Night at the Museum



Famously, you’ve never taken an art history course, though you studied European history and art. Where do your artistic sensibilities run?
I’m very keen on the art of my own time and completely caught up in the whole crazy scene of art fairs and collectors. I’m very interested in artists who explore ideas of adolescence, the coming of age, the coming of sexuality, sexual ambivalence, all that sort of stuff. And there are many artists doing great work with those subjects today. I love Anthony Goicolea, who’s a young New York photographer. We’re going to do a big retrospective of his work next year. He paints, does photography, shoots on film. I think he’s very cool. I also think [gay Miami-based artist] Hernan Bas is hot stuff. And there’s Mark Bradford in L.A., who does extraordinary abstract work. I can’t afford to collect him myself, but I’d like to. His work is something we’d buy for the museum, now that we’re beginning to focus on things beyond the commissions we got for the opening.

What else are you looking at buying for the NCMA’s new home?
Our curators have wish lists. But we need to get some money together first. Our success in getting new commissions paid for by patrons gives me hope that we can get them to help buy more. I would love to have a great [Ethopian-born, New York-based painter] Julie Mehretu. But God, they’re now a million dollars. We need to get someone to the table. People think contemporary art is affordable. But museums now compete with collectors. That’s the whole nature of the contemporary scene. 

You scored a tremendous coup by getting the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation to give 29 Rodin sculptures. How do you compete for trophies with larger museums in places like New York or L.A.?
It’s not complicated. You have to get out there and meet people. It’s personal relationships and friendships you develop. I cultivated a relationship with Iris. Over time, I convinced her giving a major part of her collection to us would be a great thing. Speaking in general, collectors have to trust you, they have to like you, and they have to believe in the quality of your institution.

Jesse Helms’s time in the U.S. Senate overlapped with your tenure at the NCMA. Did his activities affect your life, professionally or as a gay man in North Carolina?
We rose up when Jesse Helms tried to slash NEA budgets. But he never really got involved in arts issues. In fact, he liked old master works. He came to a luncheon here at the museum for the Ukrainian ambassador, or someone like that. I got up and said it was a great pleasure, in the home of some of the world’s great masterpieces, to welcome North Carolina’s great masterpiece [laughs].

The interesting thing is that it’s always been very comfortable for me and all my gay friends to live here despite the vicissitudes of politics, the legacy of Jesse Helms, and a certain evangelical right-wingism. You know, it never really touches us. It’s still sort of out there, but unless an election turns one way or another, we don’t really feel the impact. I live just as comfortably here as I did in Cleveland or anywhere else, for that matter. And no one’s ever challenged me on being gay. It’s amazing.

You grew up in the South and worked in Raleigh in the late 1970s and early 80s before returning to run NCMA in 1994. How has Raleigh changed over the years?
Everybody’s so much younger now in Raleigh [laughs]. It’s a very lively young city that now has a downtown life. A lot of people live downtown, and there’s lots of nightlife and restaurants. And like the rest of the world, it’s not about gay versus straight. People live together, have fun together, play together. It’s much more mainstream.

Tags: Art