The Building of a Cultural Legacy: The Expansion of North Carolina Museums

Contact Info : Bridgette A. Lacy
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Phone : (919) 807-6520

The Levine Center for the Arts has transformed South Tryon Street, once known as Charlotte's Wall Street, into one of the South's most dynamic cultural corridors.

The uptown location is still lined with financial institutions and older office buildings. But it has been revived with a cultural complex that houses the new Mint Museum Uptown along with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Knight Theatre and the nearby Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

Residents and visitors alike are flocking uptown to see the bold architecture and to revel in the smorgasbord of museums and their collections in this new arts district. Richard Maschal, the retired art and architecture writer for The Charlotte Observer, calls the Levine Center for the Arts a "great feast. There are different flavors, different experiences and different ways to approach it. The museums and Gantt Center have different missions but they relate to each other and you can sample all of them."

But the Levine Center for the Arts is more than fine buildings and great art; it's a new gathering place for Charlotteans and visitors alike.

"The cultural complex encourages active engagement of art in the city," said Ken Lambla, the dean of the UNC Charlotte's College of Arts + Architecture. "It's not just about seeing art. The Levine Center acts to engage the city and the citizens with art every day."

During the past year, N.C. has witnessed a cultural explosion with the opening and expansion of several museums across the state including the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh with its new contemporary one-story building and additions to its extensive collection. So art lovers have plenty to see and do in N.C.

Mint Museum Uptown

The Mint Museum Uptown now houses the collections from the Mint Museum of Craft + Design and selected collections from the Mint Museum Randolph in one building.

Lambla likens the new five-story Mint to an urban villa, all-encompassing with its two floors of galleries, a grand room, a pavilion and a 240-seat auditorium. The architects, Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti of Boston, Mass., created a 145,000-square-foot museum designed for versatility against the backdrop of Duke Energy's Tower.

"Historically, the villa is a place for display, a place for reflection and engagement and a meditation of who we are and how we interpret artists and their work," Lambla explains.

And surely there's a lot to captivate the mind of any viewer starting with the collections from the Museum of Craft + Design, recognized internationally for its superb collection of glass, wood, metal, clay, fiber, studio furniture and jewelry.

The 18,000-square-foot gallery, organized by medium and subject, is anchored by a stunning glass piece titled Threshold by Danny Lane. The commissioned work of floating glass on molten tin reflects light in amazing ways.

Threshold features colorful glass shapes behind a glass veil that change as the viewer walks the length of the piece. "Everything is shifting," said Lane while installing the three-dimensional, 12,000-pound masterpiece last August.

Lane's work is a part of Project Ten Ten Ten highlighting the new work of 10 artists during the October 2010 opening of the new Mint, said Annie Carlano, director of Craft + Design. She explains, "Ten artists, tenth month, tenth year...The new works reinvigorate the collection."

These creations will become a part of the strong collection that includes the work of fiber artist Claire Zeisler, textile artist John Garrett, sculptor Brent Skidmore and woodturner Binh Pho, known for singular turned and pierced wood vessels inspired by his journey from Vietnam to America such as the museum's Realm of Dreams.

The other gallery is dedicated to the Mint Randolph's American Art and Contemporary Art collections and selected works from its European Art collection. The Mint Museum's contemporary art collection includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, photography, installations and artists' books.

Special highlights within the collection include groups of works by Charlotte-born collagist Romare Bearden and renowned photographer Ansel Adams. The Mint Museum houses the largest public collection of Bearden's artwork, displaying his works in prints, paintings and collage. The artist's brief childhood in Charlotte and frequent visits to the South made a noteworthy impact on his art.

Several new acquisitions are displayed within the galleries. In 2008, the Mint Museum commissioned American artist Ken Aptekar to create a new interpretation of its 18th-century Portrait of Queen Charlotte to hang in the new museum. Titled Charlotte's Charlotte, Aptekar's painting reinterprets the Mint's coronation portrait.

Based largely on community input, the artist has created six panels which examine the British Queen's diverse interests, vulnerability as a young woman and African ancestry.

Within the video gallery is a presentation of William Kentridge's internationally renowned video Stereoscope, which is on loan to the museum from The Broad Art Foundation in Santa Monica, California.

