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Museum Minute: Who Founded the Georgia Museum of Art?

As the museum approaches its 75th anniversary in 2023, you may find yourself wondering “how did it get started in the first place?” Born in 1874, Alfred Heber Holbrook was a lawyer in New York who loved to visit museums in his free time. After he retired at the age of 70, he began studying art in earnest and assembling a collection that he thought could form the basis of a museum.

At a fateful dinner in 1944, he met Holger Cahill, who had served as national director of the Federal Art Project under President Franklin Roosevelt. Cahill suggested that the University of Georgia, which did not have a campus museum, might be a good fit for Holbrook’s collection. Holbrook visited Athens that October and met Lamar Dodd, then head of UGA’s art department. He fell in love with the town and after his move the same year began attending art classes with Dodd, clad in a pink smock.

His gift of 100 American paintings to the university in 1945 founded the museum, although it did not open to the public until November 1948, in the basement of what was then the university library. Holbrook would serve as its first director and did so until past his 90th birthday. Legend holds that he would load paintings into the trunk of his car and drive them around the state to show them to others. He maintained an office at the museum until just a few weeks before his death in 1974. His vision continues to shape his beloved institution.