Interview with Lawrence J. Wheeler, Director of the NC Museum of Art

Interview with Lawrence J. Wheeler, Director of the NC Museum of Art


so we’re lucky enough today to be talking with Lawrence J. Wheeler the director of the North Carolina Museum of Art before he runs away from us but I’d like to ask what led you back from Cleveland to North Carolina back in 1994 you know I’d been in North Carolina prior to that as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources from 77 to 85 and then I went to Cleveland to be an assistant director of that great art museum and had a wonderful experience in Cleveland doing all the things that I enjoyed doing in North Carolina which is opening cultural institutions up to the world around them you know I’m a great believer in community and democratic access to the Arts and coming back to North Carolina where I’d been before and when that this director’s position opened up I was all of a sudden interested because I was not director in Cleveland this gave me the chance to head up one of the great cultural institutions of the southeast and I saw enormous opportunity to develop an institution I knew pretty well since I had been involved before I went to Cleveland and then to return to a relatively new prosperous dynamic North Carolina and try to create awareness about the great asset that was the North Carolina Museum of Art in its extraordinary collection and I saw an opportunity to create programs around the museum that would engage and excite the community of North Carolina so North Carolina was the first state to dedicate money to the establishment of an art collection and sometimes calls itself the state of the arts are they able to document that with this museum particularly well you don’t have to document it you can document the fact that in 1947 this General Assembly appropriated 1 million dollars to begin a collection of art for the people of the state that was unprecedented on any level for government to appropriate money for art taxpayers money for art yeah how bold and then of course there were other firsts there was a symphony orchestra that was established even before the museum and there was money from the state to have it to around the state and to play in communities where school kids otherwise would not have access to classical music it was great this state called eventually founded the first school of the Arts to be affiliated with the university system it was one of the leaders and building the Arts Council movement yeah there are a lot of other noble initiatives that have happened in North Carolina so yes it can be called the state of the Arts so in your vision you wanted to build this museum and you certainly have added tremendously to the collections we are in the midst of one of the Rodin collection how were you able to pull that off well I danced with the right woman I like to say Iris Cantor who she and her husband developed the largest collection of Rodin in private hands in the world not counting the government of France that’s not so private but Bernie Cantor had for years been collecting road I having recasts of the great works of Rodin and then giving them to museum collections all over the country so when we wanted to do a big road a show in 2000 it only made sense that I had to meet Iris Cantor and I did I made arrangements to see her in New York and actually asked made special requests for some exceptional works that were not in the initial outline of the exhibition and she promised me that she would get the monumental Thinker for the exhibition which she did and I said you’ve got to be the chairman of our exhibition and come to the big part and she says well I don’t do parties and I said yes you did because I see your picture in the New York Times all the time anyway she came to the opening declared it was one of the greatest party she had ever attended in her life and she and I were on stage dancing it was a fantastic party and we established a rapport and friendship that continued beyond the exhibition and eventually I went to her and I said Iris you know we’re building this new building and it’s a great opportunity for you to think about giving some of your Rodins away and I have in mind that we could name a gallery for you and Bernie in the new building and a garden for outdoor pieces which we have here and and she said well it is the sweetest letter I’ve ever received but I’m not saying yes yet but I’m not saying no and so we worked at it and eventually she agreed to give 30 Rodins to the North Carolina Museum of Art and we agreed that we would create a beautiful environment for those works and now of course it is the largest most comprehensive exhibition of Rodin east of Los Angeles and south of Philadelphia and I always add and that includes Texas so it’s really an important collection it’s great because it’s here in the center of these universities that have access to it and to everybody from far and wide who loves Rodin I’m so what other collections or particular pieces are you most proud of under your tenure I’m proud of every single piece we’ve added to the collection I am really proud that we stepped up our commitment to collecting the underrepresented artists of the world I felt that African-American artists were woefully underrepresented in our collection and it was and then of course realizing that the best work being made in the world today much of much of it was being made by African-American artists and when we did the 30 Americans exhibition some years back and it was 30 African American artists who were working in the world today I was so impressed with the work and realized that very few of those artists were represented in our collection so we set to work to change all of that and we immediately went and acquired a great Mickalene Thomas and then Kehinde Wiley and Hank Willis Thomas and on and on and on so that today I think we have a really strong representation not only of African-American artists but Hispanic artists and artists from throughout the world Middle Eastern and Asian as well so we are aware of the changing demographics and you did as I remember a Latin American exhibition as well was that primarily to introduce the Latin American artists to the North Carolina collection or to introduce your audience to those artists well it was more about the community I realized that we had a growing and important Hispanic population in the Triangle and in North Carolina we have an embassy consulate from for Mexico here in the community I thought that we were neglecting a big part of our audience by not showcasing great work from from Latino artists and so we had the opportunity to have that exhibition and next year of course we’re going to do Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and that’s gonna be a huge exhibition and what sort of that same purpose but everybody loves those artists as well when I say we we do it to serve or to engage a particular cultural audience that doesn’t mean that we’re not doing it for everybody to appreciate the great voices of beyond our immediate environment well you have had a really good program of acquisition so one of my behind-the-scenes questions is what is the art to acquiring art the art to acquiring art opportunity comes first because it’s got to be available and you’ve got to have the money to afford it and of course we believe in collecting the very best and so there is a certain connoisseurship that goes into the process we want to add excellent works by whatever artists we choose to acquire and of course we encourage people who have great collections to give works from their collections to the museum and we’ve had great success with that as well you know the Jim and Mary Patten collection of more than 100 works of modernism and contemporary art extraordinary Ellsworth Kelly and Motherwell’s and Diebenkorn’s and Helen Frankenthaler on and on and on those works that we could not have afforded but they gave them all at one time because they had collected them over their lifetime an extraordinary collection and we have many examples of collectors who’ve chosen us as a repository for their collections well people come here and they don’t just look at things on the wall anymore you have dance parties you have brought in motorcycles cars I mean what is going on well everything is going on you know I think that you know the expanding the definition of what art is you know an automobile represents extraordinary design qualities and particularly Porsche and the Art Deco automobiles that we had in an exhibition after Porsche it not only was thrilling to see the the artistry and design but it was a thrill to see all the new people come to appreciate that an art museum appreciates some of the same things they do now you also have added films and concerts and so what’s a 21st century museum for an art museum anymore a 21st century museum is about experiences and it’s about art and who’s to say that art only hangs on walls or is plopped down in certain places around and outside no longer the case art moves it can be digital it can be film art is meant to be heard in terms of the music all kinds of music we’re which we’re committed to presenting and it’s also about how those experiences music digital video dance all expand the context of the art that we collect and have on the walls and so each part informs the other and collectively creates this extraordinary energy in the name of art a great example being that you are here exhibition which we completed recently which was an example of that that you can bring music and video and technology and you know all together and some of the most popular art in the world today is about these digital experiences Yayoi Kusama for example people line up around the blocks in in LA and New York to see Kusama they lined up around the museum to see the Kusama here the great thing is we made a commitment to acquire this Kusama for the permanent collection which is my final acquisition for the collection and when I’m very proud of it’s by a 21st century artist one of the most famous in the world who happens to be Asian-American is a woman and at this stage of her life is like 80 years old so Wow great and that’s the sort of thing that we as a museum have become known for taking bold initiatives in the name of the Arts whatever they may be so you have drawn people from all over the country to see some of these exhibitions How important is it to have the museum’s stature and finances enhanced by these kinds of mega traveling exhibits well you know the answer to that it’s important the important thing first of all is to have great art and great exhibitions that engage the community and excite the community it’s a conversation you have to you can’t be doing something just because it’s intellectual or scholarly you have to do something that people really that connects with their souls something they are aware of and want to be a part of we’ve learned that to be true and if we do it and engage our community in a profound way it will engage all communities so that when we do a big exhibition like Rodin or Monet or Rembrandt or the Porsche show or You Are Here and the Ebony show that was so successful because all of a sudden the African-American community felt it was the museum was their scene it was about them yeah really I was thrilling but in terms of national communities and you know we we count the people who come and where they’re from I’m always determined that we’re going to have first of all somebody come from every one of the 100 counties in North Carolina and they do every time every big exhibition we get all 100 counties participating and all 50 states and many foreign countries so with all of these big-name exhibitions we have a track record of doing exactly that we get everybody we get people from all over the United States from all over North Carolina and I’d like to say from all over the world because what we do has energy what we do has something that people want to be a part of at the North Carolina Museum of Art and it’s just great for the reputation of North Carolina and it sort of fits with the dynamism around us and the economic growth of the state and the growing sophistication of the state and the you know the the diversity cultural diversity of the it’s all of that so do you find that you’re indeed getting a more diverse population coming regularly yes what is really thrilling to me and I have broken into tears and certain speeches I make about this but in reflecting on my tenure as director of what what thrills me the most is when I can walk into these galleries in this building that I pretty much shaped and built walk through these galleries and see people from every cultural background and on any given day or weekend I will see families of African-Americans not one or two but many I will see Hispanic families I’ll see Asian families I will see families that are not rich and I will see people all together enjoying their