American Art

The American art galleries in the Mint Museum Uptown will debut with a completely new installation that combines paintings, sculpture and works on paper with selections from the Museum's Decorative Arts and Historic Costume and Fashionable Dress collections. In preparation for the reinstallation, more than 25 paintings and seven frames were conserved to restore them to their original beauty.

The first two galleries of the American installation focus on works created between approximately 1750 and 1850. The majority of the paintings on view are examples of American portraiture, including an early 19th-century portrait by American master John Singleton Copley, St. Cecilia, a Portrait (1803).

In the third gallery, visitors can trace the rise of American landscape painting in the 19th and early 20th centuries as well as the continued importance of foreign cultures to the development of American art. As the Americans began to explore and expand the country's boundaries during the 1800s, a new generation of artists -- including Thomas Cole and Sanford Gifford, whose paintings anchor the gallery -- emerged to record its peaks, valleys, plains and rivers in their splendor. By the end of the 19th century, the tightly painted details and wilderness scenery of the Hudson River School gave way to the spontaneous, broken brushwork, bright palette and more suburban subject matter of impressionism, which can be seen in paintings by Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase and Alson Skinner Clark.

The fourth and fifth galleries present works created between 1900 and 1945, an era during which American artists were working in a wide range of styles and embracing a broad range of subjects. The Mint boasts examples by many of the Ashcan School artists, including Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, Ernest Lawson and George Bellows. Additional paintings by early American modernist artists such as Edward Middleton Manigault, John Marin, Blanche Lazzell and Theodoros Stamos are displayed alongside the work of artists who, in reaction to the rise of abstraction, sought a return to more traditional styles and a more distinctly "American" subject matter.

The museum opened with two major inaugural exhibitions. New Visions: Contemporary Masterworks from the Bank of America Collection presents works from 1945 through the early 1990s by artists including Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Elizabeth Murray and Jennifer Bartlett. The exhibition runs through April 17, 2011.

The other exhibition, Contemporary British Studio Ceramics: The Grainer Collection, includes functional and sculptural objects made from the 1980s to 2009 by 100 artists including Lucie Rie, Julian Stair, Kate Malone, Neil Brownsword and Grayson Perry. This collection is on display through March 13, 2011.

Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

Before you even enter the museum, Firebird, an outdoor sculpture created by the late French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle, grabs your attention. Standing 17-feet 5-inches tall facing South Tryon Street and presiding over the Levine Center for the Arts, Firebird is a whimsical, bird-like creature covered from top to bottom in pieces of mirrored and colored glass.

"It was an immediate sensation," Lambla said.

If the new Mint is the grand cornerstone of the Levine Center for the Arts, the Bechtler is its jewel. The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art is an elegant cube of a building. Design architect Mario Botta pays meticulous attention to detail, Lambla said.

Lambla points to the crisp outline of the four-story, terracotta building against the skyline. "The distinctively Swiss modernism is represented in the clear massing, geometry, order and careful detailing. These qualities work at the urban level by presenting a very clear form as you move up through the streets that the building faces," he said.

The Bechtler is only the second museum designed in the United States by Botta. He also designed the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

"We consider the building to be the largest piece in the Bechtler collection," said John Boyer, the museum's president and CEO.

The museum is named after the family of Andreas Bechtler, a Charlotte resident for almost 40 years and native of Switzerland who inherited and assembled a collection of more than 1,400 pieces of modern art. The collection reflects most of the important art movements including expressionism, cubism and pop art. It also has a significant number of pieces representing the School of Paris, a loosely connected group of artists who worked in Paris post World War II.

Called a "boutique" museum for its size and focus, the Bechtler is the only visual arts facility dedicated to the collection and exhibition of mid-20th-century modern art in the southeastern United States.

"The Bechtler has a good collection of post World War II, 1945 and modern art," says Maschal. "It's mostly European and tells the story of the Bechtler family that collected the art. It's great to have it here. People in North Carolina were not collecting this type of art. It shows a time and place and art movement that you wouldn't see otherwise."

Andreas Bechtler's parents, Hans and Bessie, collected the art and sometimes became friends of the artists. The collection even includes the first piece of art bought by Andreas Bechtler himself: Sam Francis' abstract oil on canvas entitled As for Appearance II. Bechtler grew to love art as much as his parents and his sister, who inherited the other half of the parent's collection.

