The long road to 'Wow'

STAFF WRITERApril 29, 2010 

I knew that Larry Wheeler was going to make a lot of friends for the North Carolina Museum of Art during my very first conversation with him some years ago at a meeting of the State Conference of Editorial Writers. Wheeler was the keynote speaker at our meeting, which was in Charlotte, and he was laying out a long-term vision for the museum, trying to build enthusiasm for what seemed like a far-off expansion backed by a heap of high-minded ambition from the museum's long-standing supporters.

Larry was then and remains a man of vast and sophisticated knowledge of the art world, something that's reflected in the state museum's tremendously diverse collection. He's also respected by collectors and potential donors, of which the museum's coup on landing the Rodin pieces is but the latest evidence. But he understands the museum's core mission of public service.

Since its very first days, The N.C. Museum of Art, then housed in what was, comparative to today's Blue Ridge Road complex, a closet, has been the people's museum.

And now, following the opening of a 120,000 square foot-plus expansion, the people have themselves quite a museum indeed.

A ride through the grounds, after a weekend of justifiable hoopla over the opening of the expansion, drew this from a friend in the shotgun seat: "Spectacular. This is amazing. When is The New York Times coming? This will be world famous."

This is what a museum is supposed to be, a showcase for the art itself, and so it is.

It was no small feat in the 1940s when North Carolina allocated $1 million for the purchase of art. Leaders of the General Assembly, the same ones who also invested in a state symphony, wanted North Carolina to be a state in full. And they insisted that art and music be available to all those throughout the state, most especially school children.

The promise has been fulfilled, a thousand times over, tens of thousands of times over.

I remember as a youngster going through the art museum with my cousin Cathy, who hailed from Boiling Springs, in the foothills. We were attached to a recording machine that now would be regarded a primitive indeed. It guided us through the works in a brick building in a corner of downtown Raleigh.

The art was packed, the building not particularly set up to house works of art. The volunteers then did the work, tirelessly taking the "museum message" to public schools through slide shows and talks. (They'd never have called them lectures.)

Today, North Carolina has many native daughters and sons holding influential positions in art museums around the world, kids from the cities, but also kids from places like Rutherford County, or Dare or Carteret or Durham.

Ask them what spark it was that spurred their interest in art, and most will recall a first visit to the Museum of Art, or a presentation at their schools by someone such as the late Beth Paschal of Raleigh, who carried the art museum's figurative torch on many an Olympian journey to the far corners of the state. (Many local people, such as Jim and Ann Goodnight, have continued to hold the light.)

Most sought and seek not ownership of credit, or exclusivity, or prestige, but the satisfaction of a gift of time or money or art that, when it entered the museum doors, belonged to all the people.

Some say that what the symphony does to glorify great music and elevate opportunity and interest for the citizens of the state, the art museum does through painting and sculpture. That's one way of putting it. But what both do is speak to, and uplift, the spirit of North Carolinians, one at a time, whether they come from a civic group, a retirement community, or from a family of two.

One may begin a museum tour in the afternoon and finish at dark, but somehow the horizons always seem higher at the end than they were at the beginning.

Cousin Cathy, who became a teacher, still lives near Boiling Springs, and doubtless has shared the love of art with her children and now will do the same with her grandchildren. What can I tell her of the latest expansion ... that the museum is magnificent indeed. And still it is ours.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at

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