Night at the Museum



Raleigh, N.C., already has a mayor, but if anyone qualifies for an unofficial title, it’s Larry Wheeler. The director of the North Carolina Museum of Art just crowned his 16-year tenure with an audacious $85 million expansion; its centerpiece is a shimmering, aluminum-clad “warehouse” in an enormous art museum park stacked with Rodin sculptures and site-specific modern works.

Astute political maneuvering, lovey-dovey relationships with patrons, and sheer force of will helped Wheeler shepherd the project through one of the worst economic climates in a century; a courtly Southern manner and plainspoken wit didn’t hurt either.

“Larry’s North Carolina native charm makes him a social favorite throughout the Triangle,” Raleigh’s real mayor, Charles Meeker, told The Advocate, referring to the region that includes Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. “Great communities are built on the likes of such people. Raleigh loves Larry.”

A dapper dresser whose white brush cut and chunky eyeglass frames are usually offset by an immaculate white shirt, gray suit, and colorful tie, Wheeler talked to The Advocate a week after the triumphant opening of the new building.

The Advocate: You’ve said in interviews the new building’s designed to be unintimidating. Did you set out to convince people in Raleigh not to be scared of art?
Larry Wheeler: You don’t have a problem bringing people in to see work they’re familiar with. You can market a big artist’s name, like Rodin, Monet, Matisse, or Picasso, and people will come in big numbers. But to get them to come in and experience our permanent collections and new contemporary art is a little more trying.

What makes the new building friendlier?
Art museums traditionally were beaux arts buildings with labyrinths of galleries on many different levels and with light blocked out. We said, let’s try new things. We’ll build it all on one level. We’ll have gardens, with several entrances and exits. We’ll let the light in. It’s a beautiful, warm environment. People are already behaving differently about the museum.

How did you finance the expansion in such an impossible economic climate?
One of my strengths is knowing how politics works and how public funding works. I’ve always kept up good relationships with governors, appropriations people, and both houses of our state legislature, so that helped. The timing was good too, because they still had money at that point. I probably got the last money out the door.

How much did you end up spending? The new building [designed by New York architect Thomas Phifer] alone looks expensive.
Ultimately, we got $62 million from the state and $15 million of city and county funds. All told, the new building cost about $80 million dollars, with another $5 million for commissions and things like landscaping.

At the museum preview I attended, a curator told me, “The NCMA has an amazing collection, but we’re not going to show [Andres Serrano’s controversial work] Piss Christ. The museum receives significant state funding; do you face limitations on the work you present?
Times have changed. I think you might see some pretty wild stuff at the museum. For the record, I’m not against Piss Christ. That controversy arose because it was on at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem. Jesse Helms, of course, jumped on the attack at same time the Mapplethorpe controversy was raging in Cincinnati. I’ve shown some Serrano that’s fairly edgy, and I’d show it today.

Tags: Art