Art museum will be remade with steel, gentle light

Staff WriterSeptember 14, 2006 

— The first glimpse of what the N.C. Museum of Art will be in three years arrived Wednesday when architects delivered a model of a satin steel and glass building with an undulating roof that glows at night.

The dream of architecturally adventurous galleries and gardens to hold the permanent collection -- which will soon include 22 Rodin sculptures -- took form after seven years of revisions and financial uncertainty.

The model, to be publicly unveiled today, marks a big step in director Larry Wheeler's campaign to enhance the institution's reputation. By association, the design by internationally known architect Thomas Phifer also raises the Triangle's profile for art and architecture -- coming soon after Rafael Vinoly's design of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

"This will be a source of great pride and great beauty," Wheeler said Wednesday. "This is a very sophisticated concept." Next week he'll present the plans to the international architectural press in New York City.

The building is part of a $138 million expansion that includes renovating the current museum and raising $50 million in donations for an endowment. Construction on the 127,000-square-foot building is to begin next month and last 2 1/2 years. The old building will be closed for a short time next fall for renovations.

Most of the 90,000 square feet of walking-around space in the new galleries will be dedicated to a collection of more than 5,000 works -- including the old master paintings for which the museum is known and the bronze Rodin sculptures promised by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation. The Cantor gift, which was contingent on new galleries, will make the museum the Southeast's largest repository of Rodin works.

The unveiling today comes less than a month before the opening of "Monet in Normandy," a blockbuster exhibition expected to draw 120,000 visitors.

The museum construction and renovation are an important part of its extension of outdoor art and hiking trails into the 164 acres of fields and pine trees around it.

The undeveloped land makes an unusual museum setting and makes New York-based Thomas Phifer and Partners a natural choice: The firm is known for work with nature and light. The exterior of the one-story building will be glass and a softened stainless steel that reflects subdued colors. Inside, on a white oak floor, visitors will look through glass across galleries and gardens.

"The point was to create an incredibly rich and unfolding experience that knits together the landscape, art and architecture," Phifer said.

The architecture's defining characteristic, he said, is the diffused lighting. Paintings and other artwork can't be exposed to strong daylight, so the firm designed rooftop lenses that filter out most light and direct the rest onto the walls.

In many ways, this project also completes unfinished business. When Edward Durrell Stone designed the current museum, which opened in 1983, it was supposed to be a lot bigger and grander-- 400,000 square feet -- but was cut to 180,000 square feet because of funding problems. It was 1999, five years after Wheeler arrived, before the museum had the clout and financial commitments to begin reclaiming the space Wheeler thought the state still owed.

The museum hired the New York firm of Gluckman Mayner -- with credentials that included the Whitney Museum in New York, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Picasso Museum in Spain -- to design a 120,000-square-foot addition to the old building. The board wasn't happy with the design, Wheeler said, and when the state granted the museum 45 adjacent acres where the Polk Youth Institute stood, Phifer arrived with the idea of a whole new structure.

The museum sent Phifer back to the drawing boards several times while lining up public money from state and local sources -- $78 million so far.

Another $16 million will be needed to complete renovations and repairs, Wheeler said, and there's that endowment to raise.

There's one sign of political support. First lady Mary Easley will be at today's unveiling, signifying the governor's long-standing backing of the expansion.

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

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