Visitors are greeted with Andy Warhol's colorful portraits of the Bechtler family exhibited in the museum lobby. Most of the art in this museum has not been seen since it was in the Bechtler family's private collection.

The Bechtler collection offers works by seminal figures of 20th-century modernism such as Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró, Georges Rouault, Max Ernst, Le Corbusier, Nicolas de Stael and others. The work on view represents only 10 percent of the collection, so guests may see different works from the permanent collection each time they visit.

Harvey B. Gantt Center

Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture is a narrow slice of a building with an exterior that resembles a living quilt, representing change, confrontation and engagement with the city.

The center was designed by Durham architect Phil Freelon, whose firm the Freelon Group has designed more African-American themed museums and cultural centers than any other firm in the country. His buildings include the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore and the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco.

He was also selected to help design the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.

Lambla describes Freelon as a modern architect whose buildings are "simple, elegant, honest and playful."

In an interview with Inform Architecture and Design magazine in the June 21, 2010, issue, Freelon says he wanted to pay homage to Charlotte's Brooklyn neighborhood, a once thriving black community wiped out by desegregation and urban renewal in the 1960s. The Gantt Center is located in that historic neighborhood.

He took into account Charlotte's first grade school for African-Americans: the Myers Street School, which was nicknamed the Jacob's Ladder School because of its large staircase shaped like an inverted U. Jacob's ladder has a biblical reference of climbing to a higher level. For some African-Americans, education was the ladder from poverty to success.

Freelon created a symbolic connection to the school with that same U-shape running up the middle of the Gantt Center.

"What we're trying to say is that there was a community here in a historical neighborhood," Freelon said in the magazine interview. "What we're trying to say is that part of what it means to be African-American is to make something out of nothing. Fabricating a delicious meal out of leftover parts of a pig, or taking a truck and car ramp to feed high-end mixed-used development, and turning that into something magic."

So despite the site presenting limitations because of two existing underground tunnels and its elongated configuration 60-feet wide by 400-feet deep, Freelon used his ingenuity

The Gantt Center houses three galleries, a multipurpose room along with offices, classroom space and a beautiful rooftop terrace. The center was built in part to house the 58-piece John and Vivian Hewitt collection purchased in 1998 by NationsBank, the predecessor of Bank of America. The Hewitt Collection is comprised of paintings, prints and drawings by 20 African-American artists including Romare Bearden's Homage to Mary Lou, a lithograph also known as the Piano Lesson based on an encounter between Bearden's wife, a dancer and jazz pianist, and composer Mary Lou Williams. The collection features mainly figurative pieces that include work by John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Jonathan Green and Jacob Lawrence.

The art was a gift for what was then called the Afro-American Cultural Center with the agreement that the art needed a suitable space for display with climate control and security.

Dr. Michael D. Harris, the consulting curator for the Gantt Center, explains that the Hewitts were a New York couple with modest means, but over the years they quietly collected some of the most interesting and accomplished work by artists.

Maschal considers the Hewitt collection, "a solid selection of African-American art" that is smaller in scale than some typical gallery pieces because it was originally bought to keep in a home, not in a large institutional space.

"The Hewitt collection was the seed," said Harris, who is encouraging the Gantt Center to buy pieces from younger artists such as Radcliffe Bailey, an Atlanta-based artist whose work tells the story of his African-American heritage by combining photographs, found objects, local idioms, historical facts, cultural references and celebratory colors while incorporating veiled and obvious meanings into his paintings. One of his pieces was purchased by the Gantt Center in 2009.

"Now, we're trying to build a strong, permanent collection," he said. After an initial showing, the Hewitt collection will be taken down temporarily to make way for two special exhibitions that will run through Jan. 23, 2011. One is entitled Protégé: Sam Gilliam and Kevin Cole and features the work of abstract artist Gilliam and his protégé Cole. Gilliam is internationally recognized as the foremost contemporary African-American color field painter and lyrical abstractionist. Color field painting is a style of abstract work inspired by European modernism.

Cole works in a range of media and uses repetitive forms and color to create three-dimensional structures that invite viewers to reflect upon abstracted references to objects such as a necktie which could represent status, beauty, fashion or, more ominously, the destruction of human life.

