Rembrandt exhibit central to museum's ambitions

dmenconi@newsobserver.comOctober 30, 2011 

  • Attendance at the N.C. Museum of Art:

    2010-11 383,000

    2009-10 150,000

    2008-09 166,000

— "Rembrandt in America," an exhibit years in the making, opens today in a large gallery space in the N.C. Museum of Art's old building. But the museum's new building will continue to be in the spotlight, too.

Built at a cost of $86.2 million - $72.3 million of it public money - the 127,000-square-foot West Building opened last year to widespread acclaim. The new building represents an audacious gamble, especially given the economic recession that began during construction.

"It would be irresponsible to plan something like this now, given current economic realities," said museum director Larry Wheeler. "We're still waiting to see what the long-term reality will be. But short-term, we've met our goals so far."

Other goals remain, including a $50 million fundraising campaign that has $17 million to go. That makes blockbuster exhibits such as "Rembrandt in America" even more important: Events such as this are critical to the museum's budget.

"We've got to do big shows to attract the volume," Wheeler said. "I hate to get all businessy, but you can't do these big shows without big crowds. Keeping attendance up depends on exhibition programs like Rembrandt."

With new digs as a draw, the museum's attendance has surged since the West Building opened in April 2010. More than 383,000 people visited during the fiscal year that ended June 30, more than double the previous year.

To keep the momentum going, the museum started a six-year capital campaign in 2007 with a goal of raising $50 million by 2013 to cover programming and operating costs. So far, $33 million has been raised, according to Caterri Woodrum, the museum's chief financial officer.

"There's $17 million to go and not a lot of time to bring it in," Woodrum said. "So we'll be hitting the pavement hard like every other institution out there. The state appropriates about one-third of what it takes to run the museum, and most of that goes to personnel costs. Large exhibits like Rembrandt take private-sector donations."

For 2011-12, the museum expects to receive about $5.5 million from the state, a decrease of about $600,000 from 2010-11. The museum also lost a dozen positions due to the cutbacks, down to around 200 full-time employees.

Betting on Rembrandt

Given that, the museum has a lot riding on "Rembrandt in America." The museum projects attendance of 150,000 during the exhibit's 12-week run, which management asserts will inject $15 million into the local economy. Advance ticket sales stood at almost 12,000 at the end of the week, and a free preview showing on Friday attracted 2,715 people.

Overall economic health was a factor in those projections. Five years ago, when the economy was stronger, the exhibit "Monet in Normandy" drew 214,000 attendees from as far away as Malaysia. The Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated that provided $24.3 million in tourism revenue.

"Rembrandt in America" gathers together more than $1 billion worth of artworks on loan from private collections and other museums. Touted as the largest collection of authentic Rembrandts ever assembled in America, it's a bold undertaking for a museum that's not in a big city. After its run in Raleigh, the exhibit will show next year at the N.C. Museum of Art's partner institutions in Cleveland and Minneapolis.

"Museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art, they're supposed to do this," said Steven Litt, art and architecture critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and a former News & Observer staff writer. "But the NCMA really punches above its weight. It's unusual for a museum in the Southeast to do a show of this scale."

Building a collection

The hope is that Rembrandt visitors will also spend some time in the adjacent new building, home to the museum's permanent collection. (Admission to the new building is free.)

Designed by architect Thomas Phifer with abundant natural lighting, the building has drawn national media attention and praise from within the industry. The museum played host to the Association of Art Museum Directors' annual convention this past summer, and other museum directors came away raving.

"I think it's fantastic, one of the most successful new museum buildings of the last decade," said Kaywin Feldman, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "The design is really beautiful, fits in well with the landscape. It's a new experience every time you look around. The permanent collection just sings in those spaces."

The new building bolstered the museum's permanent collection in other ways, too. Wheeler parlayed the new showcase into some key additions, including donations of a Pablo Picasso painting, three Jaume Plensa sculptures and, most momentously, 28 Auguste Rodin sculptures from the Cantor Collection.

The Rodin donation grew out of relationships Wheeler forged with Iris Cantor during the museum's 2000 Rodin exhibit, which attracted more than 300,000 people. Thanks to Cantor's donation, one of the world's major Rodin depositories is in Raleigh - and it probably wouldn't have happened without the new building.

"Larry planned for a critical time, and he got buy-in and commitment from the state, city, county, collectors, donors," said Christine Araganos, head of the Association of Art Museum Directors. "He got everyone together around a common infrastructure, which is no mean feat."

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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