I moved to Raleigh from Chicago in early October. In my first week, I made of point of visiting the North Carolina Museum of Art, and it quickly became one of my favorite places. The museum is located very close to the NCSU area, where I had been staying, so I decided to travel by bicycle. I arrived along a quiet path that winds its way north through Meredith College and over a highway before arriving at a nature trail on the museum’s campus.
The nature trail area has an array of public sculptures, many of them commissioned specifically to reside here. My favorite outdoor art pieces stood in stark contrast to the natural surroundings – two miniature billboards positioned among the trees. The museum uses them to display local artists’ works on a rotating basis.
The museum itself was an impressive sight. From the exterior, it consists of simple metallic volumes in a carefully articulated landscape.
But it was the interior of the museum that really captured my imagination. Understated and elegant, it is one of the best places I’ve seen for displaying art. The building achieves a delicate balance: simple enough to give the artwork the attention, but not so stark as to seem aseptic. This became clear in some of the building’s carefully designed details.
My favorite detail is the use of drapes over the museum’s window-walls. Of course, this is a classic solution to filtering light, but one that is rare in contemporary museums. I can see precedent for these curtains in one of my favorite buildings, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. The tall curtains add a rare elegance to the space, and a touch of warmth.
I also love the skylights, which are anything but ordinary. Their sensuous sculptural shapes diffuse natural light evenly into each gallery. But, like the curtains, they are more than functional, lending sculptural interest to the ceiling of the galleries as well as the exterior roof-line.
The NCMA has an amazing collection of artwork spanning thousands of years. Highlights include a vast collection of Rodin Sculptures, a large painting of the Founding Fathers by Chicago painter Roger Brown, and a large metallic tapestry by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. But the real gem of the museum is the priceless Peruzzi Altarpiece by Giotto, one of Western art’s most famous painters. It’s one of the only complete examples in the world, and it’s right here in Raleigh!
The Judaica section is a unique part of the museum that features all sorts of decorativearts from centuries of Jewish culture. On display are three Torahs, which you should definitely check out. They feature mantles (fabric covers) designed by Design Lines’ founder Judy Pickett in collaboration with Ruth Cox.
My favorite part of the museum is tucked away in a corner of the Modern section. It’s a large room that houses some incredible pieces by Louise Nevelson, Richard Diebenkorn, and Robert Motherwell. The peace and solitude of the room, coupled with its powerful abstract artworks, invites quiet contemplation. One advantage of this museum is that it’s not very crowded, so you can get plenty of quiet time with these pieces. The Diebenkorn alone is worth the trip.
The North Carolina Museum of Art was designed by Thomas Phifer of Thomas Phifer and Partners, New York.