The other exhibition is Charlotte Collects African American Art. These pieces are from Charlotte collectors including a cardiologist, dentists, businessmen and Congressman Mel Watt and former Charlotte Mayor and the center's namesake, Harvey Gantt. The exhibition features cultural masterpieces by world renowned and emerging artists, including some of the same artists in the Hewitt collection such as Charlotte's own Romare Beaden and Elizabeth Catlett. Rising stars such as Nick Cave and Willie Little are also featured.

"The Gantt Center is more than the Hewitt collection," says Harris. "It's the foundation that we want to build on."

North Carolina Museum of Art

The new N.C. Museum of Art blends nature and art in its one-story, sun-filled rectangular building constructed of gleaming white aluminum panels arranged like pleats. The museum, located on 164 acres of rolling landscape, has a sophisticated feel with walking paths, bike trails and outdoor sculpture.

Thomas Phifer and Partners of New York designed the museum's 127,000-square-foot gallery building featuring five gardens including a Rodin garden, several outdoor courtyards and a walking trail. The spacious museum is flooded with light, giving it a contemplative and quiet atmosphere. The natural light comes from half of the museum's exterior walls being made out of glass and the 362 skylights masked by white fiberglass coffers.

"NCMA is most significant for its integration of landscape, framing internal views of art in ethereal light emulating the creative process itself, and literally drawing viewers to see art manifest in our shared, multiple lives," Lambla says. The new $72.3 million N.C. Museum of Art opened last April after breaking ground in December 2006.

The expansion project also transformed the museum's original building, designed by the eminent architect Edward Durell Stone, into a dynamic center for temporary exhibitions, education and public programs and public events.

Phifer has created many award-winning designs throughout his 35-year career ranging from the restoration and revitalization of historic Castle Clinton, a lower Manhattan national monument with a new performing arts addition, to the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Salt Lake City, Utah, which introduces a new architectural vocabulary to the city's historic district.

"We really, obviously, didn't want a building that shouted," said Phifer. "We wanted it to kind of dissolve."

In an interview with Phifer on the N.C. Museum of Art's Web site, Phifer said that museum Director Dr. Lawrence J. Wheeler wanted a fresh approach to showing the art. "The objective was to change the perception by changing the architectural approach to presenting pictures and sculpture and the collection."

As soon as you enter the building, you see art. There's no big foyer or staircase separating the visitor from the art. The museum's permanent collection spans 5,000 years starting with ancient Egypt to contemporary pieces such as Devorah Sperber's After the Mona Lisa, her take on Leonardo da Vinci's iconic portrait turned upside down and made out of spools of thread.

Unlike the original building, the galleries flow from one to the other, often with a painting placed strategically to lure visitors from one gallery into the next. The various galleries are Modern and Contemporary, European, American, Egyptian, Classical, African, Ancient American, Judaic and Rodin Court and Garden.

The N.C. Museum of Art has the largest collection of Auguste Rodin sculpture in the Southeast with 30 works, 24 inside and six outside, not including the a large version of The Thinker currently on loan. It also has the distinction of being one of two museums with a permanent Judaic art display.

The museum added some 50 new works of art including African artist El Anatsui's site-specific metal sculpture The Lines That Link Humanity, a colorful metal quilt made out of bottle caps and alcohol packaging. There are a total of 750 works on view.

Touring the museum is enhanced by the new Cell Phone Tour, which features a curator talking about various pieces of work and providing background about the artists to visitors with cell phones or audio players. It's like an informal talk with a curator. There's also the Sound Track Experience, an audio tour that pairs works of art with audio clips, such as music and interviews. Visitors can borrow MP3 players from the information desk.

"The North Carolina Museum of Art has one of the best collections in the Southeast," Maschal said. "It's one of North Carolina's best kept secrets."

Not for long.

About the North Carolina Arts Council

The North Carolina Arts Council works to make North Carolina The Creative State where a robust arts industry produces a creative economy, vibrant communities, children prepared for the 21st century and lives filled with discovery and learning. The Arts Council accomplishes this in partnership with artists and arts organizations, other organizations that use the arts to make their communities stronger and North Carolinians—young and old—who enjoy and participate in the arts. For more information visit

The N.C. Arts Council is a division of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, the state agency with the mission to enrich lives and communities and the vision to harness the state's cultural resources to build North Carolina's social, cultural and economic future. Information on Cultural Resources is available at