The Jepson Center for the Arts is the new expansion of the Telfair Museum of Art. It is located in the historic district of downtown Savannah about five blocks from the Riverfront to the north and five blocks from the end of Interstate 16 to the south. It is adjacent to the older building belonging to the museum, the Telfair Academy, and is connected to it by two bridges. The museum is on the western end of the historic district. Most of the district is within walking distance, but some attractions on the eastern end may require transportation.
The Telfair Museum of Art is purported to be the oldest public art museum in the country. By the 1990s, it was clear that the older building was running out of space, both in terms of storage for their expanding collection and of gallery space large enough to contain contemporary pieces. The museum also felt that its educational capabilities were lacking. A major mission of the Telfair is outreach to youth in Savannah, and the museum felt that opportunities were being missed.
To solve these problems, a new building was commissioned from world-renowned Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie that would expand the Telfair's space by 66 percent. Safdie designed a 64,000-square-foot, soaring structure with hung-glass ceilings, a stone fazade, cantilevered walls on the inside and natural light throughout. The building not only contains much more gallery space, but also includes a 200-seat auditorium, a 3,500-square-foot children's ArtZeum, a cafy, classrooms, outdoor sculpture terraces and a museum store. There are galleries designed especially for Southern art, African-American art and photography. The Jepson Center opened in March 2006.
Safdie's design was not without its detractors. Many in the local community who treasure Savannah's historical beauty thought the contemporary design would be an eyesore. Construction was held up while the issue was discussed, and Safdie made some changes to the fazade to satisfy local aesthetic guidelines. Diane Lesko, former executive director of the Telfair, defended the design, saying, "There were some who really felt this building had no business being in Savannah. But we felt that we could counter that argument. If you are building in the 20th century, to build a 19th century building is a fake. We're in a different age now.''
A very popular part of the Jepson Center is the ArtZeum, the hands-on, interactive, two-story gallery designed for children but equally popular with adults. Board games, a magnetic sculpture wall, hats that teach about types of columns and art-sleuthing computer games are a few of the activities that delight families. The ArtZeum's mission is to engage children with art and teach them that art is for everyone. The adjacent classrooms, equipped with state-of-the-art teaching aids, assist the ArtZeum in carrying out its community goals.
Now that the furor over the building's design has died down, reaction to the Jepson Center for the Arts is largely positive. Those who do not care for contemporary architecture or art find it "cold,'' but most visitors are inspired by the open, naturally-lit spaces and the challenging art within. The ArtZeum gets rave reviews, including this one: "My niece absolutely LOVED the ArtZeum ... An educational, fun, artsy kids' activity in Savannah - a gem!'' And for contemporary art lovers, this commenter summed it up, saying, "If I was wearing socks at the time, I think it would be fair to say the Jepson would have rocked them off!''
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