Museum Celebrates 20 Years with Larry Wheeler

The NCMA is celebrating Larry Wheeler’s 20th anniversary as director. This is an excerpt from the letter he sent to Museum staff:
Photo: Nick Pironio

Twenty years ago I entered the Museum as director. As our program has grown to meet expanding public expectations, so has the scale of the NCMA. The staff has doubled, the operating budget has more than tripled–to around $18 million today–and the campus has grown from 174,000 square feet of space to more than 300,000 square feet with the addition of the new building. We now occupy (certifiably) 164 acres of land, much of which is our Museum Park, ever changing. We typically serve 350,000 visitors a year, not counting the 150,000 visitors to the Park and the 123,000 who participate in our education offerings, many of which are offsite. In the Monet and Rodin years, attendance soared to 443,000 and 475,000 respectively. We have grown and are growing. A new strategic plan will open new possibilities for us to serve the public in more relevant ways.

I reflect on two conversations that shaped these two decades of my tenure. Chief curator John Coffey came to see me two weeks after I began and asked what I wanted to buy. We talked possibilities but agreed that Anselm Kiefer would be a high-profile and unexpected acquisition–if such a rare opportunity should emerge. One week later it did, when Christie’s offered the untitled triptych from the Gerald Elliott collection. With no formal process for going to auction, we jerry-rigged one with the participation of Senator Terry Sanford, chairman of the Board, and the Board’s Acquisitions Committee. I went to New York in early November and successfully acquired the painting. It made big news in the art world and generated much curiosity at home. In that moment the NCMA declared its commitment to the great artistic achievements of our time, a commitment that continues to this day.

Anselm Kiefer, Untitled, 1980—86, oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac, lead, charcoal, and straw on photograph, mounted on canvas; with stones, lead, and steel cable; in three parts, Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina, W. R. Valentiner, and various donors, by exchange

The second conversation was with Dan Gottlieb, director of planning. He indicated that he thought we would be a good team in imagining and executing the plan for an art park, already in the works for a couple of years by then. I said yes, of course, and off we went to build the Park Theater and begin the infrastructure for the Park. Twenty years and more than $100 million later, we are still at it. The new West Building designed by Thomas Phifer is without question the great hallmark of my directorship, and the process of doing it was the most creative experience of my life.

Recently I came across an interview with me at the outset. The questioner probed as to how I would measure my success. I answered, making the great art collection that belonged to the people yet more significant and more meaningful to more lives. And on we go.

I thank each of you who bring your genius to the Museum every day. Look around you and see the difference you make. I am grateful for your partnership.

With highest regard,


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