RALEIGH — When the N.C. Museum of Art's acclaimed new building opened last month, standing center stage in the glare of attention were director Larry Wheeler and architect Thomas Phifer.
It was easy to overlook one man off to the side who had steered Wheeler's and Phifer's grand dreams into something tangible.
For the past 20 years, Dan Gottlieb, 56, the museum's director of planning and design, has been quietly shepherding projects that turned the West Raleigh grounds into a place where art and nature intersect.
As a result, North Carolina's art museum is unique among its peers for a 164-acre park that surrounds an airy new building, which has 360 skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows that merge with the landscape while flooding the interior with more natural light than is typically considered prudent for fragile art works. The result has drawn favorable national attention.
"He has just devoted himself to this," says Roger Berkowitz, former director of the Toledo Museum of Art who retired to North Carolina and serves on the museum's board of trustees. "So many parts aren't really glamorous, but without him would not have happened. ... I really think Dan is one of the heroes."
Wheeler adds, "He's been an invaluable asset to me and to the museum. He's had a big job, and he's done a great job."
It has not been an accident. Gottlieb's lifelong interests in art and the environment have come full circle with this project.
Gottlieb grew up in New York City, one of four children born to - as he describes them - an egghead father and a socialite mother. His father, a World War II prisoner of war, became an engineer who worked for Grumman Aircraft on the Apollo Lunar Module.
Gottlieb grew up drawing, painting and building stuff in his father's basement workshop.
Like many others, Gott lieb was influenced in his college studies by two high school teachers: an art teacher who used to take her students to shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a biology teacher who sparked his interest in the environment at the time the first Earth Day was celebrated.
Intrigued by museums
He went on to study at the State University of New York at Buffalo, majoring in art and biology. After college, he was hired at San Diego's Natural History Museum to work in the exhibitions department. He could take photographs and build exhibits. Within a few years, he was running the department. The experience left its mark on him.
"I got intrigued by museums as a confluence of culture and learning," Gottlieb says.
Gottlieb's next position was as head of exhibitions at The Mint Museum in Charlotte, although he didn't know North Carolina geography well.
"I thought Charlotte was in the mountains," he says, laughing. "I was thinking Charlottesville [in Virginia]."
After five years, he joined the Raleigh museum as chief designer. He was intrigued by the state museum's plans for the surrounding landscape.
At the time, nationally known conceptual artist Barbara Kruger had helped complete the "Art + Landscape" plan, which called for developing an art park on the museum grounds off Blue Ridge Road. "My curiosity was really piqued by the land," Gottlieb says.
The Raleigh landscape
Most art museums present art in mazelike, artificially lit galleries cut off from the outside. The Raleigh museum's advantage was all that land. It presented a unique opportunity: how to best use that landscape to incorporate art and improve the visitors' experience of the art.
Gottlieb's first task was to help build the museum's outdoor amphitheater, creating a public space that would engage folks with the museum through music and film. He left the museum midway through the project but continued the work as a design consultant.
He returned a few years later when Wheeler and the museum board got serious about building a new gallery for the permanent collection.
"It was clear by then that Larry's ambition was going to give me a broad canvas to work on," Gottlieb says.
It took 10 years to see that vision through. Gottlieb spent that time with designers, construction crews and curators to make sure all the details worked. The new galleries' bare walls, devoid of even air vents, belie the technology that controls and diffuses how natural light enters the building.
"We tried to push the envelope to make this a transparent building that is safe for the collection," Gottlieb says.
Between windows and white walls, a visitor's eyes are drawn to the art and the outside view. "All that's left is art and nature," he says.
Now that this new building is complete, Gottlieb's attention can turn back to the landscape.
"It's time to bring the park up to the same level," he says.
Art in stormwater
That appears to already be under way: A stormwater runoff retention pond behind the museum has become an opportunity to beautify the land. New York artist Mary Miss, known for her integration of architecture, landscape design and installation art, is creating the project, which may be the only one of its kind developed by a museum.
Gottlieb is enthusiastic as he leads a tour of the pond project now under construction. He wades through dusty red clay, pointing out a boulder-filled slope that will direct water down the hill from the amphitheater. He shows where visitors will be able to sit along tiered, semicircular pools with a view of bald cypress trees in what will become a wetland.
It's a perfect setting for Gottlieb's love of art and science to come together.
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