Arts & Culture

A place open to beauty

On a Sunday afternoon six years ago, Larry Wheeler, director of the N.C. Museum of Art, pulled out his Crane stationery and wrote what might be the most important letter of his career: It was to Iris Cantor, owner of the largest private collection of Auguste Rodin works in the world.

Wheeler had cultivated Cantor's friendship since the late 1990s when they worked together on the Raleigh museum's record-breaking Rodin exhibition. In the years since, Wheeler had noticed Cantor focusing more on health-care philanthropy than the Rodin collection.

"You know I'm sympathetic," he recalls writing her. "You have a lot of responsibilities, a lot of demands. Maybe it's time to divest yourself of the Rodin collection." He brazenly asked that the bulk of the collection come to the North Carolina museum.

"He was eloquent," Cantor said in a recent interview. "He was persistent. Ultimately, he was successful."

The payoff will be on display this weekend, when the museum opens its new 127,000-square-foot building after three years of construction and about a dozen years of planning. The 29 Rodin sculptures not only made the state art museum one of the largest repositories of the bronze castings in the country, it also helped push through funding for the expansion, triggered many other gifts of art and helped raise $30 million of the museum's continuing goal to reach $50 million in private contributions.

The result is an art collection in a new galleries building whose architecture is drawing national attention.

"North Carolina is going to be on the map now in a big way," said Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum in Michigan, who has helped organize architect searches for museums. He added that the new building "is going to be heavily lionized in the architectural press by a highly respected New York-based architect who has done one beautiful building after another after another."

Wheeler goes to NYC

The story of how North Carolina became the beneficiary of all these riches despite a depressed economy began a little more than a decade ago, when a modest exhibition of Cantor's Rodins was touring the country. Wheeler, who became director of the museum in 1994, insisted the exhibition that would come to his museum have a far grander display.

So in the late 1990s, the always dapper Wheeler, with short silver hair framed by thick black glasses, found himself nervous, sitting in the library of a Park Avenue apartment, surrounded by Rodin works and waiting to speak to Iris Cantor.

Gerald Cantor, who started the worldwide securities firm Cantor Fitzgerald, began collecting Rodin and other works in 1946. Through the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, they have given Rodins and other works to more than 70 museums and other institutions. After her husband died in 1996, Iris Cantor continued the gifts and supplied sculpture for exhibitions around the country.

It has been said that the Cantors made Rodin popular in the United States. After his death in 1917, Rodin's work had fallen out of favor as too old-fashioned and sentimental at a time when abstract styles were emerging. Now his works like "The Thinker" are among the most recognizable in all of art, and he is praised for his ability to capture human emotion in bronze.

On that day when Cantor joined Wheeler in the library, he recalled her asking: "What can I do to help you?"

Wheeler launched into his spiel: To put on a more comprehensive Rodin exhibition than had previously been done, he needed loans from her private collection - he brought a list - and her assistance to get other museums to lend pieces she had donated. He explained that Stanford University had turned down his request for a loan of "The Thinker," the artist's most recognizable work.

"Well you know, I own 95 percent of that piece," Wheeler recalled Cantor saying. "I will just tell them to lend it."

With that, Wheeler says, Cantor became an advocate for gathering art for the Raleigh show in 2000.

He invited her to the opening. At first, she refused, saying she never goes to those events. But she came, spending the whole weekend in the area. In her gown and jewels at the gala, she was a diva on the dance floor. "She left just enamored of the museum," Wheeler says.

Almost 190,000 visitors paid to see the exhibition, while more than 300,000 people visited the museum during its four-month run. It is still a museum record. The turnout became the deciding factor in her decision to donate much of the collection to North Carolina, Cantor said.

While on the one hand wooing Cantor with the promise of a new building to house the sculptures, Wheeler was also selling elected officials in North Carolina on the benefit of paying for an expansion that could house the gift. After Cantor's donation was announced, state and local officials committed to spend $72.3 million to expand the museum's gallery space with a new building to house the permanent collection. (The old building has been renovated for exhibitions.)

Without Wheeler's vision and perseverance, "this just wouldn't have happened," said Roger Berkowitz, former director of the Toledo Museum of Art who retired to the Triangle and serves on the museum's board of trustees.

Rooms with views

Museum officials hired architect Thomas Phifer to create a building that would take advantage of the museum property's natural assets.

"One of the great advantages of the North Carolina museum is it has all that room," says Jay Gates, a former director of the Phillips Collections in Washington and the Dallas Museum of Art who now lives in the Triangle.

Most art museums in urban settings, if they want to expand, can only go up. But the North Carolina museum sits on 164 acres, which allowed planners to pursue a one-level structure that highlights the surrounding landscape and allows more natural light into the building.

"Probably we have more natural light per square foot than any art museum created in the history of the world," Wheeler said.

Natural light is the nemesis of curators because it can damage artwork. For the past 150 years, art museums were largely influenced by Greek and Roman architecture, which didn't have windows and thus the buildings acted like jewelry boxes, Kroloff explained. This model protected the art but left visitors feeling lost amid endless galleries, cut off from the outside world. The new building in Raleigh has 360 skylights, floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto courtyards and an elaborate system for controlling and diffusing the light as it comes into the building.

"The building is breaking important new ground," Kroloff said.

Collecting collectors

With the Rodin donation and funding for the new building, other collectors made donations: a Picasso and three other modern paintings from Julian and Josie Robertson, a trio of lighted human sculptures by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa for the museum's foyer from Jim Goodmon of Capitol Broadcasting Co., and more than 100 works donated from the personal collection of Jim and Mary Patton.

"I think suddenly the art world will wake up and discover that North Carolina is a center for not only contemporary art but the whole world of art," Patton said recently.

How did that happen? Wheeler, 66, doing what he does best. "I collect collectors, wherever they might be," Wheeler said, smiling.

Art museums don't have funding to buy art in the marketplace. They have to develop relationships with collectors who ultimately may donate pieces to the museums. It is easier, Wheeler says, if the donors have a connection to the state: Robertson grew up in Salisbury and attended UNC-Chapel Hill. Jim Patton was born in Durham and went to UNC-CH, and his wifeMary grew up in Durham.

Wheeler explains that many collectors act like curators when buying their collections, researching and purchasing pieces that museums would seek. They like having their taste and knowledge as collectors validated by museums. Wheeler added that the museum's curators even help collectors, such as Ann and Jim Goodnight of SAS Institute, build their collections. The Goodnights have promised to give to the museum some of the art they've acquired, including paintings by Claude Monet and Andrew Wyeth.

Wheeler, many donors say, knows when and how to make his pitch.

"He's very strategic on when to ask," says Michael Cucchiara, a Chapel Hill developer who agreed to sponsor a gallery in the new building.

Strategy came into play with the stainless-steel treelike sculpture by Roxy Paine that now sits on the museum lawn. It was donated by Frank Daniels Jr., former News & Observer publisher, in honor of his wife, Julia. She has long been a museum supporter.

Wheeler introduced her to Paine's tree sculptures during a trip to New York. Julia Daniels said she fell in love with them because of her days collecting leaves as a Girl Scout. They both agreed such a sculpture would look amazing outside the new building.

So Wheeler called Frank Daniels: "I said, 'Frank, meet me at the Raleigh Times for lunch downtown. I've got to talk to you about something.' "

"It's got to involve money," Wheeler recalled Daniels replying. "I said, 'It does. A lot of money. But it's such a great thing I want you to do it.' "

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer