Ever since Michael Rooks joined the High Museum’s staff as Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art in 2010, he has been a man on a mission: to make the museum a more supportive and integrated member of the local art community. He has made his presence felt by attending openings and events, jurying exhibitions and, most profoundly, acquiring work by area artists for the permanent collection.
Last summer’s Drawing Inside the Perimeter presented 44 of the 52 drawings purchased through the Lambert Fund — a gift of the Judith Alexander Foundation named for art maven Marianne Lambert — and related donations.
The show could have been a last hurrah as well as a debut; Rooks had depleted the fund. But now he has a second wind. The Antinori Foundation has established the Antinori Fund, a gift of $50,000 designated for the drawings initiative.
And he didn’t even have to ask. Art patron Susan Antinori had seen the drawing show, and it had, she says, “knocked my socks off. It was something new and fresh and hip . . . I have works by several of the artists, and it was a thrill to see them given exposure and validation.”
Antinori got to know the curator on a tour of artists’ studios he conducted in October. She was impressed. During one of their conversations, she told him how much she liked the show and asked how the project was going. When he mentioned that he had spent the allotted funds, she offered to help.
“I’m thrilled [to help],” she says. “That show was one of the best at the museum, and it’s refreshing that Michael cares so deeply about collecting art from the local community.”
Success breeds success. Upon learning about the Antinori Fund, the Judith Alexander Foundation has given another $5,000 to the cause. In addition, the High raised $8,000 from a recent benefit. That’s $63,000 for the next round, which will culminate in an exhibition in about two years.
“I could spend it in a weekend,” says an extremely grateful Rooks, “but I will spread the process out because I think the studio visits are important.”
He will continue to collect drawings, though he plans to expand the parameters of the term, and Lambert will continue as his “sidekick.”
“I view the project mainly as a platform for promoting emerging artists, but I would also like to revisit artists who have been working here a long time,” he says.
Rooks has organized solo exhibitions for two such artists, Medford Johnston and Jim Waters, which open February 8.
Medford Johnston: Counterpoise will feature a series of paintings, honed abstractions inspired by travels in Tanzania and Kenya in the late 1980s.
Splendor: The Work of Jim Waters will comprise recent drawings and a site-specific installation that expands upon Waters’ core concerns — light, movement and the relationship between the natural and artificial.
Asked about plans for future exhibitions of area artists, a coy Rooks replies, “There is nothing planned, but I do have plans.”