Twenty years ago, driving to the N.C. Museum of Art from points south involved passing a foreboding landscape. That was Polk Youth Prison, a less-than-scenic mass of low-slung buildings, guard towers, fences, walls and barbed wire, which stood along Blue Ridge Road southwest of the museum and still held juvenile-offender inmates into the late 1990s.
Polk closed in 1999, and by 2004, most of it was torn down except the smokestack. The museum wound up with the prison land, which gave it a total of 164 acres – enough to make it one of the largest art-museum campuses in the world.
It’s about to become one of the most distinctive, too. That old prison parcel is the centerpiece of an ambitious museum expansion project, budgeted at $13 million and scheduled to open in November.
Encompassing gardens, groves, planting beds, gathering spaces and a promenade leading to the Polk smokestack, the NCMA outdoor space has been reimagined as a gathering-spot extension of its galleries. Sculptures are placed strategically throughout, such as Giuseppe Penone’s 26-foot-tall bronze tree (on an extended year-long loan) and Hank Willis Thomas’ “Earnest and Ruth,” a series of oversize steel cartoon-speech bubbles that will double as seating. 2016 Fall Arts PreviewEventually the smokestack may be turned into an art installation, too. But for now, the park itself is the focus. The first thing you have to do, however, is put aside the image that word evokes.
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“Usually when you say ‘park,’ most people think of a sort of informal lawn with some trees sprinkled about,” said Mark Johnson, the urban-design landscaping architect who designed it with his Denver-based firm Civitas. “That’s not what this is.”
One of many projects
Across the area, a number of arts facilities are being remodeled, renovated, rebuilt or expanded this fall. Raleigh’s Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts is investing $20 million on an upgrade of its central-air system, box office, bathrooms, carpet, lighting and seating that will be unveiled in October.
Then there’s the transformation under way with N.C. State’s Gregg Museum of Art. Under construction adjacent to the historic chancellor’s residence on Hillsborough Street is a $9.5 million building that will have 16,000 square feet of gallery, storage and classroom space. That is set to open next spring.
As for the N.C. Museum of Art expansion, it could be transformative. If all goes according to plan, it will be the first step in a swath of redevelopment along Blue Ridge Road.
“As Raleigh has grown, the real estate out here has become more valuable because it’s strategically located,” said Dan Gottlieb, the museum’s director of planning and design. “There are thousands of acres of state-owned property that can form a mixed-use corridor connecting Rex Hospital, the art museum, the arena, the fairgrounds. It’s all disconnected now. But with us doing our bit first and setting a good design standard, that can act as a catalyst for what happens next.”
The museum expansion involves 17 acres, about half the land it inherited from the prison. The outdoor features have been designed with a goal of connecting the museum’s galleries with its outdoor environment.
We’re trying to connect art, nature and people in a setting that will inspire creative gatherings.
Marjorie Hodges, the museum’s director of external relations and special projects
Even the parking lot has been redesigned with that in mind, planted with enough trees to evoke the feel of parking in a grove. And near the smokestack is an elliptical lawn space, which can be a blank canvas for all sorts of formal and informal gatherings. The setting will be used for outdoor exhibits like Amanda Parer’s “Intrude,” which consists of five huge illuminated, inflated jackrabbits to be on display between Oct. 28 and Nov. 6.
“We’re trying to connect art, nature and people in a setting that will inspire creative gatherings,” said Marjorie Hodges, the museum’s director of external relations and special projects.
Early on, there were tentative plans for New York-based installation artist Jim Hodges to transform the old prison smokestack into a work of art as part of the outdoor expansion. But that’s been put on hold for the foreseeable future.
“As part of a prison, the smokestack represents many things that were not wonderful about this area from a social, racial and ecological perspective,” Gottlieb said.
“Now it’s becoming the polar opposite of that, a center of art and recreation and social gathering. So we’re preserving it as a beacon for the memory of what it was. There may be some transformation in the future. But for now, it will remain as it is.”
One motivation behind the project is to change expectations of what is valuable about artistic experiences – as in, how to make the consumption of art more of an actual experience. That’s especially true for younger, more technologically savvy generations.
“The conventional museum experience of walking until you see something interesting, sitting on a bench and pondering it is increasingly anomalous,” said architect Johnson. “Give iPads to some kids in a museum and turn them loose, and what would they do? They’d Google and download and take pictures, and come back with their interpretation of their experience at the museum. That seems more authentic to them than what some curator wrote on the wall next to a painting.”
The way Gottlieb sees it, catering to that instinct is the only way museums will survive in the future.
“In order to remain relevant, it’s smart to diversify the way you engage your community,” he said. “It’s probably not smart for museums to stay the way they were in the 19th century. With so much land at our disposal, we have a unique opportunity to reach out, diversify and broaden our audience base – to be a bridge between the traditional ways of presenting art, and the way people like being in a natural setting.”
NCMA Park Celebration
Where: N.C. Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh
When: Nov. 6, from 2 p.m. until dark
Details: 919-839-6262 or ncartmuseum.org
Before the opening, Amanda Parer’s “Intrude” – consisting of five 23-foot high illuminated jackrabbit inflatables – will be on display at the grounds between Oct. 28 and Nov. 6.