The Art of Renewal

A thank-you to the arts leaders who navigated us through tough times — and a charge for the next era.
by Larry Wheeler

photo by Gus Samarco

Spring! How sweet the sound, as the warmer weather begins to soften the cacophony of disruption, disillusion, and despair that infused our year past. 

Yes, the arts are still here, stimulating our psyches in inventive new ways and supplying essential energy to the world around us.

As we reckon with the importance of the arts in our community — at this time in particular — it is important to salute those among us who quietly have assured that opportunities to engage with art and artists have not been diminished. Every art organization, artist, and patron deserves a standing ovation.

To survive, our arts community had to pivot and innovate — but the infrastructure was there, the result of decades of work. At Artspace, for example, online summer camps and Instagram Live presentations of artist conversations brought art to the community during tough times. Former CEO Mary Poole, who retired at the end of last year after 18 years, had long led the charge in reshaping, physically and programmatically, the central presence for art and artists in the heart of the city. Notably, she led the acquisition of the warehouse-style building where artists maintain studios and interact with a growing number of art-curious visitors. 

Another downtown arts leader, Gab Smith, took her leave last fall. Starting in 2013, Gab was the welcoming face of CAM, Raleigh’s contemporary art museum. Under her leadership, excellent and often controversial exhibitions were created. Gab has been tireless in expanding the reach and funding for the acclaimed middle-school docent program, creating a new pipeline for young people to get experience in the arts. 

I hired Gab in 1998 to be the director of visitor and volunteer services at the North Carolina Museum of Art. She did exemplary work in making the museum more inclusive by engaging volunteers from all sectors of the community in special exhibitions and the development of the museum park. Her work lives on in that institution, as well.

Speaking of the NCMA, director Valerie Hillings has provided impressive leadership during these tough times. The museum park has remained open as a refuge to all and its online arts experiences have kept us entertained, engaged, and educated.

As we move deeper into 2021, with the hopeful reopening of institutions at normal capacity, it has also become clear that we can’t operate as we were before. The events of last year offer a directive to reconcile with our pasts and with the structures of our institutions, and to move forward with an eye towards equity and inclusivity.

Much of this work was already in progress; I commend Gab, in particular, for lifting up the creative voices of artists including Martine Gutierrez, Maya Freelon, Leonardo Drew, and Estevan Oriol to stimulate our connection to the socio-cultural issues of our time. But now is the time to do the work even more boldly, with full transparency. And as I look around, I see that every organization, large or small, is redirecting its limited resources to make themselves anew. This bodes well for the community at large.

I offer loud applause to Valerie and the NCMA for hiring key professionals from a range of backgrounds and for amplifying cultural diversity and inclusion throughout the museum’s strategic plan. Maya Brooks was recently appointed as the Mellon Foundation assistant curator; her role will involve creating new cultural perspectives on the art collection through program and exhibition initiatives. And Moses T. Alexander Greene, after leading the African American Cultural Center at North Carolina State University, will take the helm as director of film and performing arts, the popular centerpiece of the museum’s public program, indoors and out. His recent innovation, NCMA Jukebox, broadcasts music of all cultural expressions throughout the park to great popular acclaim.  

Closing my paean to spring I salute the refreshing contributions of my friends Lizzie McNairy, Marjorie Hodges, and Allen Thomas for their innovative and important web enterprises. Through the Matrons & Mistresses website, Lizzie focuses on female artists, new and historic, from a broad range of backgrounds. She highlights interviews, programs, and exhibitions that bring our attention to these talented but too often unsung voices. Artsuite is a new online platform created by Marjorie and Allen to showcase the art marketplace, with insights on trends and diverse makers worthy of the attention of collectors and advocates. 

Catharsis, the cleansing of our souls, is made possible in our lives by the arts — and those who make art. It turns difficult times into more hopeful times. So as this spring blooms, may we create our own personal odes of welcome to this remarkable season and the enriching energy it brings.  

Larry Wheeler is director emeritus of the NCMA, where he served as CEO for nearly 25 years. He currently is an advisor to collectors of contemporary art and to institutions seeking to activate the arts in their mission.