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2000: Larry Wheeler

On Halloween, Larry Wheeler scooted into his office at the North Carolina Museum of Art while unsuspecting members of the museum foundation board finished lunch. As the board dug into chocolate shells of pumpkin mousse, he returned phone calls and poked through his mail. He didn't act like a man about to make the most dramatic pitch of his career.

Wheeler wasn't nervous. He simply wondered what the board, whose members raise money for the museum, might think. For two years, he had talked up an addition. Architects had been hired, drawings finished, fund-raising started. Now, Wheeler had a new idea: one that might cost $100 million.

Smiling comfortably, he made his way to the head of the long oak table. Wheeler looked dapper as usual. His thick, black glasses set off his silvery hair. A red tie splashed color against his standard white shirt and dark suit.

The big idea, he said, not wasting a second, is a new museum.

New museum? Susan Hudson's jaw dropped. Hudson, a longtime board member from Wilson, also felt delight. She had always disliked the building, which had begun as a grand design and been scaled back until its yellowish brick walls resembled a bunker.

"I know what you're thinking," Wheeler said. "What about our building?"

It fit perfectly, he said, into his plan to create a museum campus. Outside, bike trails, art installations and walking paths would nestle onto the 165-acre site. Inside, the collection would be displayed in an architectural gem on the hill bordering Blue Ridge Road. The old museum would be reinvented as a center for schoolkids and experimental, technology-based artists.

For a moment, nobody spoke. In some boardrooms, that would be a bad sign. Not here. This board had grown used to Wheeler's pulling off the unexpected, whether blockbuster shows or legislative coups. Not only had he solidified the once shaky standing of the museum, but he had also brought politicians and business leaders into the fold through charm, political acumen and sheer will. He was the godfather of the Triangle's cultural boom.

So what do you think, Wheeler asked.

Again, no words. Only applause.

North Carolina has seen figures like Larry Wheeler before, leaders determined to shape the state. Traditionally, these have been men of industry (Hugh McColl), education (Bill Friday) or politics (Jim Hunt). Wheeler, more than anyone in the Triangle, represents a new North Carolina. His vision merges the worlds of arts, politics and commerce into a potent cultural force. In the past five years, the museum, under his direction, has helped define the arts as industry.

A series of public-private partnerships has spent more than $150 million on the new North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Exploris and the BTI Center for the Performing Arts. Audiences have embraced the growing scene, which has been strengthened by the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, the Carolina Ballet and a host of live theater companies.

Playing the game

A week after the meeting, Wheeler flew to Washington to see Iris Cantor, the California collector whose Rodin sculptures were the heart of the museum's big show. The White House was honoring her for lending work for its garden.

That morning, Wheeler visited the East Building of the National Gallery. This was his candy store, the 20th century art he loved. Pollocks. Motherwells. Rothkos. Though he had never taken an art history course, Wheeler had soaked up years of conversations with curators and private collectors. He knew what he liked. Color. Adventure. A feeling that what he saw on the canvas reflected the now.

He waved his arm excitedly after spotting a piece he admired.

"I want one of those," he said, a Cy Twombly to his right. "And that," turning toward a Susan Rothenberg on the opposite wall. He stood over a piece by Richard Long, who configures stones into shapes. The NCMA almost bought a Long, but head curator John Coffey had been concerned about putting it on the museum's carpeted floor. Wheeler couldn't wait to get back and tell Coffey that, indeed, Long worked on the rug.

Outside, Wheeler waited for Don Doskey, his partner of 15 years. They met in Cleveland shortly after Wheeler became development director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. For six years, they have maintained a long-distance relationship. Doskey, an interior designer, flies into the Triangle twice a month. They also try to meet on Wheeler's travels. Together, they headed to the White House.

It was Wheeler's first time, which he didn't hide. He urged Doskey to check out the paper towels in the men's room, stamped with the presidential seal. He watched the guests arrive, the directors of the National Gallery and Denver Art Museum, the hair-sprayed society women and their camera-toting husbands. Through a long hallway, up a red-carpeted stairway, they reached three large rooms lined with portraits of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison.

A Marine Corps sextet played. "Odd Couple" star Tony Randall arrived. About 2:40 p.m., fashionably late, Cantor walked in. Immediately, a line formed to greet her; even Randall stepped into queue. Wheeler didn't even try. Cantor had asked him to come. They could talk about the important stuff, whether she might someday give a Rodin or two to the museum, in private.

