The North Carolina Museum of Art

by James F. Cooper

Sculpture Gallery, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina

During the last twenty years, the mission and ontology of modern art museums have been increasingly shaped by corporate and financial interests. Once seen as a safeguarding academic standard, promoting scholarship and educational research, museums are now regarded as catalysts for profit. The problem has been exacerbated by a precipitous decline in aesthetic standards, which further encourages the mass production of questionable postmodern artifacts. Since the end of World War II, more than 700 museums have been built in the United States, raising doubts about the integrity of their mission, which threatens to exclude education and beauty as their primary mandates. Unfortunately, the directors and curatorial staff of these museums often fail to restore balance to the field of art, tempted as they are by financial gain and the desire to absorb vast quantities of art possessing minimal quality or gravitas.

In an April, 2012, speech at Fordham University, Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, commenting on the overall decline in the arts, declared that “there are no great American artists, poets, sculptors working today.” While that may sound like hyperbole, if the yardstick of Western standards still includes the Greeks and the European Renaissance, Gioia is not far off-base. Little has been done to stanch the flood of mediocrity that continues to fill museums as fast as they are built.

Attempting to address this decline, some museums and institutions are reevaluating their collections and mission statements. The re-opening of the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in 2010 was a happy occasion, and we can learn from its example. The museum’s stated mission is to seek out and display works of artistic excellence. Not coincidently, this was the stated mission charged in the original 1965 charter of the NEA. After the scandals of the 1980s, a lot of useless guidelines sidestepping the issue of standards were added to the charter.

The museum is a genuine surprise. Not only does the collection contain many first-rate works from different parts of the world, but the building itself is handsome. It is designed to take advantage of the wonderful natural light that illuminates the vast interiors without detracting from the paintings, sculptures and ancient artifacts. Phifer states: “In designing the new main building, we wanted to create something that is beautiful but does not compete with the art, a building that puts the art first and foremost.” He and all others concerned have succeeded admirably. 

Auguste Rodin, The Three Shades, model, c. 1886, enlarged, c. 1901 NORTH CAROLINA MUSEUM OF ART, RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA GIFT OF THE IRIS AND B. GERALD CANTOR FOUNDATION, 2009 The first incarnation of the North Carolina Museum of Art opened to the public in April 1956, in a renovated state office building in downtown Raleigh. Soon after, the museum received an important group of old masters from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. They also acquired Giotto’s Peruzzi Altarpiece (1310–15), the only complete example of a Giotto altarpiece outside Italy. By the 1960s, the museum’s collection had outgrown its humble space. A new site was chosen for Stone, one of the progenitors of American modernist architecture. His early works include the original Museum of Modern Art (1939) and Radio City Music Hall (1932), both in New York City. In the 1950s, Stone moved away from strict modernist tenets and began to fuse the formalism of his early Beaux-Arts training with a Romantic historicism. He decried the parochialism of modernism, asserting that “architecture ... should be timeless and convey by its very fiber the assurance of prominence.”1

Several years ago, the State of North Carolina and the City of Raleigh took another bold step in planning a major conversion of the small museum into one of the most important and distinguished art institutions in the South. The museum chose Phifer, whose solution was carefully integrated with the progressive formalism and classical spirit of Durell’s design, merging the two buildings into an integrated complex of galleries and gardens. Two new galleries are devoted to thirty figurative bronze sculptures by Auguste Rodin—a 2009 gift from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation. The Three Shades (c. 1886) is a masterpiece. The three figures illustrate what Durell was seeking: a successful aesthetic merging of classicism and modernism. The sculpture addresses the broad question of the nature of art, and offers a clue to the success of this museum, with the goal of raising the standard for excellence, beauty and humanism. 

The two integrated buildings appear deceptively simple, resembling a series of unadorned building blocks. Fifty percent of Phifer’s exteriors are glass; the major walls are anodized aluminum-skin panels. From the outside, it could easily be mistaken for a medical center or an office complex. Inside, though, it is a different story. The museum is a technically complex facility, beautifully arranged to present the art to its best advantage. The 360 skylights with defusers and fabric filters control the light and allow a fresh flow of climate-adjusted air. The visitor is mostly unaware of the systems that make the museum so comfortable. The interior light varies with the weather, time of day and season. The interior spaces have a pearl-like quality. The priority is to present each work without fanfare or the self-serving ornament that detracts from the art. All building elements—from the oculi in the ceiling to the expanses of glass—have been created with an eye to providing the best possible experience for visitors. The interior walls are painted white, the floors are white oak. The Carolina landscape, viewed through the glass walls, provides an enriching backdrop. Visitors move effortlessly between galleries, sometimes emerging into the open air, only to reenter another gallery down the path. There are few bothersome doors. Barely two years old, the museum has already garnered a dozen top architectural awards.

The collection, of course, cannot compete with that of institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But NCMA has much to admire, with enough quality within each period of art to inform and inspire the novice as well as the experienced art lover. Lawrence J. Wheeler, director since 1994, has provided much of the leadership and vision that has shaped this museum into one of the leading cultural institutions in the South. He has an intelligent eye for what is important in a work of art. 


Portrait Gallery, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina

Although the museum is comparatively small, it covers 5,000 years of art. There are outstanding Renaissance, Flemish and Dutch works, as well as fine examples of neoclassical, French nineteenth-century and American art. The collection includes three excellent portraits by John Singleton Copley, among them his “royalist” portrait Sir William Pepperrell (1778), depicting a transplanted American colonist. The painting is an elaborate fiction that flatters Sir William and demonstrates the artist’s skill. Copley’s talents were so prodigious that he was able to find success soon after he immigrated to London in 1774. At first, Copley painted portraits of American Tories who had resettled in England, but he soon mastered the English style and began receiving commissions from the gentry. Together with another expatriate, Benjamin West, Copley developed modern history painting, which had a major influence on the genre’s development in European academies, particularly in revolutionary France.

NCMA has tried to cover periods and civilizations in a way that gives visitors some deeper understanding of cultural context. It has done well with the American collection. Thomas Cole’s Romantic Landscape (c. 1826), one of his earliest works, introduced the vision of America as a new Eden. Before Cole founded the Hudson River School—America’s first indigenous art movement—painters such as Copley, John Trumbull and West had been primarily influenced by their English counterparts. NCMA also owns Under the Greenwood (1881), one of George Inness’s finest works. The artist never fit comfortably into the fraternity of the Hudson River School or Western landscape painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. Bierstadt discovered his greatest theme in California’s Yosemite Valley, which he first visited in 1859 and returned to several times. His Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite (1873) is a vertical composition that emphasizes the height and luminosity of the falls. So spectacular was the remote valley that Bierstadt felt as if he had wandered into the Garden of Eden. The popularity of his paintings attracted so many tourists to Yosemite that Bierstadt was compelled to look elsewhere for pristine scenery.

Inness preferred what he termed “civilized landscapes.”2 Under the Greenwood imagines a summer idyll, a shepherd boy tending his small flock. The scene is an Arcadian fantasy, a poetic alternative to America’s increasingly urban life. Inness made many trips to Italy, seeking out rural landscapes. This is one of those seminal transitional works that incorporate the best influences of nineteenth-century landscape painting. The quiet pastoral quality of this bucolic scene recalls the intimacy of Asher B. Durand’s Into the Woods (1855), while the study of trees and foliage has the intensity of Bierstadt or Frederic Church. Inness, at this point in his career, was inspired by the plein-air European Impressionists to develop a more modern approach. The forms are slightly blurred, the colors muted. The brushwork is more phlegmatic, establishing a tension between content and aesthetics. 

George Inness, Under the Greenwood, 1881 NORTH CAROLINA MUSEUM OF ART, RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA PURCHASED WITH FUNDS FROM THE STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA, 1952 One of the few creditable twentieth-century American realists to explore existential alienation as a major theme was Andrew Wyeth. Winter 1946 was one of his first works, painted immediately after the death of his father and teacher, the celebrated illustrator N.C. Wyeth. It is a haunting scene of a young boy running down a barren hill. According to Wyeth, the hill symbolized his father. The boy was the artist himself, running aimlessly “at a loss ... [my] hand drifting in the air was my free soul, groping.”3 This painting provides a striking contrast to the American and European modernist and postmodernist abstract works at NCMA. Although there is much contemporary art, particularly from local artists, there is no work by the new American realists, who often cite Wyeth as an inspiration. Indeed, realism is experiencing a renaissance. During the past two decades, the number of ateliers teaching traditional painting techniques has expanded significantly, both in the United States and abroad. However, American museums and galleries largely continue to ignore this burgeoning movement. 

