Welcome to the Jepson Center, the contemporary wing of the Telfair Museum system in the beautiful, downtown historic district of Savannah, Georgia. Savannah, Georgia is one of the oldest settling cities in America. The downtown area includes two districts: the Savannah Historic District where the Telfair museum system is found, the Savannah Victorian Historic District and twenty two unique to only Savannah squares. General James Oglethorpe created a layout of how Savannah was meant to look like when he first settled the area. The Telfair itself is not only one of Savannah’s most visited museums, but it is also the South’s first public art museum. The system encompasses three main buildings as part of the Telfair museum system: the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Owens-Thomas House, and the Jepson Center for the Arts which was completed almost ten years ago now, in 2006. As you can see, we are standing in the atrium part of the Jepson. The entrance has the enchanting tall, glass windows that allow a picturesque view of one of the city squares that the Jepson resides on. This area is where people can purchase passes, get assistance from the clerk at the front of the museum, use restroom facilities, or buy gifts at the gift shop. This space was originally intended to be an area used for socializing.
The second level of the Jepson Center include the hands-on, activity filled, kid-friendly education gallery, also called “ArtZeum”. There is a technology room with hands-on activities, giving school children a chance to get their hands dirty but still gain some knowledge as well. The museum uses common core standards that match with school standards so kids learn what they should be learning at their age. This is a special feature of all three museums because of this specially crafted area just for kids. The Jepson is the first to cater to the children who visit the museums. Within the second level, there is a small staircase that leads to another area with objects for children to interact with. One of the challenges that I was told about, however, was that the gallery had limited gallery space with only 6,000 sq ft for art work. I was personally told that the Jepson was designed to become an education resource for educators and students alike.
Some of the exhibitions that are currently present at the Jepson are African-American artist, Whitfield Lovell’s, Deep River. Through his artwork he portrays the lives of African-American slaves as they search for freedom in the United States. His focus is painting, sculpting, and using sound to draw visitors in and give them a tangible type of artwork to provoke them more. Port City is the second exhibition that features Savannah’s river fronts through the eyes of local artists in the city. Each artist usually uses a distinct medium and captures what the view of River Street was like during different periods of history. It is one of my favorites because it gives people a chance to see how artwork in Savannah has evolved over time. Savannah Collects is the third and final exhibition of the Jepson Center. This is more of a personal look into the artists of Savannah. Some of their privately owned pieces are submitted and on display for onlookers to view. All of these exhibitions will be on display until January and February of next year.
The Jepson is definitely a museum that tries to cater to the community. As a result they have created several events throughout the year to try to draw in locals. The Jepson Jingle is the Telfair’s annual holiday tree lighting. Not only is the event free but families can bring children to decorate tondos, or circular discs. An event called ‘A Collector’s Evening’ promotes the Telfair’s curators and gives them a chance to show off pieces of artwork that they might want to showcase in the museums. Another popular event is ‘Art on Tap’, in fact it is so popular that it is on every third Thursday of each month. One thing that Savannah is known for is its night life and drinking scene, and the Jepson offers alcohol, appetizers, and art all in one night. The Jepson Café features different wines and breweries, and provide light hors d’oeuvres for visitors that are interested. These are three of many events, each month that the Jepson has to offer to the public. I highly recommend that it is taken advantage of.
Unfortunately, since the Jepson is a contemporary building it does not have the rich histories that the other buildings possess. The Telfair-Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Owens-Thomas House were designed by famed architect William Jay, best known for his spectacular work in practicing with Greek inspired architecture and making it stand out in the “then” contemporary time period of Savannah. The British Regency era was a time that was infused with great social and political trends that became distinct in the early British seventeenth century; this shows through Jay’s work. His style of architecture became synonymous with wealth after both houses included modern, wealthy features in which many people during that time period could not afford. Jay contributed to many buildings within the Savannah area, including the Bank of the United States, which was an early Greek revival-style building almost overshadowed by the six columns that line the front of the building, capturing the viewer’s attention. He also contributed to the construction of the Bulloch House, William Scarborough House, and of course the Owens-Thomas and Telfair Museum of Art. This man’s distinct style of architecture can be found in certain parts of the Historical District of Savannah, most commonly in the Telfair museum system.
The Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences was named a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and is now the main facility of the entire Telfair system. Alexander Telfair was the son of a Revolutionary War patriot and Georgia mayor who was the lucky recipient of the mansion as a sort of token from William Jay. His sister, Mary Telfair eventually sold the mansion and wanted the home to be transformed into a museum.
The Owen’s-Thomas house starts from wealthy beginnings as well. The house was originally built for a man named Richard Richardson, a well known trader in the Savannah area. After losing his family and wealth the house was foreclosed and later leased to the next owner, Mary Maxwell. After the house took on a transformation and became a boarding house it was put up for auction and then bought by George Welshman Owens.
What makes the Jepson different from the Owens-Thomas House and the Telfair Academy, is that the Jepson was constructed in 2006 as a contemporary wing of the museum. The tall glass windows that paint different sides of the building were purposefully constructed so that the Jepson would stand out against the historic scenery of downtown Savannah. In fact, you might want to know some background as to how the Jepson Center was actually created. The ideas for the Jepson started way before 2006, in fact there were talks of a contemporary building being constructed maybe fifteen to twenty years before steel was even thought of. According to several news articles that came out around the time the building was opened, there were discussions about expanding Savannah’s oldest museum before 1995 when Ms. Diane Lesko became the Director of the Telfair Museum of Art. Based on a discussion she had with the local news, Savannah Morning News, when she started her job almost ten years ago now, the collection of the Telfair Museum was growing, storage space was shrinking and educational abilities were limited. It was more than clear that there was a need for expansion, and the Jepson offers solutions to all of these issues.
The construction of the Jepson did lead to a two-year battle that resulted in the Telfair system going to battle with Savannah’s Historic Review Board, however. This group exists to ultimately create certain guidelines for historical buildings that are erected within the Historic District of Savannah. They serve to protect the historical heritage that Savannah is known for, and when the idea of the Jepson started to become a reality, they quickly challenged architect Moshe Safdie’s design. The issue that the Board had with the design the transparent façade in the front of the building. Some experts claimed that it was an infringement to the city’s zoning ordinances, specifically this one being called the “Chadbourne guidelines”. These guidelines specify the number and size of a building’s opening, but the Historic Review Board will usually grant exceptions to buildings like churches, civic centers and museums. The atrium was constructed to be the focal point of the museum, a spot that catches the eye from people walking along the other side of the street and draws them to the building. However, the Jepson was not considered a museum because of its intricate design, so as a compromise Safdie added mass by installing stone columns to the glass façade and the Jepson Center officially passed the review board in 2000.
As far as physical attributes go, there is over 7,500 square feet of gallery space that can be utilized for traveling exhibitions. There is a community gallery, education studios in different parts of the museum, and a 220-seat auditorium used for different educational programs.
I would strongly encourage you to pay a visit not only to the Jepson Center but to the rest of the Telfair museums as well. There is rich, diverse history found in these preserved and beautifully updated buildings. The curator team does a fairly fantastic job devising exhibitions that spark the interest of locals. Savannah is a city that is based on tourism, and it is absolutely essential that take advantage of the wonderful sights and sounds that this gorgeous city has to offer.