared differently. Works of art from the High’s collection by Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, and Alexander Calder were presented next. Varying types of devices helped visitors understand form, volume, and shape — from concave shapes set into the walls to large pieces of foam that kids could touch and move (fig. 2). With a dome-shaped mirror, kids could explore the idea of optics and distortion. There was also a section that looked at how shapes are created in nature — from the spiral of a tiny snail shell to the massive concept of a galaxy. The ways in which sound uses shape was another feature of the exhibition. A slide (fig. 3) in the shape of a cylinder brought children to another gallery where they could learn about perspective. [14]

Figures 1, 2, and 3. Photos courtesy of High Museum of Art.

The work the High was doing in this arena caught the attention of the art museum education world. In a groundbreaking publication in 1978, The Art Museum as Educator: A Collection of Studies as Guides to Practice and Policy, the Junior Activities Center, the High’s docent program, and Shapes were featured as models of how to approach engaging children at the art museum.

Importantly, community spirit and commitment made the High’s focus on the children of its city possible. From the Junior League to the Members Guild Junior Committee, the Junior Activities Steering Committee, the in-kind donations of materials and time from the Atlanta business community, and the contributions of individual private donors — these citizens made the creation and continued programming of the Junior Activities Center a reality. This focus on community is still part of the High today as it continues to strive to be essential to the people of Atlanta. The High’s mission is to connect Atlantans with art and ideas to inspire a better civic life. Through spaces like the Greene Family Learning Gallery, the High is a place that cultivates growth through inquiry and strengthens people’s connections with themselves, one another, and the wider world.

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[1] Pudding Brooks, “The Phoenix on Peachtree,” Peachtree Papers, October 1968, The Junior League of Atlanta, Inc.

[2] High Museum Calendar of Events, 1959–1969, High Museum of Art ahc.MSS944, Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.

[3] “The Children’s Museum of Brooklyn Institute,” Scientific American LXXXII, no. 19 (May 12, 1900): 296.

[4] “Children’s Room in Smithsonian Institution Building,” 1901, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 41, Folder 8,

[5] “Opening of the Museum,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 2, no. 4 (February 1916): 3.

[6] Frankie Coxe, “Progress Report Topic: Junior Gallery,” Atlanta Cotton Blossom, February 1967, The Junior League of Atlanta, Inc.

[7] “Sharing High Ideals,” Peachtree Papers, Winter 1994, The Junior League of Atlanta, Inc.

[8] Sylvia Rhor, “Every Walk of Life and Every Degree of Education: Museum Instruction at The Art Institute of Chicago, 1879–1955,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 29, no. 1 (2003): 20–45, 90–92.

[9] Katharine Kuh, “Seeing is Believing,” Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 39, no. 4 (April–May 1945): 53–56.

[10] High Museum Calendar of Events, May 1967, High Museum of Art ahc.MSS944, Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.

[11] Atlanta Arts Alliance Press Kit, 1968, High Museum of Art ahc.MSS944, Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.

[12] High Museum Press Release, September 2, 1970, High Museum of Art ahc.MSS944, Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.

[13] Ann Carter, “Color Happenings Shown,” The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, October 27, 1968.

[14] Barbara Y. Newson and Adele Z. Silver, eds., The Art Museum as Educator: A Collection of Studies as Guides to Practice and Policy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).



High Museum of Art
High Museum of Art

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