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The North Carolina Museum of Art is one of our state's great treasures, and its goal of bringing the fine arts to everyone and engaging with its surrounding community is exemplary. I was so pleased to get to tour NCMA on Tuesday morning during a media preview of the entirely reorganized and revitalized (not to mention rebranded!) museum. The central purpose of this visit was to view what NCMA is calling The People's Collection, Reimagined; its current display of over 1000 artworks that include gifted works, original commissions, and international loans.
There is much more information about the specific highlights and special initiatives in the "Learn More" section of the event's webpage, which details the highlighted loans and commissions, community initiatives in which NC residents were invited to respond to various works, and where some of the digital labels and interactive portions of the museum have been installed. We were treated to a detailed, if rushed, tour (unfortunately we only had about 2 hours), gallery by gallery, to hear from the entire curatorial team and their excitement was palpable. They tried their best to convey their "elevator pitch" versions of their respective galleries, pointing out some old favorites as well as exciting changes.
Exciting new changes in the West Building include better wayfinding and organization - including bilingual English and Spanish signage), through galleries that have been creatively diversified. Director Valerie Hillings spoke about the opportunity the NCMA has had to examine new perspectives and tell new stories through the reorganization of the museum, presenting new and underrepresented artists and contextualizing the historical pieces to make them more accessible to modern audiences. She reminded that "all art is contemporary when it is made," so it was important for the curators to focus on how the artworks were utilized, displayed, or considered both at their creation and over time.
In the West Building, thematic galleries are more of a focus, displaying art across an idea or movement, rather than strictly geographically and historically. Of course, all your favorite works are still around - more are on display now than ever before - but they have been grouped a little differently to reflect some of the below thematic ideas:
Made in the Americas: This gallery bridges the collections of ancient America and American art and showcases the interconnectedness of the Americas, both hemispherically and with other parts of the world. The narratives emerging from artworks in this gallery emphasize how cross-cultural contact, global influences, and international encounters and exchange have defined American artistic production.
Portraits and Power: This section displays both historic and contemporary portraits side by side to demonstrate their powerful role in how people are presented through images. It invites visitors to contemplate what has changed in these dynamics of power over the years, or perhaps what has not, through surprising comparisons like the Museum’s Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait Louis XV (circa 1715–17) alongside Kehinde Wiley’s Hale as "Euphrosyne" (2005), and Beverly McIver’s Truly Grateful (2011) contrasted with Anthony Van Dyck’s Lady Mary Villiers (circa 1637).
The Africa We Ought to Know: Previously on view as two separate collections, this gallery reconnects Egypt to Africa, celebrating that Africa is a continent where empires have flourished over millennia, each contributing to a fascinating antiquity and a vigorous history that extends to a dynamic and creative present. Visitors will be able to explore the continent and learn more about its people through interactive maps of trade routes and various African kingdoms.
Art Conservation: This space will showcase the study of art, science, history, and technology as conservators share their deep understanding of the materials and techniques used in the reconstruction and restoration of different types of objects. Rotating conservation projects will be featured, highlighting how artworks are researched, analyzed, and preserved. The first object featured will be visitor favorite Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky by Chris Drury (2003), which reopened in the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park in 2022 after extensive conservation.
The Arts: "Art" - meaning the visual arts - is often separated from "the arts," a shorthand that actively segments creative expression into disparate parts: music, dance, painting, literature, and more. In this gallery the broad spectrum of the arts will be presented through a variety of media including moving images to foster understanding of creativity in new, vital ways. As museums continue to rethink what can be shown or expressed inside galleries, the integration of various art forms, including dance, music, theater, and poetry, plays a key role in reimagining the museum experience.
Other exciting changes have taken place, as well; the East Building is showcasing a wide variety of media and features a huge temporary commission space, currently occupied by a striking installation of works by Hassan Hajjaj. There is a focus on North Carolina artists, showing the depth and breadth of local artists in conversation with other pieces rather than keeping them relegated to their own wing. It serves to remind us how art connects people and is always being influenced by the outside world.
We were also treated to a preview of A Modern Vision: European Masterworks from the Phillips Collection, which is an outstanding display of over 50 of the works originally collected by Duncan Phillips, showcasing heroes of visual art across the ages.
The Phillips Collection was America’s first museum of modern art, opening its doors in Washington, DC, in 1921 and installing works by different artists together to connect their art across time and place. A Modern Vision expresses Phillips’s belief that his museum gathered "congenial spirits among artists from different parts of the world and from different periods of time" to demonstrate "that art is a universal language."
NCMA's impressive collections should be enjoyed over many days, months, and years, as the whole team has created a comprehensive yet incredibly relevant journey through the arts as a whole. As an amateur art lover, I was enthralled for the entire two hours of my visit and still felt like I barely scratched the surface of all the thought-provoking and conversation-starting offerings, and I am already looking forward to coming back!
The opening celebrations for A Modern Vision and The People's Collection, Reimagined, begin Friday night with an artist party, but continue through the weekend family and community events, performances by instrumental and dance ensembles in the galleries, tours led by some of the featured artists, and much, much more. Whether you want to soak up the gorgeous fall sun in and around the five miles of trails in the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park (flanked by iconic sculptures and installations), visit the exhibitions, join in a workshop, or shop at the stunning museum store, there truly is something here for everyone and anyone.