Wheeler worked hard to obtain the Rodin sculpture collection—the largest in the South—as well as works by Alberto Giacometti, including Woman of Venice IX (1958). Visitors get a good taste of the best of early modernist sculpture. Sadly, the contemporary galleries rely too heavily on the bland and innocuous, decried by Gioia. The 1990 stick figure by Joel Shapiro, aptly titled Untitled, has little more quality or insight than a box of Legos.

The overwhelming power and beauty of early modernist works by Giacometti and Rodin convey the sense of alienation and foreboding that permeated Western culture at the start of the twentieth century more convincingly than any history book or existential philosophy. These works linger in the mind, unlike the largely inconsequential contemporary works. There is some advantage in contrasting such pedestrian offerings with those of Rodin or Inness. In very large museums, such as the Whitney or Guggenheim, such pieces are displayed with kindred spirits of their own time. Here, one-on-one, the viewer has an opportunity to register the difference, for instance, between a modernist masterpiece and postmodernist kitsch. One could spend an hour noting the contrasts between Shapiro’s child-like stick figure and the writhing orgasmic figures in Rodin’s The Three Shades.

One might rightly ask why this is so important—the differences between a Rodin and a Shapiro. If you can’t see the formal aesthetic characteristics, even with the evidence right before you, an expert or curator can point them out to you. Or you might read up and learn to distinguish the qualities that separate great from mundane art. If you are happily blessed with internal antenna, the pleasure and wonder you feel looking at a masterpiece is the greatest form of training. Gioia’s scathing observation about the lack of quality in contemporary American art goes to the heart of the challenge we face as a nation. Beauty is not only a cultural measuring rod, but also physically transforms the brain’s sensory and intellectual wiring. Aristotle wrote: “A city can be excellent only when the citizens who have a share in the government are excellent.”4 And how do we train citizens to appreciate great art? Through education in the timeless virtues of the canon, which set the bar for excellence in any field. If museums settle for the trendy and mediocre, all of society eventually suffers. 

To demonstrate the important educational role an art museum plays, consider Madonna and Child in a Landscape (c. 1518) by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, one of a series of small devotional images, in the NCMA collection. The grapes the child holds symbolize the wine of the eucharist, which represents the shed blood of Christ. Another masterpiece is Peter Paul Rubens’s The Holy Family with St. Anne (c. 1630–35). In keeping with Christian theology and artistic tradition, Joseph is painted standing apart from the central group, reflecting his role as the earthly father. The Bolognese painter Ludovico Carracci was one of the most lyrical of the Baroque masters. His Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1587) celebrated Mary’s special place in the teachings of the Counter Reformation Church. The gallery of the Dutch Golden Age features Wooded Landscape and Waterfall (c. 1665–70) by Jacob von Ruisdael, one of the most important Dutch landscape artists of the seventeenth century.

When a small museum tries to cover so much history, there are inevitably weaknesses. Pablo Picasso’s Seated Woman, Red and Yellow Background (1952) pales beside the feral powers of the primitivist African art that originally inspired his breakthrough painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), and the ferocious series that evolved from that protean work. The African galleries at NCMA show twentieth-century works, thus denying an opportunity for visitors to understand what Picasso was seeking. The masks, ritual guardian statues and beadwork are handsome, colorful and decorative, but they are derivative and lack the palpable magic of works created centuries earlier.

NCMA offers guided tours of its collections. There is an art reference library, a bookstore with a handsome, informative hardbound guide to the museum collection,5 a restaurant open daily, outdoor trails and gardens and a theater. The museum provides attractive, tranquil space to contemplate the collection, to allow the works to speak to the visitor and educate the eye, the heart and the mind.

North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh, North Carolina 27607. Hours: Tuesday–Thursday, Saturday–Sunday, 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Friday 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. Telephone (919) 715-5923.


  1. Edward Durell Stone, Edward Durell Stone: Recent and Future Architecture (New York: Horizon Press, 1967), p. 8.

  2. North Carolina Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collection (Raleigh: North Carolina Museum of Art, 2010), p. 426.

  3. Ibid., p. 468.

  4. The Complete Works of Aristotle, “Politics,” edited by Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press), Book VII. p. 2,114.

  5. North Carolina Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collection (Raleigh: North Carolina Museum of Art, 2010).

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2012, Volume 29, Number 3