The Telfair Museums of Savannah, Georgia, consist of three facilities, the Telfair Academy, Owens-Thomas House, and Jepson Center. Collectively, they are the oldest public art museums in the southern United States. Both the Telfair Academy and the Owens-Thomas House are home to artwork from the 17th century through the early 20th century.
The collection includes American and European paintings, textiles, decorative arts, furnishings, books, and sculptures. Pieces from the school of American Impressionism as well as the Ashcan School of Realism are considered highlights of the collection. Acclaimed artists represented in the permanent collection include George Bellows, Frederick Frieseke, Robert Henri, and George Luks. The Owens-Thomas House includes a parterre garden and the original carriage house, which is one of the oldest remaining examples of urban slave quarters in the United States. Both the Telfair Academy and the Owens-Thomas House were built by the British architect William Jay in the Regency style, inspired by classical antiquity and named for the Prince Regent, King George IV. The two buildings are quite different, however, and architectural historians consider the Owens-Thomas House as one of the United States’ best examples of Regency-style architecture. The Jepson Center is a contemporary art space featuring over 7,500 square feet of exhibit space. The collection at the Jepson includes the Kirk Varnedoe Collection, named for the late Savannah resident and MoMA curator. The collection includes works on paper by some of the most influential American artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, and Chuck Close. The diverse collection at the Jepson spans the past 50 years and includes Sylvia Shaw Judson’s iconic Bird Girl statue, made famous by the photograph on the cover of the book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The Telfair is also home to the largest American collection of paintings and drawings by Kahlil Gibran, author of The Poet. ArtZeum at the Jepson is an interactive museum space for children that uses reproductions of works in the Telfair collection to educate and entertain, asking children to consider what art is and why we make it.
History: The Telfair Museums were founded in 1883 when Mary Telfair, a Savannah resident and philanthropist, bequeathed her home and furnishings to the Georgia Historical Society. The Telfair Academy was originally Mary Telfair’s home. It was built between 1818 and 1819 for her brother, Alexander Telfair. Mary and Alexander’s father, Edward Telfair, was a Revolutionary War patriot and once governor of the state of Georgia. After Mary donated the home to be used as a museum, it underwent significant renovations, including the addition of a rotunda and sculpture gallery. The museum opened in 1886 as the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Owens-Thomas house was built between 1816 and 1819. Just three years after the home’s completion, the owners fell into financial hardship. The home was sold and passed through a few owners before George Welshman Owens, a Georgia congressman, purchased the property in 1830. The house remained in the Owens family until 1951, when George’s granddaughter Mary bequeathed it, along with its contents, to the Telfair Museums. The Jepson Center, home of the Telfair Museums’ contemporary art collection, was built in 2006, designed by the acclaimed Israeli-Canadian-American architect Moshe Safdie.
Ongoing Programs and Education: Tours of the Telfair Academy include the Mansion to Museum tour as well as tours of current special exhibitions. Tours of the Owens-Thomas House focus on the Owens family furnishings, the decorative arts collection, and the history of the carriage house and slave quarters. The Jepson Center offers architectural tours and tours based on the current exhibits. Telfair Museums offer a wide range of classes, from painting and drawing to yoga. Gallery talks and lecture programs are geared towards adults. Children’s programs include hands-on workshops and curriculum-focused tours. The Jepson Center is home to a 220-seat auditorium, which hosts many of these programs as well as film screenings and performances. The Teen Council is a group of up to 20 high school studentts who create programming for other teens as well as plan and promote community events.
Past and Future Exhibits: Ongoing exhibits at the Telfair Museums include From Mansion to Museum at the Telfair Academy, highlighting the story of the academy’s creation, the founding museum director, the architects of the home and its transformation, and the story of the slaves who lived in the house at the time. Hot Pink by French artist Anne Ferrer is an installation of a large inflatable sculpture in the Jepson Center atrium. Complex Uncertainties: Artists in Post War America is an ongoing Jepson Center exhibit featuring works by noted American artists from the museum’s contemporary collection.
207 W. York Street, Savannah, GA 31401, Phone: 912-790-8800