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Michael Shapiro to Leave High’s Top Post Next Summer

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Michael Shapiro, photographed by Chip Simone.
Michael Shapiro, photographed by Chip Simone.

High Museum director Michael Shapiro will step down from his post when his contract ends on July 31, 2015.

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According to the press release, “Shapiro plans to remain active in the art world through his board work and as an independent consultant focusing on professional development, best practices and institutional collaborations.”

Shapiro joined the High in 1995 as director of museum programs and chief curator, and then deputy director and chief curator, before assuming the top post in 2000. He will soon turn 65. (New York’s Museum of Modern Art mandates that curators retire at 65, a measure put into effect in 2008.)

Under his leadership, the High doubled the size of its permanent collection, raised nearly $230 million, increased its endowment by nearly 30 percent, and procured curatorial endowments for the High’s seven collecting departments. Shapiro also oversaw a three-building, 177,000-square-foot expansion by noted architect Renzo Piano. The High’s presence in Midtown is a major factor for the area’s revitalization.

Shapiro was also responsible for the creation in 2005 of the David C. Driskell Prize, which honors individuals for their contributions to African American art and art history, and the related David C. Driskell African American Art Acquisitions Endowment, which funds the purchase of works by Driskell Prize recipients and other notable black artists.

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In the official announcement, board chair Louise Sams said: “Michael Shapiro’s dedication and vision have transformed the High over the past 15 years. He has been instrumental in making the High the cultural cornerstone of the Atlanta community and the region that it is today.”

Prior to the High, Shapiro served as director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, chief curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum, and as assistant professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He joined the High’s leadership in 1995 and was named director five years later. He holds a PhD from Harvard University and an MA from Williams College.

Marianne Lambert, a former art consultant and High board member, described Shapiro as “a very approachable director.” She said, “I love the fact that he hired modern and contemporary curator Michael Rooks, who was charged with connecting the High to the Atlanta artists community.” Rooks and Lambert collaborated on the High’s acquisitions of works on paper by Atlanta artists, which were shown in the popular exhibition “Insider the Perimeter” last year. Rooks is in Hawaii and could not be reached for comment.

Rumors of Shapiro’s pending departure have circulated intermittently over the past few years, as observers and some insiders took exception to his management and programming. The High is often criticized for not giving its curators the opportunity to originate exhibitions, which would enhance the museum’s scholarly reputation.

A key element of Shapiro’s programming strategy has been the sometimes controversial partnerships with international museums. These include “Paris in the Age of Impressionism: Masterworks from the Musée d’Orsay” (2002) and “The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army” (2008), which is the most highly attended show in the museum’s history. But it also included such duds as “The Art of Golf” (2011), featuring objects from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in Scotland and “The Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden” (2012-13). Fall 2015 will bring “Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections,” in partnership with the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Multiyear partnerships with the Louvre in Paris and New York’s MOMA yielded uneven results. MOMA’s “Picasso to Warhol: Fourteen Modern Masters” (2011-12) was well received by critics and the public, but its follow-up, “Fast Forward: Modern Moments 1913>>2013,” had a quarter of the visitors, but was on view for half as long. The final exhibition of the partnership, a survey of contemporary art called “Free Radicals,” was “postponed” in April 2013, supposedly for fiscal year 2015; it has yet to reappear on the museum’s advance schedule of exhibitions, which extends into January 2016.

The High’s board will conduct a national and international search for the museum’s next director.