Rand Suffolk ’90 creates gateways for the Atlanta community to connect with its museum.W
hen Rand Suffolk ’90 boarded his flight to Italy at age 15, it was the first time he’d ever been on a plane.
Until then, Suffolk had barely even explored the U.S., much less traveled abroad. But one afternoon, in their rural home outside of Akron, Ohio, Suffolk’s father walked in and asked if he would like to move to Rome for a year or two—his father had a job offer there.
“I said, ‘Sure, as long as I’m back in Ohio in time to finish my senior year of high school,’” Suffolk recalls from his spacious office at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia, where he serves as director of the High Museum of Art, arguably the most prominent institution of its kind in the Southeast.
Suffolk spent the next three years at an American school in Rome, where he became fluent in Italian and absorbed the visual beauty of the city’s architecture and art, grew accustomed to the culinary and cultural riches of the country, and took pleasure in the little things, such as smoking cigarettes on the iconic Spanish Steps at the Piazza di Spagna.
The Roman lifestyle may have been a world away from the midwestern United States, but it agreed with Suffolk, and when he returned to Ohio to complete his senior year of high school, he realized he missed Italy and flew back after three weeks.
“Ohio just didn’t feel like home anymore, and as a teenager, even though I wasn’t overtly conscious of what a gift it was to be in Rome and surrounded by beautiful art, there’s no question that through osmosis a certain appreciation developed,” Suffolk says.
But he knew he wanted to attend a liberal arts college in the U.S., and a friend’s mother, who happened to be a Conn grad, suggested he meet with a dean of the college who was traveling in Rome at the time.
After the meeting, Suffolk was sold. That next fall he arrived at Conn.
Immersing himself in English courses and art history, Suffolk decided he wanted to pursue a career in university administration. But throughout graduate school his interest in art history continued to evolve into a driving passion. So after finishing his first graduate program he decided to pursue a master’s in art history at Bryn Mawr College.
Suffolk’s big break came when he was hired by the Hyde Collection, a hidden gem of an art museum in upstate New York, where he quickly worked his way up to director. After seven years at the Hyde, Suffolk caught the attention of the Philbrook Museum of Art, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was recruited to serve as its director and CEO. He was appointed director of the High in 2015 and has already transformed the Atlanta landmark into a stunning example of how art museums can truly reflect their communities, and strike the delicate balance between progress and preservation.
“For me, a big part of the attraction to this job is focusing on accessibility and creating new gateways for people to connect with their museum,” Suffolk explains, emphasizing that the museum belongs to everybody in the city, not only to art collectors and the philanthropic class.
From a cultural perspective, Atlanta has been one of the great beneficiaries of the seismic demographic changes happening more broadly throughout the country. The city has experienced a huge reverse migration of African Americans and also has vibrant LGBTQ and Latino communities, which have created tremendous opportunities for Suffolk and his team to engage the city’s full spectrum of residents—regardless of age, ethnicity, sexual orientation or socioeconomic backgrounds—in ways that the High (and most museums) traditionally hasn’t been willing or able to do.
Suffolk is quick to point out that discussing diversity in a philosophical sense holds little value if that philosophy isn’t reflected in practice.
“I also believe that museums have an important role to play in society, and that nonprofits like ours exist to make the world a better place. Our filter for doing that is, hopefully, via engagement with complex visual culture.”
Since Suffolk took over, he has translated his belief into action. Over the past two years, more than 60 percent of the museum’s exhibitions have highlighted or focused on artists of color, gay artists or women artists. In 2015, the High averaged 15 percent nonwhite participation, 6 percentage points higher than the national average but still unacceptable to Suffolk. Within two years, that number tripled, to more than 45 percent, and last year alone nonwhite participation hit 50 percent, almost exactly representative of metro Atlanta’s 51 percent minority population.
Suffolk is determined to continue that momentum and make sure the High serves as the premier destination for community engagement for everybody in the city.
“If we’re going to reflect the audience we serve, we’d better not just talk the talk; we’d better walk the walk,” Suffolk argues.
Founded in 1905, the museum that planted the seed for the modern High was a modest facility known as the Atlanta Art Association. As the collection (and funding) grew steadily over the years and decades, major expansions and relocations were required. Today, the 312,000-square-foot museum is in itself a work of art. Initially designed by the famous architect Richard Meier and completed in 1983, the building won him the Pritzker Prize for architecture. It was expanded in 2005 with a large addition designed by renowned Italian architect (and fellow Pritzker Prize recipient) Renzo Piano.
“Both [architects] realized that they were creating spaces for the presentation of artwork, and I think the buildings have