Sixty Years Ago Today

Sixty years ago today, on April 6, 1956, the North Carolina Museum of Art first opened its doors–in the renovated State Highway Division Building on Morgan Street in downtown Raleigh. Since then the NCMA has moved to Blue Ridge Road, opened a second gallery building, and expanded its 164-acre Park–all the while building memories with visitors and staff. To celebrate this special anniversary, NCMA staff members look back on their favorite memories of the Museum–from cherished childhood visits to unforgettable interactions with visitors. We invite you to share your Museum memories in the comment section, too!

A school group visiting the NCMA at its original location on Morgan Street, 1963John Coffey, Deputy Director for Art and Curator of American and Modern Art

I remember riding my bicycle downtown during hot summer days in the mid-1960s. At the time the NCMA was located in a stolid brick government building a block off Union Square. (The building still stands, still sporting a Doric portal with MUSEUM OF ART carved majestically on the lintel.) The Museum became a haven for me, not so much because of the art but because it was air conditioned. Drenched from the summer heat, I would slip through the Doric portal into a world of marble cool and hushed voices. One memory persists: the odor of old paintings: a heady blend of attic dust, beeswax, and spilt wine. It was not unpleasant. Even now, when I catch a whiff of that distinctive eau de mus©e, I am transported back to the chill galleries of paintings, and it’s 1967. Hey, hey, LBJ!

Staff signatures, 2007Jennifer Crow, Business and Personnel Officer

I remember the staff getting the chance to sign in permanent marker one of the beams that was going up in the new building (now called West Building) as it was being built. We signed it on 12/13/07, and now it’s a part of the permanent structure of the Museum with staff names from that time.

Marsden Hartley, Indian Fantasy, 1914, 46 11/16 x 39 5/16 in., oil on canvas, Purchased with funds from the State of North CarolinaLyle Humphrey, Curatorial Fellow

I grew up in Greensboro, and my mother brought me to the state art museum for the first time around 1986. The Edward Durrell Stone building (now East Building) had just opened three years before. What I remember is seeing Marsden Hartley’s Indian Fantasy (1914). Hartley’s work was unfamiliar to me, but I was captivated by this image’s monumentality and modernism–its abstracted representation of recognizable native American imagery. I remember leaving the building feeling impressed by the collection in general, and wondering, “How long has this institution been here, in this isolated spot, right off Highway 40, not far from my hometown?”

Egyptian Gallery tourLaura Finan, Assistant to the Chief Deputy Director and Chief Financial Officer; Project Manager, Art in Bloom

My favorite story so far is from when I was doing a guard-duty shift in the Ancient/Egyptian galleries during the M. C. Escher exhibition.

I was keeping an eye on one family in particular because they had about six very lively kids with them, and their enthusiasm had me worried something would be knocked over or broken. One of the boys, probably around nine years old, ran full tilt toward the case containing a six-inch figure of Isis and Horace. He stopped short and yelled, “Look! Egyptian action figures!,” and it made my week.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Portrait of Emy, 1919, 28 5/16 x 25 3/4 in., oil on canvas, Bequest of W. R. ValentinerJennifer Dasal, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art

I was working a family crafts booth during our West Building Grand Opening celebration, and a little girl and her mother were collaging with an image of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s Portrait of Emy.

The mother asked, “Can you tell me what you see in this picture?”

“It’s a clown puppy!” responded the little girl excitedly.

I burst out laughing with joy, and now it’s hard for me NOT to think of poor Emy as a “clown puppy.” It is also a lovely reminder to consider the many, many ways that a work of art may be viewed, understood, and enjoyed by different people.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Ogromna, 2009, H. 20 ft. 7 in x W. 12 ft. 4 in. x D. 11 ft. 8 in., cedar and graphite, Commissioned with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest)Jennifer Coon, Tours and Docent Education Coordinator

I love seeing couples looking at art together, artsy-looking students with creative outfits on, and the group of pregnant women who exercise in the Park. I also love seeing people who are not just casually looking around but intently studying a work of art. And I love seeing docents start up their magic with a group of children about to head off into the galleries on an adventure.

One sunny morning while driving along our entrance road, I saw two men stop and look up at the Ursula von Rydingsvard sculpture that looms beside West Building. They stopped for a minute and then gave each other a big hug and kiss. I wish I could have heard their comments!

John James Audubon, Carolina Parrot, from The Birds of America, 1827—38, hand-colored aquatint/engraving on Whatman paper, 40 x 26 in., Transfer from the North Carolina State LibraryCaterri Woodrum, Chief Deputy Director and Chief Financial Officer

Here are just a few things I love about the NCMA:

  1. The Save-a-Bird Campaign–a fund-raising effort to conserve and maintain the Audubon folios. When I first started at the Museum, people kept talking about the Save-a-Bird fund. It took several weeks for me to finally ask what this fund was about. Until then I was convinced that we had people wanting to protect or feed wild birds in the Park!
  2. Ghosts! I have heard many a ghost story from some of our long-term security staff about strange occurrences in East Building. Tales include sudden cold spots, erratic blinking lights, humidity dials adjusting all on their own before your very eyes, and (my favorite) the semi-translucent woman in the long flowing white gown who mysteriously shows up in the wee hours of the night on the Office Level. I can only say that I’ve spent many an all-nighter on the Office Level prepping for some board meeting or some financial deadline, and I’ve yet to encounter the flowing lady of the night.
  3. The art tunnel! What fun to have a long tunnel between our two buildings that serves all kinds of purposes, from art transportation to tornado shelter! I’m convinced that the Museum’s East Building is the safest place in Wake County to weather a major destructive storm.

Frederick Carl Frieseke, The Garden Parasol, circa 1910, 57 1/8 x 77 in., oil on canvas, Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina, 1973, and dedicated in memory of Moussa M. Domit, Director of the North Carolina Museum of Art (1974—80), by the NCMA Board of Trustees, 2008Janis Treiber, Education Program Assistant

I’m thinking of two pictures, one from 1998 and one from 2002. In the first, my family had just relocated from downtown Chicago. I immediately took my boys (two years and four years old) to a fun Saturday class at the NCMA. They studied The Garden Parasol by Frederick Carl Frieseke, learning about color and costumes and creating their own hats based on their interpretation of the work. So sweet!

In the second photo, the boys, now six and eight, are posing in front of a poster of The Garden Parasol in East Building after enjoying an Easter brunch. Little did they know that the next stop was across the street, at Rex Hospital, where their little sister was to be born.

I have fond memories of The Garden Parasol and my family through the years and wonder what Frieseke’s masterpiece will be the backdrop for next: graduations, marriages, grandchildren, who knows!

Caroline Rocheleau, Curator of Ancient Art

I love it that the NCMA offers the world to its visitors. Not everything is on view at the same time, but visitors can immerse themselves in the wonderful art of different cultures and historical periods.

Now it’s your turn: please share a favorite Museum memory in the comments!

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