Before Wheeler, it is unlikely that anyone from North Carolina would have been on Cantor's invitation list. In the early '90s, the art museum didn't even have strong relationships in its own back yard. Many of the Triangle's major players, people such as Ann Goodnight of SAS, Capitol Broadcasting CEO Jim Goodmon or Glaxo Wellcome chief Bob Ingram, didn't mix with the museum.

Richard Schneiderman, Wheeler's predecessor, had many qualities as an art historian. Socializing wasn't one. Painfully shy, he would often turn red when speaking to a crowd. Wheeler has always understood the importance of entertaining. A guest, whether in his home or his museum, whether an old friend or the state's newest senator, had to feel special.

The museum, he decided when he became the boss, needed a change. His rules: Laugh. Eat well. Remember to review every seating plan. You could win or lose a million dollars based on who was on your right, the position of honor. At the Rodin gala, Iris Cantor sat at Wheeler's right.

In Washington, Wheeler shuffled to the front of the room to shake Hillary Clinton's hand, then headed for the airport. That evening, the museum was holding a dinner for some of the region's new rich, the technology gurus.

Wheeler darted out of Terminal A at RDU and into his assistant's waiting Oldsmobile. Dale Pixley turned down her Andrea Bocelli disc and asked her boss how he felt.

"I'm so tired," Wheeler said, looking out at the darkened roadside.

"Don't be tired," she said. "You've got a long evening ahead of you."

Over the years, Wheeler has learned to be more careful with his bruising schedule. In 1997, after a museum event and late dinner, he was stopped at a roadblock and charged with driving while impaired, an incident that still embarrasses him. (He pleaded guilty, and his license was suspended for a year.)

Just past 7 p.m. on this long day, he walked into the museum, his suit slightly wrinkled. He showed off the presidential paper towel to Coffey and Goodnight. He raved about Clinton. "She looked fabulous. She came into the room, and you just felt that power."

Goodnight asked about Cantor.

"Larry, do you think there's a good chance of us getting a gift?"

"Oh yeah," he said, nodding. "Oh yeah."

Risk and discipline

Wheeler, who is 57, says that he has no role models, that his life has been, more than anything, a series of serendipitous twists. But he admits that part of his style - the balance between risk taking and discipline, the thirst for community - is rooted in his upbringing.

He grew up in Lakeland, Fla. His parents, Roy and Elaine Wheeler, divorced soon after a second child, Sharon, was born. Elaine, a loyal Methodist, surrounded herself with family. She was proud of her son, especially when his picture was in the newspaper. She didn't understand his work. After he was hired in Cleveland - a big break - Wheeler had to explain why he kept moving. Didn't he want to earn a pension?

Roy Wheeler didn't ask so many questions. He was a strong presence, a free spirit whose life revolved around friends and favorite haunts.

Larry Wheeler attended church every Sunday through high school, playing organ in the choir. After services, his grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins gathered for dinner. Now, his parents gone, Wheeler maintains a surrogate family. Nineteen people, none of them relatives, came to his Chapel Hill home for Thanksgiving.

He arrived in North Carolina in 1961 to attend, on scholarship, tiny Pfeiffer College, a Methodist school in Misenheimer, 40 miles from Charlotte. He figured he would become a professor.

While earning his Ph.D. in European history at the University of Georgia, Wheeler came back to Pfeiffer. To his disappointment, the other teachers seemed to be marking time. The town felt so small. He hung out with students and threw a tea on Queen Elizabeth's birthday, with cucumber sandwiches and sherry.

In 1974, just before his 31st birthday, Wheeler was hired by the state's bicentennial commission, and a political player was born. He helped communities develop programs to honor the past and plan for the future. They could build a new library or a bicycle trail, hold a parade. As he traveled the state, making friends who are still close, he became intrigued by Raleigh, the center of power. A lifelong Democrat, Wheeler knew the Republican governor, Jim Holshouser, couldn't run for a second term. He admired the lieutenant governor, Jim Hunt.

Wheeler pitched a plan: At the town celebrations, Hunt would get an open microphone and enthusiastic crowd. It worked. After Hunt became governor in 1977, Wheeler was hired as second in charge of the Department of Cultural Resources.

