The purchase in 1989 of 230 paintings from the collection of Robert P. Coggins, a renowned collector of Southern art, established a focus and direction for the museum. Parts of Coggins's vast collection had been exhibited in museums around the country, and several other public institutions were vying for it when the purchase was made on behalf of the nascent Morris Museum. Another significant development of that year was the establishment of a reference library, which has evolved into the Center for the Study of Southern Art, an important reference resource.
The Board of Trustees wrote and adopted the museum's mission statement in 1990, reflecting the museum's principal interest in the art and artists of the South. Also that year, Keith Claussen became the museum's acting director, and plans were first developed for adapting space in an office building, the Riverfront Center, to house the museum's growing collection.
On September 26, 1992, the Morris Museum of Art opened its doors to the public and attracted more than ten thousand visitors in its first three months of operation. Since then, it has strived to fulfill its promise to make the language of artistic expression in the South accessible to a large and diverse audience through dozens of exhibitions and publications. The museum's education department has developed art education programs at many different grade levels in partnership with local school systems and has offered docent-led tours of the museum's holdings and exhibitions to thousands of visitors of all ages every year. The museum's public programs—whether storytelling sessions, readings, concerts, lectures, conversations with artists, or art-making workshops—have contributed to the renaissance of downtown Augusta.
At its tenth anniversary celebration in September 2002, the museum's founder, William S. Morris III, offered a vision of the museum's future that included the continued expansions of the museum's presence as an important contributor to the community's social and cultural resources and economic vitality, as well as to the country's understanding and appreciation of the culture of the region.
Augusta Oelschig, Rhythm Diggers, 1946. Oil on canvas mounted on panel.