art in their art museum that’s thrilling to me because for so long and it’s still true today art museums are white men’s institutions I should say white woman’s institutions generally more women than men but that is you know if I could do anything is to break that model and I think we are breaking that model with the types of exhibitions we do the types of concerts we present and films we present and bit by bit the entire community is taking ownership of this place and they have great affection for this place and because it’s free to the public they can come anytime they want and they do and that’s what I’m most proud of well you have a couple of major physical additions certainly this building is one and the sculpture garden is the other when you set out in 1994 did you even have that on your long-range plan how do you have a long-range plan that embraces all those things you cannot possibly know I knew that we were going to take advantage of every opportunity that we have and I think part of the strength of my administration has been my very cordial relationship with the state of North Carolina with the Department of Cultural Resources now natural and cultural resources and with the government whatever whether democrat or republican we’ve been able to have close working relationships so the resources we’ve needed have been there and when the land became available around us we were able to negotiate with a friendly government to allocate it to us because they believed that we would honor it and make it worthwhile create worthwhile experiences for the people and we have done that and I think it’s not only the state but our relationship with city and county government and with federal governments but it’s not just government I think it’s important to have a positive supportive relationship and money coming from those sources what I’m really proud of is that we’ve created a strong public/private partnership so that the private side has risen to the occasion and surpassed the public investment in what we get in this museum when I started it was 70% funded by the state and 30% funded by private resources for a long time it turned to be 70 percent private and 30 percent state and now we’re at about a 6040 relationship 60 private 40 state and I think it should the burden should always be borne by the private sector primarily I think that is the margin of excellence and the dynamism that we enjoy as a cultural institution and as we go forward we will see but I will not be here to do it an online magazine Insider said that this museum was one of the top 25 in the in the u.s. in the art world generally how would you say this museum is considered it’s considered as an important museum certainly the collection for those who know it recognized it as one of the great European art collections in the United States I would say that now our modern contemporary collections are well known we’re one of the great collecting institutions in the world of Contemporary Art probably among the best certainly in the southeastern United States it’s considered like along with the Virginia Museum in the high to be the leading museums of the of the southeast we all have our distinctions who’s better who’s best but we’re among the leading museums of America because not only the collections But our program and the way that we have engaged our community and our campus and the multiplicity of experiences that we create here so we have been an innovator among museums and that is now finally coming to light and being recognized so aren’t you also engaged with recruitment as all these industries and people come into the state how are you involved in that well I believe we should always be at the table and I’ve always believed that I push myself to the table whether it’s the Convention and Visitors Bureau I was on the board there for a while whether it’s the Chamber of Commerce whether it’s individual industries recruiting businesses I’ve always wanted us to be a showcase for the community and we’ve encouraged them to do events here and to particularly for economic developers for any national associations coming to town do your event at the Museum because it leaves such a strong impression with the visitors so we always want to be a partner in whatever advances the economic life of the community and the quality of life perceptions in the community so what’s ahead for this museum great things more greatness for sure you know I think it will always connect with the the rhythms of the this world of North Carolina and the Research Triangle region is we’re facing extraordinary economic growth and population growth we are already established as the one of the go-to places we’re sort of at the center of the conversation about the type of growth that happens around us I was recently at the annual luncheon for the Convention and Visitors Bureau and they unveiled their strategic plan and in the 10 points that they want to achieve in the next five to ten years it was clear that the museum was at the center of three or four of those quality of life destination marketing etc it will continue to be that I’m glad that now finally people are aware that the arts really do make a difference and they are not set asides so people are properly proud of the museum now they should be and they are yes so what’s the head for Lawrence J Wheeler Lawrence J Wheeler will continue to be Lawrence J Wheeler I will continue to be a cheerleader for this museum and for the Arts and for museums generally and you know I I look forward to helping organizations other than this museum solve problems and become better at what they do so is there anything more you would add that I have not touched on well you’ve touched on a lot I thank you for the opportunity to discuss the museum I think that the department of cultural resources is an extraordinary example of what North Carolina’s core values are what it is truly committed to preserving its history in making sure that the libraries are resources that are connected to people’s lives and that the arts all of them the symphony and the Arts Councils and theater and that everyone has access to that and that we honor our artists and I’m really keen on the fact that we should make them know that they are the great voices of our lives well those of us who’ve been here for a while have been amazed and impressed by what you have been able to do and we all sincerely thank you well thank you

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