He learned his way around the legislature and oversaw the state art museum, then housed in a former highway department building in downtown Raleigh. For years, politicians had argued over where to put a new building. By the time it opened on Blue Ridge Road in 1983, rising costs had forced the architects to scale back. Wheeler was just glad to see it open.

A year later, he found himself out of work. Wheeler had supported Hunt's failed challenge of Sen. Jesse Helms. Shortly after Republican Jim Martin became governor, Wheeler was fired. A memo by Martin's transition team put Wheeler on a list of Democrats who were not "convertible."

Learning curve

It wasn't long before Wheeler found a new job at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Though the museum had a rich collection and healthy bank account, Director Evan Turner wanted more. He created a position for a development director and hired Wheeler, whom he had met at a dinner party years earlier when Turner ran the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill. "I liked his attitude toward making culture available to the greatest number of people, totally devoid of snobbism and pretension," Turner said.

In Cleveland, Wheeler created tourism campaigns around larger shows, bringing together city officials, hotels and car rental agencies. He advertised in Buffalo, Detroit and Indianapolis. For the first time, corporations sponsored exhibitions. He raised $15 million for the museum's endowment.

Wheeler also threw parties for museum openings and, more famously, for his 50th birthday.

The disco-themed "Gold Ball" in August 1993 was designed to break with social conventions. Doing it right meant refinancing his condo to pay the estimated $20,000 bill.

"I wanted to give the best damn party they'd ever had in Cleveland," Wheeler said. "I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I just did it."

About 10 p.m., guests arrived in the run-down Hough district and were ushered into a freight elevator, where a hostess, in a skimpy skirt, served champagne. Four floors up, the doors opened into a space loaded with smoke machines, disco balls and blazing dance music. Wheeler hired drag queens to mingle with guests. He positioned professional dancers and mannequins through the room. Muscular young men, in an homage to Studio 54, wore short shorts and tank tops as they served drinks. There was no air conditioning on one of the hottest nights of the summer.

They all came. Aging collectors, young artists, business leaders, gay, straight, black, white, museum directors, old Raleigh friends.

Cleveland was more than a party. It was Wheeler's crash course in the art world. On trips with patrons, he visited the country's greatest private collections. He learned to ask which museums were buying a particular artist, which dealers mattered, which dealers were passe. He got a feeling for the auction market and learned to stage first-class museum dinners.

While Wheeler thrived in Cleveland, back in Raleigh, the NCMA struggled. A plan to build an amphitheater languished, and a show on Chinese Buddhist paintings was canceled. "We would plan shows, start to research and put together the people, and a year after, there wouldn't be any money," said curator David Steel, who has worked at the museum since 1982. "It was so demoralizing."

Under pressure, director Schneiderman resigned in 1993. Wheeler inquired about the job and was told he didn't have the art background. He pushed. Finally, he was flown in as a finalist. Coffey showed him around the galleries. He could feel Wheeler's excitement. "We didn't need another art historian," Coffey said. "What we needed was somebody who could put life back into the institution."

When Wheeler returned, it wasn't as a Democrat or Republican. He told Terry Sanford, the former governor and U.S. Senator who was then chairman of the museum's board, "I believe the arts are democratic with a lower-case 'd.' "

Then Wheeler got to work.

Part was showmanship: parties, big purchases, blockbuster shows. Part was below the surface, a shift in how the museum did business. Wheeler needed more energy from the foundation, the private, nonprofit organization designed to raise money. He brought in Georganne Bingham, a friend from the bicentennial days. "Larry," Bingham told him, "we don't have anything to lose. We're probably in the last jobs we're going to take. Let's see what we can do."

Within a year, the foundation had raised $4 million, nearly doubling the previous year's figure.

Big deal

A couple of weeks after Wheeler arrived, Coffey stopped by. Wheeler had asked what the curator wanted to add to the collection. Coffey showed him an auction house catalog with a work by the German artist Anselm Kiefer.

On the surface, Coffey and Wheeler didn't have much in common. The curator hated wearing a suit as much as he disliked parties. He was more interested in older works than Wheeler and, frankly, found many of the day's hottest artists a yawn. But starting that day, they found common ground. Coffey expected his new boss to pat him on the shoulder and tell him to be patient. Instead, Wheeler said, "Let's get it."

