Museum deals for Rodin's art

Works by celebrated sculptor may stay permanently

Staff WriterApril 1, 2005 

The N.C. Museum of Art expects to land several works by Auguste Rodin for its permanent collection and could become the Southeast's largest repository of the sculptor's works.

Museum director Larry Wheeler said Thursday that the number of pieces and their value had not been decided but that it would be "an impressive collection" representing "a huge gift." It is too early to identify the potential donor, he said.

Rodin is enormously popular, if only for "The Thinker," one of the most recognizable works of art ever created. Joe Rishel, curator of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, said acquiring a substantial number of Rodin's works would give the museum a major attraction.

"That's a big deal," Rishel said. "It's a big, big leap in terms of collection-building, exposure, attraction. If you put Rodin in the title, people will show up."

Five years ago, a Rodin exhibition drew the most paid visitors the Raleigh museum has had for any attraction: nearly 190,000 people.

"We decided to capitalize on that sentiment by negotiating ways to bring a collection of Rodin to the community and the museum," Wheeler said.

The 2000 exhibition included pieces from the Musee Rodin in Paris and suburban Meudon, and from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, which owns the largest privately held collection of Rodin works in the United States. The Cantor Foundation has given more than 450 works by Rodin to more than 70 museums, universities and other institutions around the world.

The Cantor Foundation would be a likely source of the Raleigh donation. But the foundation's executive director, Judith Sobol, would not comment directly on whether it was negotiating with the museum. She would say only that the board of directors had made no decision to give anyone a gift.

"Most museums we work with -- and we work with scores of museums -- ask us for gifts," Sobol said. "At the present time, there are no plans."

Sobol also noted that it has been a decade since the foundation has donated any Rodin works.

One of the foundation's gifts went to the Brooklyn Museum in New York, which received about 50 pieces by Rodin more than 15 years ago. The Cantors also gave a large number of pieces to Stanford University, which has the largest collection of Rodin bronzes outside Paris.

"These are gifts that transform and made a big difference," said Philadelphia's Rishel.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art created a separate Rodin museum for 127 artworks by the master, and it has proven to be consistently popular, Rishel said.

"There are these iconic images like 'The Thinker,' " he said. "If you run a blind test on a street corner of works of art people would remember, Rodin would be in the top five. He does have this very human quality: very accessible, very corporeal, very sexy -- all naked bodies."

The acquisition would follow several blockbuster exhibitions at the state museum. It has been quietly raising money through its private foundation for a capital campaign that could amount to $100 million for operations and acquisitions.

Push for state money

Museum administrators will ask the General Assembly for $50 million in bonds, and they hope to receive $15 million in local tourism tax money to build a 90,000-square-foot expansion of the West Raleigh building.

This month, the museum will celebrate the opening of a pedestrian bridge over the Beltline and the completion of trails connecting a 100-acre park around the museum, partially on land once occupied by the demolished Polk Youth Correctional Facility. The park project cost about $5 million.

The expansion, including a gallery dedicated to Rodin, is being designed and would integrate the museum into the surrounding parkland, Wheeler said.

Staff writer Craig Jarvis can be reached at 829-4576 or cjarvis@newsobserver.com.

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