Museum's old space has been quietly waiting for its moment

Old space has been quietly waiting for its moment

CorrespondentSeptember 26, 2010 

  • Five new exhibitions open Nov. 7 in the N.C. Museum of Art's newly renovated East Building:

    "American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell" - Organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., through Jan. 30.

    John James Audubon's "The Birds of America" - No closing date.

    "Fins and Feathers: Original Children's Book Illustrations from the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art" - Through Jan. 30.

    "Bob Trotman: Inverted Utopias" - North Carolina Gallery, through March 27.

    "Binh Danh: In the Eclipse of Angkor" - From the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum of Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., through Jan. 30.

    For additional details go to www.ncartmuseum.org.

  • One big project is missing from the museum's facelift. A plan to turn an old stormwater retention pond into a work of art by nationally known artist Mary Miss has been abandoned due to a lack of money. Still, the pond has been greatly improved with terraces, boulders and grassy areas channeling and cleaning rain runoff, which will be recycled.

The building that had been the one and only N.C. Museum of Art has sat, a lonely and mostly empty hulk, since the April opening of the "West Building," the commodious new home for the museum's permanent collection.

But while thousands have roamed the new building's sun-dusted galleries, workers have been quietly transforming the original structure's spaces, inside and out, in preparation for the November opening of five exhibitions.

"A lot has happened to this building," said Dan Gottlieb, director of design. "I was able to re-program this building and clarify the use of each of the spaces."

It might not be obvious as you approach the entrance, except for a new lobby with the same wood flooring found in the West Building. Little of the older building's basic structure has changed. But Gottlieb, working with architects Pearce Brinkley Cease + Lee, set out "to restore some of the original intentionality of this building and the way people use it."

Some of that "intentionality" was intentionally abandoned before it was built. Designed by Edward Durrell Stone, the 181,000-square-foot facility opened in April 1983, almost five years after Stone's death. It was a late work from the firm of the architect that had, 23 years earlier, produced the N.C. Legislative Building. Its brick-clad brutalism was both tame and passé. For many visitors it brought to mind a defensive bunker clinging to a hillside, partly because you descended into it.

That was never without some appeal - the atrium staircase is airy and grand in a no-nonsense way. But cost-cutting compromised the building. The deepest cut resulted in the planned 24-foot structural grid - the intervals between support columns - being reduced to 20 feet.

"Which was like leaving the whole building in the dryer too long," said Gottlieb. "It made for a series of slightly awkward spaces."

'A root cellar'

Like the cramped, low-ceilinged, bottom-floor gallery that used to house temporary exhibitions. Because some larger works of art simply would not fit, said John W. Coffey, deputy director for art, "there were shows we couldn't take."

"It was a root cellar," said Chief Curator Linda Dougherty.

And it will remain something of the sort - for storage. On the levels above it, however, the spaces gained by moving the permanent collection into the West Building have been converted into new, flexible galleries that can house a variety of different-size shows.

When the renovated East Building opens in November, it will present five new exhibitions at once, topped by "American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell," organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

The Rockwell show will occupy the gallery wing that used to house the bulk of the permanent collection. The area to the left rear of this first floor down, Level B, has been refashioned to handle major, ticketed exhibitions, complete with the requisite, dedicated gift shop and an education studio called "The Front Porch," for programming related to those exhibitions.

Here visitors will be greeted by a huge photo mural of a typical Raleigh front porch - an ideal complement to the folksiness of the Rockwell show. Gottlieb said the mural is likely to remain for at least a year, however, beyond the Rockwell closing date of Jan. 30.

Americana galore

Also on Level B, in what used to be the Judaica gallery, the museum will display the four volumes of John James Audubon's "The Birds of America" (1827-38). The state has owned the complete set since 1848, a purchase orchestrated by Gov. William Alexander Graham. Special display cases have been built so that museum staff can easily turn the pages of the massive books and thus regularly display new pages of Audubon's hand-colored engravings.

As if this were not enough Americana on one floor, the museum will also open "Fins and Feathers: Children's Book Illustrations from the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art," an exhibition geared to families and younger art lovers, in the space across the main hall from the Audubon gallery.

Meanwhile, on the ground floor above, Level A, the museum opens "Bob Trotman: Inverted Utopias," which will inaugurate the museum's new North Carolina Gallery, devoted to North Carolina artists. Support for the work of local and regional artists has long been a point of contention between many general art museums and their surrounding artist communities, who generally want to see museums display more of their works. So a dedicated space for the state's artists is remarkable move for the museum.

And Trotman, a former furniture maker who sculpts quirky figure sculptures, should provide a conspicuous counterpoint to the Rockwell show below.

The North Carolina gallery wraps around the atrium stairwell. Proceed farther back and you encounter a new, enclosed space for a Bill Viola video installation, before turning to enter the long, hallway-like gallery for contemporary art exhibitions. Here, the museum opens "Binh Danh: In the Eclipse of Angkor," from the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum of Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. Danh, a Vietnamese-American artist, makes, among other things, "chlorophyll prints," using the photosynthesis process to create images. His show examines the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Much of the renovation work, from the reorganized lobby down to the new patio, outside the former Blue Ridge Café on Level C, has been geared to making the East Building work with its new neighbor and with the museum art park surrounding both.

"We now have this fantastic set of spaces... linking to the park in both directions," said Gottlieb. "So the reordering of the spaces in this building is really quite profound."

Perhaps the most profound change is the addition of a four-story staircase tower oriented to the museum's amphitheater and built of sympathetic materials. Fritted glass will reduce heat from the sun while allowing spectacular park views, according to Gottlieb. The tower also contains an elevator and a new way out of the building, part of an effort to meet contemporary building codes.

All of this renovation work cost about $6.1 million, said Gottlieb. The funds came from a state appropriation for repairs and renovation separate from the funds that built the West Building. Also, a new, more efficient HVAC was installed, thanks to a state government program that allows for energy cost savings to pay for mechanical upgrades.

But more work, and funds, are needed.

"We have a real need, because of the growing collection, to expand art storage," said Gottlieb. An area at the rear of the new special exhibitions space has been converted to this purpose, but larger and more sophisticated storage facilities are planned.

"A lot of the needs are back-of-the-house, that people can't see," said Dougherty. Among these, said Coffey and Dougherty, are an updated conservation lab and larger and improved spaces for the museum art library and for staff - both of which remain on the top floor of the East Building. "The real key now is to find the funding for the full renovation of the building," he said.

The museum has requested $5 million from the state, but everyone at the museum knows they will have to wait for state finances to improve.

"All that said, it's pretty amazing to have all the space we have," Dougherty said.

In particular, the new galleries will allow the museum to install a larger number and a wider variety of changing exhibitions. Dougherty noted that the old "root cellar" space on Level C would not have accommodated "30 Americans," the exhibition of work by contemporary African-American artists from Miami's Rubell Family Collection, which will open next spring at the museum before traveling to the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C.

And the museum recently announced plans for an exhibition to open in October 2011 that will gather under one roof more authentic paintings by Rembrandt than ever before. In the meantime, the reopening of the East Building will complete the process of transforming NCMA into a two-building museum. And for a while, at least, the old bunker will eclipse its new rival.

"I think people will be shocked when they walk in the door Nov. 7," said Dougherty.

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