Art History

The NC Museum of Art in Raleigh is undergoing a major reinstallation | Pro Club Bd

Ian Larson, Chief Art Handler, North Carolina Museum of Art, works with his team at the European Gallery on Tuesday, August 2, 2022 in Raleigh, NC October 2022.

Ian Larson, Chief Art Handler, North Carolina Museum of Art, works with his team at the European Gallery on Tuesday, August 2, 2022 in Raleigh, NC October 2022.

In October, on the 75th anniversary of the state legislature providing funds to build the People’s Collection, the North Carolina Museum of Art will unveil a completely revamped collection. It will feature new thematic and interpretive galleries, as well as numerous special commissions, loans and newly acquired works.

It is the People’s Collection’s first major new installation since 2010 and aims to challenge the traditional presentation of art in museums by geography and chronology. This can marginalize or exclude works by historically marginalized groups.

Instead, the new exhibition aims to create connections between art across time and place, expanding the narratives and representations on display and increasing the accessibility of art and museum.

“The driving force and direction is to present what we see as a much expanded and fuller narrative, and I would also like to emphasize a more accurate narrative,” said chief curator Linda Dougherty.

This shift places the NC Art Museum in a larger shift in the museum world as a younger generation of curators enter the field, adopting historical practices and interpretations of art history that have served to exclude or devalue certain artists and groups, Dougherty said.

For director Valerie Hillings, the reinstallation represents a signature project “to really transform the stories that could be told” through the collection. The project began when she received a grant from the Mellon Foundation early in her tenure as a director in 2018.

“The whole goal here is really to remind the people of North Carolina that everything here belongs to the people of North Carolina. It’s the People’s Collection,” Hillings said. “And that’s why we hope to get information about the collection outside the walls through all our different channels.”

The marble sculpture of Saul under the influence of the evil spirit by William Wetmore Story is protected at the American Gallery as the museum undertakes a reinstallation of their collection on Tuesday August 2, 2022 at Raleigh, NC Robert Willett

The museum’s west building has been closed to the public since late May, and much of the east building has been closed since January.

The museum will fully reopen with a series of events on October 8th and 9th.

Made in Americas and other new galleries

As part of the new installation, five new themed galleries will be presented, focusing on portraiture and power, Egypt and Africa, America, art conservation, and interdisciplinary and multimedia art.

The galleries are organized so that “we pick an idea and we take work from each part of the collection to tell that story,” Dougherty said, pointing to an expansive scale model of the West Building full of miniature art and sticky notes. The curators call the model “doll’s house” and use it to plan the new installation.

Made in Americas, for example, will integrate the collection’s ancient American and American art to illustrate their relationships with each other and with the wider world. “The Africa We Should Know” will bring the Egyptian and African works in the collection together where they were previously separated, “to celebrate that Africa is a continent where empires have prospered over millennia, each becoming a fascinating antiquity and a vibrant history that extends into a dynamic and creative present,” the museum said in a press release.

“There are ideas and themes and narratives that appear in art across the ages and around the world. And we want to draw your attention to all of these ideas that we have in common,” Dougherty said.

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A model of the reinstallation of her collection at the North Carolina Museum of Art allows staff to see the flow and placement of works such as this new interactive, rotating themed space on Tuesday, August 2, 2022 in Raleigh, NC Robert Willett

The reorganization means that certain exhibits will be moved to new locations in the museum. The Jewish art collection, for example, is placed in the middle of the European collection in order to place it in a European and religious context.

“Context really affects how you look at a work of art,” Dougherty said. “I always say that you can move a painting from one gallery to another and look at it in a very different way because of the conversations it has with the other artworks.”

What else to expect

Five site-specific commissions, including a new permanent installation by Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno and year-long exhibitions by Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj and North Carolina artists Elizabeth Alexander and JP Jermaine Powell, will also make their debuts.

The collection will feature newly acquired works by Indigenous sculptor Marie Watt, North Carolinian Endia Beal, South African multimedia artist William Kentridge, African American and Indigenous artist Edmonia Lewis and more.

Around 100 loans from museums such as the National Gallery of Art, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill and the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center in Asheville will be included in the collection.

The reinstallation will also introduce a Community Voices program, which will feature comments from 20 North Carolina natives in conversation with labels written by curators on various objects in the collection.

The Community Voices program, which will include artists, students, civic leaders, journalists and nutrition activists, is intended to further the museum’s goal of “connecting with our audiences and our visitors,” Hillings said. “The way a curator talks about an artwork is often very different from the general public, why they like something and why they react to it.”

Ian Larson, Chief Art Handler, North Carolina Museum of Art, works with his team at the European Gallery on Tuesday, August 2, 2022 in Raleigh, NC October 2022. Robert Willett

To increase accessibility to the museum and its collection, wall texts will be translated into both English and Spanish in the new installation, and QR codes will appear in all galleries to provide visitors with more information and context.

The museum is also aware that there will not be one way to experience the collection. Instead, the curators hope that the collection can evoke a certain “visual curiosity” and resonance in the viewer and their own everyday lives.

“We’re just trying to loosen it up so the visitor can choose and be offered different levels to approach,” Hillings said. “We’ll keep looking [the collection]evaluate what would be interesting to change and continue to respond to audiences and how the world is changing.”

A race to the finish

Two months after reopening, the West Building is still full of light and artwork. Many of the building’s white walls are marked with cardboard placeholders in place of the paintings that depict them.

Rodin sculptures stand on their pedestals, wrapped in protective plastic, and the sound of drilling echoes through the lobby. A huge commission stands partially completed, with its various elements at the ready while the on-site artist works to complete it.

The museum is on track to complete the reinstallation in time for the reopening. But it’s a race to the finish, as curators put finishing touches on galleries and on-site teams reorganize more than a thousand artworks.

Ian Larson, the museum’s chief arts administrator, and his team orchestrated thousands of art movements for the new installation.

Meghan Olis, director of collections and exhibitions management, coordinates the planning of all these maneuvers to ensure that when a work needs to be moved, it has a clear landing pad. And Maggie Gregory, Head of Collections and Lead Registrar, has kept a close eye on each work to ensure nothing gets lost in the mix.

“It’s almost like playing a jigsaw puzzle,” Olis said of coordinating the reinstallation. “It was a hell of a long schedule.”

And while teams are on track to complete the reinstallation, Olis found that supply chain issues and staffing shortages due to COVID-19 have slowed the process.

“It takes a whole village to do a restructuring like that,” Larson said. The art handling team consists of six people. “It’s a great way to learn about the collection because I’ll have literally touched every single piece of art the museum owns,” he added by the time the reinstallation is complete.

“These kinds of big projects will either make or break a team. And for us it really brought everyone together,” said Olis. “I’m looking forward to the finished product and to being able to walk around and be proud of how hard we’ve worked.”

In the meantime, through August 21, visitors can enjoy Becoming the NCMA: 10 Decades of Collecting, 1924-2022 in the East Building and Outlandish: Photographs by Ralph Burns | Photographs from the collection of Allen G. Thomas Jr.” August 20-February 12.

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Kayla is a reporter doing an internship at The News & Observer on the subway this summer. Originally from Long Island, New York, Kayla is a senior at Brown University, where she studies public policy and previously served as the editor-in-chief of the university’s independent student newspaper. You can reach them at or (919) 829-4570.

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