The timing was perfect. The board didn't want to dampen the new director's enthusiasm. Acquisition money was available. Major institutions already owned a Kiefer. Second-tier museums couldn't afford one. With his board's blessing and $1 million, Wheeler headed to New York.

Evan Turner suggested using a dealer to make the buy. Wheeler decided he should go to signal that the NCMA meant business. He also looked forward to the thrill of his first auction.

About 250 people filled the room at Christie's that day. Betsy Buford, the deputy secretary of cultural resources, watched as Wheeler took his seat in the third row. The bidding started, and he raised his paddle.

"I would have looked around to see if I was going to get outbid," Buford said. "Larry, in typical Larry fashion, looked straight ahead. He wasn't going to let anyone in the room smell any fear."

At $400,000, only Wheeler and a collector bidding over the phone remained. As was his strategy, Wheeler raised his paddle immediately. The end came when the other bidder didn't speak until the gavel had sounded. Too late. For $596,500, that Kiefer belonged to North Carolina.

Around the country, the purchase was seen as a bold stroke. Back home, Wheeler didn't have time to feel satisfied. He wanted to build the amphitheater, even though little money had been raised.

We'll worry about that later, he decided. To build it right, he doubled the budget to $2 million. The cost increased when Hurricane Fran blew in, canceling the September 1996 opening and forcing repairs.

By the middle of 1997, the theater was drawing thousands. In the boardroom, Wheeler tried to deal with the bill. The museum was nearly $1 million in the hole.

This didn't please Bruce Babcock, the investment counselor who chaired the foundation board. "It was never that we were going to run out of money," Babcock said. "It was more, 'What does this look like to people? This organization isn't keeping its finances in order.'

"Finance," Babcock said, "isn't Larry's strongest suit."

Looking back, Wheeler can joke about the deficit. He has always lived beyond his means, whether for his birthday party or the Motherwell prints in his front hall. At the time, the strain did get to him. Heyward McKinney, the museum's associate director, suggested putting a hold on upcoming programs and exhibitions.

"We are not going to stop programming," Wheeler said, raising his voice. "We are not going to slow down."

Wheeler did what he always does in difficult times: He thought creatively. He decided the museum had to charge admission for shows and pump up its retail operation.

And he asked the Art Society, a group that controls much of the museum's acquisition money, to buy the amphitheater, as if it were a painting. After all, conceptual artist Barbara Kruger had developed much of it, including the "Picture This" spelled out in giant letters best viewed from an airplane. The society forked over $600,000 on top of the $500,000 Greensboro millionaire Joseph Bryan Jr. donated. The deficit disappeared.

"The types of risks you take are the types of risks that will change the institution," Wheeler said. "If you don't take those risks, you're going to stay in the same damn place. Once you do it and they say, 'Wow, I don't know how you did it,' then they're willing to go with you again when they don't know how you're going to do it."

Which is what led to Rodin.

Rodin and Cranach

"I need your help big time."

That was how Wheeler started a letter to Capitol Broadcasting's Jim Goodmon on May 27, 1999. When they ran into each other, Goodmon would always ask, Why do I have to go to Richmond to see the Faberge eggs or Charlotte for that Egypt thing? Why can't we do major national exhibits here?

The letter was Wheeler's reply. The next April, he wrote, the museum would present the largest Rodin exhibition in the last 20 years. Anywhere. It wouldn't just be sculptures but a showcase of French culture - a circus, film, music, dance. He appealed to Goodmon, who had been trying for years to create more cooperation across the Triangle. Wheeler wanted to involve other institutions, from the state museums in Raleigh to the Museum of Life and Sciences and American Dance Festival in Durham. This, Wheeler wrote, was the perfect opportunity to showcase the transforming Triangle.

"This is the art Olympics," Goodmon replied. Out of his pocket, he hired a coordinator for "Festival Rodin."

Just as in Cleveland, Wheeler pulled in local chambers of commerce, the visitor's bureau, rental car agencies, Midway Airlines and hotels. He hired Emily Rosen from the Cleveland museum to develop products especially for Rodin. Most everybody cooperated. When Durham wouldn't agree to put Rodin flags up, Goodmon, owner of the Durham Bulls, hung them around the downtown ballpark.

Each time Steel, the curator, told Wheeler about another sculpture he had arranged to borrow, Wheeler increased his attendance projection. It made Steel nervous. Wheeler was talking about 250,000 people when the museum's previous record had been 80,000 for "Monet to Moore" in 1999.

