Eight months ago, Atlanta’s Black visual arts community buzzed over the selection of veteran curator Karen Comer Lowe to run the Hammonds House Museum. But in early January, and on the heels of a well-received exhibition of works from the museum’s permanent collection, she was fired, and the upcoming Donald Locke exhibition she was curating was canceled. A few days later, the board announced the museum was temporarily closing.
Amid the dust-up, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution received reports that the museum’s collection, which now numbers more than 500 pieces, needs immediate conservation.
While the museum’s board says the museum’s fate isn’t in question, some observers say the abrupt firing of a noted museum professional will make it more difficult to hire another qualified executive director and to fundraise, which could impact the viability of an institution already operating on razor-thin margins.
‘Restructuring of the organization’
The hiring of Comer Lowe, who’d spent the past 15 years as manager and curator of the Chastain Arts Center, was viewed as a move by the museum’s board to recommit the 34-year-old institution to its original intent as metro Atlanta’s premier fine art museum for work by Black artists. The museum is named for Dr. Otis Thrash Hammonds, the Black anesthesiologist who amassed a collection of nearly 300 sculptures, paintings and drawings before his death in 1985. Set in the Victorian home the doctor bought to showcase his art, the permanent collection contains some of the biggest names of 20th- and 21st-century art: Bill Traylor, Nellie Mae Rowe, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden and Radcliffe Bailey.
Despite such a catalog, the museum has faded in prominence over the past 15 years. Even with annual grants from Fulton County, it has struggled to remain financially viable.
An alum of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Comer Lowe appeared to be a perfect fit to reinvigorate the organization. That she’d worked at Hammonds House decades ago as a program coordinator under its founding director, Ed Spriggs, seemed a bonus and homecoming.
“I took it as my mission to turn that place around,” Comer Lowe said.
On Jan. 12, Comer Lowe was called into an executive board meeting, one she believed was to finalize contracts for an upcoming exhibition. Instead, she was terminated, effective immediately. By the time she arrived home, she’d been locked out of her work email.
Board chair Imara Canady said in one of several interviews with the AJC that Comer Lowe was simply the casualty of a “restructuring of the organization.”
In nearly two dozen interviews with artists, arts administrators and scholars, many expressed dismay, saying Comer Lowe is the most qualified curator the institution has seen in decades. Some are publicly calling for the ouster of the 12-member board of trustees.
After inquiries by the AJC about the state of the collection, the Fulton County Arts and Culture division sent representatives in late January to inspect the museum’s storage facility. Canady said the surprise inspection did not result in citations, but that county representatives said, “we need to put more focus on long-term preservation.” Fulton County did not respond to a request about the inspection results.
Neither the county nor the museum board could provide a date for the last appraisal or the monetary value for the collection. Reached last week in Palm Springs, California, however, a principal in the firm that performed an appraisal in 2004 said the collection is significant and should be cared for by a trained museum professional. He declined to comment on its value, but said its condition was key. As an example of the collection’s potential worth, it contains a work by late folk artist Bill Traylor, who produced a double-sided tempera and graphite piece that sold for $507,000 in 2020 at Christie’s.
All of this has some wondering about the museum’s future as the conservator of such important works by Black creators.
“When I think about the legacy of Hammonds House, it was just like a grad school for me,” said conceptual artist Radcliffe Bailey. “When I saw Karen come in, it reminded me of what I knew and remembered about Hammonds House. I don’t feel like she’s had an opportunity to do what she’s supposed to do….she came from an artistic background based on scholarship of art.
When Comer Lowe began at Hammonds House, she presented the board with a five-year plan including proposed exhibitions and fundraising plans. She’d outlined a schedule of three major exhibitions a year, with the Donald Locke show being the first. His work is currently on view at the Tate Britain in London. She also planned a series of small, private evening conversations with artists and donors, exclusive events that often result in large donations.
As executive director and chief curator, her responsibilities were fundraising, donor relations, public facing events and curation. While fundraising was important, equally important was reasserting the institution as a serious fine arts museum that potential donors would support.
