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Light-Filled Building Opens at North Carolina Museum of Art
View of Rodin Gallery, NCMA. Courtesy North Carolina Museum of Art. Photo: © Scott Frances.

By: Martha Waggoner, Associated Press Writer

RALEIGH, NC (AP).- The North Carolina Museum of Art's new building marries light and white in a way that designers say shows off the works to their best advantage, leaving nothing to color visitors' view of the art.

The 127,000-square-foot expansion opens to the public April 24, but reporters got to see the approximately 750 works in their new home on Tuesday. The lightness and airiness of the museum are meant to emphasize the art, yet are as important to the building as the works themselves.

"We wanted to push it to the limit," Dan Gottlieb, the museum's director of planning and design, said of the lack of color.

If the design had included color on any wall, "we would have been compromising the singular notion of having this as an experience of light and art. ... This building is about making a pure experience so that whether it's a Renaissance painting or contemporary art, you're bringing natural light and the absence of color so that all that's left is the art work."

Even the museum's curator of European art — who was accustomed to seeing Old Masters hanging on deeply colored walls and was skeptical of the all-white concept — said he accepted the whiteness.

"I tell you, when you see them here, when you see the daylight coming in from the side, these pictures sing, and they look so different," curator David Steel said. "It's a different way of experiencing this collection. Even for me as a curator, who has lived with these pictures for more than 25 years, it's a revelation to see them in this kind of light."

New York-based architects Thomas Phifer and Partners designed the building, using light in a way that designers say has never been seen in a museum. The design includes protective elements such as ultraviolet filters, louvers and three layers of curtains. Sensors tell shades to drop when the sunlight is too bright.

The open floor plan — a sculpture hall serves as an axis from which 40 exhibition galleries feed — allow the museum to display casts of sculptures by Auguste Rodin in the middle of the floor, rather than up against the wall. The museum has more than 30 Rodin casts, some inside the building and others in a courtyard off the Rodin gallery and accessible from that gallery.

The design has allowed the museum to exhibit new large works — such as an 18-foot-by-25-foot contemporary piece by El Anatsui of Nigeria, made of bottle caps and pieces of liquor packaging — and small, older works, such as "Triumph of Chastity," from the workshop of Apollonia di Giovanni. It had never been exhibited at the old building with both sides visible because it hung on a wall.

The building was funded with $67 million in public money, continuing a tradition that began 1947, when the Legislature appropriated $1 million to purchase art.

"It's a long tradition," museum director Larry Wheeler said of the government support for the arts. "It's pretty peculiar, considering how poor North Carolina was in the '40s, pretty much an agrarian state, small towns. For them to believe that a mark of progression and civilization and good education was having the arts made available ... It's remarkable, really."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

The North Carolina Museum of Art | David Steel | Light-Filled Building |

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