"This is a no-win situation," Steel eventually told his boss. "We could double the attendance that we'd ever had for an exhibition, and people might read this as a failure."

"No," Wheeler said, "we will get this many people."

As Wheeler talked up Rodin, he worked quietly to resolve a potential public relations disaster. Early in 1999, the museum learned that one of its prized paintings, a 16th century oil by Lucas Cranach the Elder, "Madonna and Child in a Landscape," had been confiscated by Nazis from a Viennese family more than a half-century ago.

Wheeler wrote letters to the heirs, two sisters in Austria. He told them about the museum's Judaic Art Gallery and the state's cultural exchange with Israel. "Is there any way that this beautiful and tragic picture might remain in North Carolina?" he asked.

The sisters didn't respond. Instead, through their attorney, they asked for the painting. The museum agreed, and then the sisters considered Wheeler's offer. In June, they sold the painting back to the NCMA for $600,000 - half of its appraised value.

When a group of museum directors meeting in Denver heard the news, they broke into applause. "That entire episode showed such genius, such thoughtfulness," said Edward Able, president of the American Association of Museums. "That, and Larry's visibility and his networking and the content he has brought, has really put the North Carolina Museum of Art on the map."

That fall, Wheeler testified in New York before the President's Commission on Assets. He was one of only four museum directors there, the others from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A CBS news crew taped a segment about the museum's model behavior.

That wasn't the only victory of the summer. Rodin kicked off with a gala that included fire-eaters, jugglers and a 6-foot-4, 288-pound "gender illusionist." As the closing approached, the crowds increased. By the final August weekend, lines stretched out the door.

That Sunday, the 300,000th visitor passed. It was a giddy feeling for the staff, most of them pitching in at the ticket counter or information booth. Then it was over.

"What are we going to do now?" Steel asked a colleague. "How do we top Rodin?"

Wheeler had a hunch.

On a Friday afternoon in early December, while in New York, he took an urgent call from Gov. Jim Hunt, who laid out a bold idea. The museum could have the hill it coveted. The people trying to create a performing arts center in memory of Terry Sanford would get a chunk of property across Blue Ridge Road. Hundreds of acres between the two would go to the University of North Carolina for a research campus. Right away, Wheeler could see the big picture. This would be like Hunt's launch of Centennial Campus before he left office in 1984.

That Monday, Wheeler met with Hunt. On Tuesday, the museum held its annual Humber dinner for major contributors. Ann Goodnight was there. Not only is she chairwoman of the foundation, but she and her husband, SAS founder James Goodnight, have been buying paintings to donate to the museum.

The morning after the dinner came the all-day, annual joint board meeting, which brought together the Art Society, Foundation and museum trustees. Before lunch, Drewry Nostitz, a Winston-Salem woman who chairs the trustees building committee, cornered Wheeler. The museum was moving too fast, she said. Wheeler listened and agreed to vote later, in March.

Then, during the trustees' board meeting, something happened. The architect presenting the options - expansion or new building - explained the costs. Expansion meant less space for the same money as a new museum. It meant closing the museum for 18 months. Board members shook their heads.

Suzanne Babcock, a longtime trustee, spoke up. We should build a new museum, she said.

Nostitz countered, "It's a huge commitment with very little study having been done."

Joseph Bryan Jr., sitting across from Babcock, disagreed. "We can't just sit on our duffs."

Suddenly, Wheeler wanted a vote. He had a meeting with Gov.-elect Mike Easley's transition team.

"We can change our minds any time," Wheeler said. "But if this is a decision we want to pursue with some intelligence and energy, we should do it."

Minutes later, the trustees voted unanimously to build a new museum. "Thanks," Wheeler said. "Man, I didn't think we could get this far, this fast."

That evening, at Elaine's, a Chapel Hill restaurant he frequents, Wheeler ordered a green salad, flounder and a glass of red wine. He was tired. The trips, the negotiations, the Humber dinner. He talked about his commitment to the museum. This would be his last job, he said.

The next day, he tested that promise: A headhunter from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art called, scouting for a new deputy director. The museum was wonderful, a collection of Stellas, Diebenkorns and Jasper Johns in one of the country's true great cities. Don, Wheeler knew, probably would move there with him.

Wheeler didn't hesitate. "I have a huge job to do here," he said, "so that's what I'm going to do."