When the Covid-19 Pandemic began, and quarantines were enforced across the country, galleries and museums suddenly needed new ways to show their exhibitions and permanent collections to their audience. Gene Downs talks with Kristie Swink Benson, Director of Communications for the High Museum Atlanta, about those challenges and how they’ve overcome them. 

Gene Downs: How has the COVID pandemic changed the High’s mission?

Kristie Swink Benson: I don’t think it has changed our mission, but it has definitely made it more apparent that people need the arts during difficult times. The arts are a place of respite for people, a place where people can escape, to some degree. As we think about the mental health challenges that come from being isolated, about people not being able to connect with their community as they normally would, it’s very clear that the arts are needed now more than ever.

GD: In what ways has COVID created opportunities for the High?

KSB: It’s given us an opportunity to expand both our audience and the way we think about the museum as a resource. The most freeing thing was recognizing that this was an opportunity to jump into the pool. There was no dipping our toes in. We realized: We need to continue to serve and reach new audiences, so let’s not be paralyzed by fear; let’s figure how to do it and execute.

For example, after the museum closed on March 13, we immediately created a virtual tour of our exhibitions so people could still experience them. We also have a program called Conversation Pieces where people spend 30 minutes looking very closely at one piece of art. As an in-gallery experience, this took place during lunch hour, and it was difficult for many working people to participate. By transitioning it to an online experience, we were able to lengthen the program to one hour, and we doubled ― and tripled, in some cases ― our attendance. That was awesome.

We started to create short videos with snippets of artwork, set them to music, and put them on our YouTube channel and other social media. The engagement was just amazing. We started to do trivia on Tuesdays, featuring pieces from our collection on Instagram Stories. We started “Inside the Artist’s Studio,” where artists in the community could record videos and talk about their work. We edited and posted those on YouTube. We’ve seen a tremendous amount of engagement from those, and they also helped us create bridges to the artistic community.


GD: How has COVID affected the High financially?

KSB: Like with most organizations, it’s tough. Rand Suffolk, Director of the High, always says, “We have a missionary component and a mercenary component.” We don’t get to be this wonderful organization if we don’t mind the business. Fortunately, we have great leadership, and that has helped us to be creative and continue doing this work.


GD: How has the High used this moment to collaborate with other organizations?

KSB: One thing I love about the museum industry is that it’s very collegial, and that has not changed during this time. As institutions across the country have reopened, we’ve shared our different opportunities and challenges. We’re all interconnected, and we’ve had to be nimble and gracious and understanding.

The High has also fostered relationships with other Atlanta attractions. One result of that is Field Trip Fridays, where all these organizations ― the High, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the Children’s Museum of Atlanta, the College Football Hall of Fame and others ― pooled their resources so audiences could take field trips virtually. There has also been a lot of sharing of data and experiences and insights among the different metro attractions.

There’s always some good that comes out of tragedy. Maybe it’s hard to see it in the beginning, but I take the position that there’s always some silver lining. The things I’ve mentioned have definitely been silver linings of COVID and made our organization better.


GD: Looking ahead to the spring: What exhibitions are you excited about?

KSB: “Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands” will continue until April 18. This is a beautiful exhibition and our first exhibit of Persian art in recent years.

“David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History” is a show we started working on before the artist passed away in April 2020. We’re happy to see this come to fruition and honor our longstanding relationship with him and his legacy as an amazing artist.

“Underexposed: Women Photographers from the High Museum” will open on April 17 [confirm]. This will feature women photographers from the High’s collection who may have been underrepresented in previous photography exhibitions.


High Museum
1280 Peachtree Street, NE

Hours: T, W, Th, F, Sa 10:a – 5:p
Sunday: 12:-5:p