The Museum’s history begins in 1924, when the North Carolina State Art Society was formed. Its mission: to generate interest in creating an art museum for the state. In 1928 the society acquired funds and approximately 75 paintings by bequest from Robert F. Phifer, a North Carolina native and businessman. In 1929 the first in a series of temporary art exhibition spaces opened in the Agriculture Building in Raleigh.
In 1947 the state legislature appropriated $1 million to purchase a collection of art for the people of North Carolina. The appropriation, which was unheard of at the time and drew national attention, was in response to a then-anonymous challenge grant from noted philanthropist Samuel H. Kress of New York through the persuasive efforts of Robert Lee Humber. Humber was an international lawyer and native of Greenville, N.C.
Humber worked tirelessly with the legislature to ensure the bill’s passage. An amended bill was finally passed in the waning hours of the last day of the legislative session. Rep. John Kerr of Warren County, in support of the bill, famously said, “Mr. Speaker, I know I am facing a hostile audience, but man cannot live by bread alone.”
The initial $1 million legislative appropriation was used to purchase 139 European and American paintings and sculptures.
The Kress Foundation matched the $1 million appropriation with a gift of 70 works of art, primarily Italian Renaissance, adding the Museum to its program of endowing regional museums throughout the United States with works from the Kress Collection. The Kress gift to the Museum became the largest and most important of any except that given to the National Gallery of Art. The Museum’s original collection, along with the Kress gift, established the North Carolina Museum of Art as one of the premier art museums.
"The Miracle on Morgan Street"
In April 1956 the Museum opened in the renovated State Highway Division Building on Morgan Street in downtown Raleigh, the state’s capital. Local media dubbed it "the Miracle on Morgan Street." It was the first art museum in the country to be established using state funds. The first director, William Valentiner, formerly directed the Detroit Institute of Arts, co-directed the Los Angeles County Museum, and directed the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Blue Ridge Road and the Stone Building
By the 1960s the Museum had outgrown its Morgan Street location. The building lacked humidity and temperature controls for the proper care of works of art. In 1967 the state legislature created a 15-member State Art Building Commission to choose a site and oversee construction of a new museum.
Choosing the Blue Ridge Road site was controversial. Opponents thought that the Museum should remain downtown near the Capitol, other museums, and public buildings, and legislative bills were introduced to that effect. But the Building Commission did not waver; it chose the Blue Ridge site, as it was accessible to the interstate and had plenty of room for expansion and parking.
The Blue Ridge Road site, just south of Rex Hospital on the western edge of Raleigh, has a colorful history. Beginning with Native American inhabitants, it later was a Civil War training site, and later the site of Polk Youth Prison for juvenile offenders. The youth prison was relocated, and only a smokestack remains as a reminder.
Designed by Edward Durell Stone and Associates of New York and Holloway-Reeves Architects of North Carolina, the new building (now called East Building) opened in 1983. Stone’s experience included the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh.
Stone used spatial experimentation with pure geometric form for the Museum by using a square as a basic unit and designing the entire site by manipulating the square form.
Because of inflation and delays in site approval, the final building was not completed as originally planned. But even with its reduced size, at 181,000 square feet it was four times the square footage of the Morgan Street location and had twice the exhibition space.
The Museum Park
A master plan produced in 1988 characterized the natural features and existing features of the Museum site into zones for future use. In 2000 the state legislature granted the Museum an adjacent site for the development of a Museum Park and trail system. In less than a decade, over a dozen works of art and two miles of trails have made the North Carolina Museum of Art one of a handful of museums in the world with both a renowned traditional art collection and a large outdoor art park. Its 164 acres make it the largest museum art park in the country.
In 2000 Larry Wheeler (director from 1994 to 2018) began to lay plans for the Museum’s future, shifting from renovation of the Stone building to construction of a new building specifically to house the permanent collection. Over the next two years, the Museum worked with architects Thomas Phifer and Partners on the design of a new gallery building (now called West Building).
From the outset of the project, it was determined that the building and gardens should embrace green principles consistent with the development of the Museum Park and its related art and ecology program. Thus the environmental functionality of the structure was designed to build and operate the Museum in a sustainable manner: controlled storm water runoff, enhanced energy efficiency, climate-control systems, and responsible landscaping practices.
A unique glass-walled architectural structure with striking roof lines, a dramatic exterior, and state-of-the-art environmental elements, West Building has arisen adjacent to the original building on the Museum site. With the exterior 50 percent glass, the 127,000-square-foot gallery space allows for filtered natural light and viewing of the collection in a whole new way. Landscaped sculpture gardens and reflecting pools complement the existing Museum Park and strengthen the connection of art and nature.
A New Era
In October 2018, after 24 years at the helm of the NCMA, Larry Wheeler retired. Valerie Hillings succeeded him as the Museum’s director in November 2018. A Duke University graduate, Hillings was most recently curator and associate director of curatorial affairs for the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum, part of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation.
Discover the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, N.C. SECCA, an affiliate of the North Carolina Museum of Art, presents and interprets contemporary art of the United States with programs encompassing the issues engaging artists today.