It’s 1956. A dilapidated one-room outbuilding, like you might find on any tobacco farm, stands beside the road in rural North Carolina. The windows are boarded up, the porch is caving in, mud from a chilly rain has splashed up on the cedar siding, and the roof’s been patched over the years. It hasn’t been torn down—these things are best left to the elements. (Who knows, we may need it again someday?!) But now it’s sandwiched between two billboards, tall, crisp, and new, to catch the eyes of passersby bumping down the rural route toward Raleigh. You don’t need to know about art to know the Old Master “Rembrandt” announced in boldly stylized signature script. You just need to know when and where (these details in a playful off-center layout, no less!).
“The North Carolina Museum of Art” at the top, in a modern sans-serif? Now, that’s new. The new Museum just opened in April of 1956 in downtown Raleigh, and this is its first exhibition—and what a way to start! Back in ’47 the state legislature appropriated $1 million to purchase art for the people of North Carolina (an amazing, audacious initiative), and in the years after lured Dr. William Valentiner—former director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Los Angeles County Museum, and J. Paul Getty Museum, and the world’s preeminent Rembrandt scholar—out of retirement to buy paintings and begin a museum. In the fall of 1956, Valentiner draws upon his decades of experience (and calls in years of favors) to bring Rembrandts from across the globe to North Carolina’s quiet capital town. And the people of North Carolina embrace the exhibition.
What I see in this old photo is still true today—and it’s why I love North Carolina. Around here culture means an afternoon with the world’s finest paintings … followed by a raucous evening of college basketball; new gourmet restaurants alongside North Carolina barbecue mainstays; letterpress designers working around the corner from cutting-edge Web development firms. Here you get your music from the symphony and the old general store in Bynum. Pick the right weekend, and you can enjoy a cappuccino from locally roasted beans, with a deep-fried Snickers on the side, while enjoying a mesmerizing video projection by a contemporary artist. (And that Snickers will still be warm.) Old, new, high, low, rural, urban, digital, analogue … we not only embrace them, we love to see them collide and mix and make something new. I can’t wait to see what we make now, having seen Rembrandt, our Old Master, in a new way.