“She was working to get a conservator because some of the art had not been conserved or properly stored over the years,” said Lauren Jackson Harris, art consultant, independent curator, and co-founder of the arts advocacy firm Black Women in Visual Art.
The board, however, still embraced the five-year plan left behind by former Hammonds House director Leatrice Ellzy Wright, an “enterprise model” that prioritized fundraising in the executive director’s lineup of responsibilities. Ellzy Wright, a former programming director of the National Black Arts Festival, also proposed turning the upstairs gallery into a rental studio space for podcasters and videographers. Under her plan, the museum would be a potential movie location and an event space for weddings, birthday parties and lectures.
“Success is not always tied to what’s on the walls,” Ellzy Wright said. “What we were putting in place at Hammonds House was necessary. It’s still a functioning museum, but it’s how you build capacity to make money to fulfill the mission.”
Day-to-day operational duties would be left to someone else on staff. For the role of chief curator, Ellzy Wright said that in her model, the job could possibly be outsourced.
Before Ellzy Wright left in May for the Apollo, she said the board asked her to meet with Comer Lowe through December to ensure implementation of Ellzy Wright’s ideas, but Comer Lowe said that was not her understanding.
“I had no idea this institution hired me to implement someone else’s plan,” Comer Lowe said.
Not on the same page
If the board knew it wanted to pursue the former executive director’s model, why was Comer Lowe hired at all, or at least on an interim basis?
When asked this, Canady blamed the pandemic.
“Going back when (Ellzy Wright) came on board, one of the things the board had been thinking of is what does sustainability look like? What does being cutting edge look like? We were on this trajectory of reimagining the institution as a whole and then COVID hit,” Canady said.
As arts institutions around the country shuttered their doors in 2020, including Hammonds House, Canady said the board tried to figure out how to stay afloat. And with Ellzy Wright’s impending departure and the uncertainties of the pandemic, “the board went back to what was known as opposed to moving forward,” Canady said. “That’s when the search for executive director happened and Karen was brought on board.”
Canady now says Comer Lowe’s hiring was a mistake because she was “someone who wasn’t the right fit for the museum at this time.”’
Comer Lowe said throughout her tenure, Canady, board members or the operations manager occasionally questioned her about “implementation of common museum practices,” such as charging members for exclusive private tours led by the featured artist. She also raised the general admission from $5 to $10.
Harris said the real issue is not with Comer Lowe, but with the governance of the museum.
“For a board to have this say over an art director like that is so Atlanta,” she said. “No one left is knowledgeable to manage that collection … the board needs to be replaced. They need to shake the tree and get all the bad apples out.”
‘A little gem’
The episode continues to reverberate in the arts community, even among those who helped found Hammonds House.
Former Fulton County Chairman Michael Lomax spearheaded the legislation making the house, its furnishings and the art collection assembled by Hammonds the property of Fulton County.
The problem, Lomax said, goes beyond the firing of Comer Lowe. What’s more important is the collection itself and the lack of support shown it by the larger philanthropic community.
“This is an extraordinary asset to the community,” Lomax said. “That one individual did this in the 1960s and 1970s when Black art wasn’t valued by the larger art world, is stunning and it should be getting a lot more attention and care by the community at large … It’s a little gem that has been neglected.”
Although no reopening date has been announced, some believe Hammonds House will survive. Spriggs, Hammonds House’s founding director, is one of them. He came to Hammonds House after serving as director of The Studio Museum in Harlem. He said Comer Lowe’s termination was a “terrible stumble” that will have lasting impact on Hammonds House’s ability to fundraise and hire qualified staff. He also said the board does not have enough members who have deep arts training and knowledge.
“They are floundering around seeing it as a fun place or a party place,” Spriggs said. “But a museum is not a party place. If you don’t follow that museum model, you have a community arts organization, but you don’t have a museum.”
This story comes from our partners at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more on the news, trends and events shaping Black culture in Atlanta, sign up for the Unapologetically ATL newsletter and read more here.