by Catherine Kimrey Breeden
photographs of Ann Goodnight by Nick Pironio
At first glance, Ann Goodnight could be mistaken for any elegant woman seated fireside in the Umstead Hotel’s art-filled lobby on a wintry day. But as she settles in for a wide-ranging conversation at the hotel she built, it’s clear that this philanthropist, patron of the arts, and advocate for education reform is without peer.
Her work to support and improve public education policy in North Carolina is well documented. “My husband and I are products of public education,” she says, “and feel that it is important that today’s students have the same opportunity to succeed.” Her husband of 48 years is Jim Goodnight, founder of Cary-based analytics software giant SAS, who also advocates for strengthening public education at all levels, from pre-K through high school, and at the community college and university levels. “Education is the best investment we can make for the future, for children, and for economic well being,” Ann Goodnight says. As secretary of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, she has the influence she needs to make a difference.
And though her role as a collector of art is less well known, it’s also one with a major civic impact.
When Goodnight began collecting art years ago, she sought the advice of Larry Wheeler, director of the North Carolina Museum of Art. She wanted to do more than acquire museum-quality work to decorate her walls. She wanted to give it to the state, too.
“Jim and I came up with the idea that we would work in coordination with the museum in acquiring a collection that we will bequeath to them. That way we get to live with the beautiful art, and the museum will benefit in the future.”
But the museum – and by extension the public – doesn’t have to wait, because a number of the Goodnights’ major pieces are already on display.
Among them is John Trumbull’s Study for The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. John W. Coffey, the museum’s deputy director and curator of American and modern art, describes Trumbull as “the most celebrated painter of American history,” and says that “this study is likely the one that the artist gave to Thomas Jefferson. It is the only one of Trumbull’s history paintings that remains in private hands.” The others are in museums or hang in the rotunda of the U. S. Capitol.
The Goodnights chose to focus on American art “out of their own deep respect and love for the artistic heritage of this country,” Coffey says. “Great ideas are often best conveyed through memorable works of art. Jim and Ann understand that. Their collection, when it comes to the museum, will profoundly affect the way we present the American experience.”
He points out such masterpieces as George Bellows’ Dock Builders; Robert Vonnoh’s Grez; Childe Hassam’s Isles of Shoals, Appledore; and others. All of these are on view in the museum courtesy of the Goodnights, as is Claude Monet’s Waves at the Manneporte. The Monet is an anomaly in the collection since it is the only work not by an American painter. It does have an American connection, however, since the original owner was the great American portrait painter John Singer Sargent.
A common theme throughout the Goodnight collection is an emphasis on nature. This can be traced directly to Ann Goodnight’s discerning eye. “I like atmospheric, uncomplicated art,” she says.
Developing an eye
When her three children were small, Goodnight volunteered at NCMA and believes this is where her interest in the visual arts began. She remembers well how her collection got its start: “When Jim and I were living in our first home we bought some unsigned antique oils from the 17th and 18th century that were by itinerant painters.” She still has those pieces.
Today, one of Goodnight’s favorite and most prized paintings is Weather Side by Andrew Wyeth. She explains that it is a detailed depiction of the house in Maine that is central to Wyeth’s famous painting, Christina’s World, of a girl crawling up a hill. Weather Side is on loan to NCMA and is headed to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., this spring where it will be featured in a special exhibit: Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In.
“Weather Side is one of Wyeth’s major paintings,” says NCMA director Wheeler, “and one that any museum would love to own.”
In addition to paintings, Goodnight also has an avid interest in sculpture. “We are enthralled with the idea of the museum having a sculpture garden,” she says, visibly brightening, then sharing the news that she and her husband have acquired a new sculpture that will arrive at the museum in May. “You can get the details from Larry.”
Wheeler expands: The Goodnights have acquired Wind Sculpture II, a monumental outdoor work by the noted British artist Yinka Shonibare. It will be shipped from London and integrated into the NCMA’s Museum Park in the spring.
Goodnight’s affinity for sculpture is also evident on the corporate campus of SAS. Her favorite among the 20 or so large-scale pieces that she has selected and placed there is Fanfare, a 20-foot tall, bright-red, painted-steel work commissioned from Canadian artist Anne Allardyce. “I like its color, its Asian look, the way that it glows at night, and its uplifting and soaring presence in the middle of the campus,” Goodnight says.
Although she is intimately involved with SAS’s art selection and acquisition, Goodnight describes her primary role in the corporation as heading up its overall philanthropic mission. She also had the major role of creating Cary’s world-class Umstead Hotel and Spa.
She was hands-on with that project, just as she is hands-on selecting and curating her art. The extent of Goodnight’s involvement is clear when she describes how she had mock-ups of guest rooms constructed before they were built, and how she had the hotel relocated, literally, across a busy street from its original site – on the day before the actual construction began. The final site, adjacent to the SAS campus, allows for a naturally secluded parking area; the original site would have required underground parking.
The hotel itself is an integrated expression of her artistic vision. Goodnight travelled to quarries in Galveston, Texas, to select the exterior limestone that seamlessly blends the structure into the environment, and she installed a significant collection of painting, sculpture, and pottery throughout the hotel and grounds. Her pride in this collection is obvious as she escorts a visitor around the property, pointing out particular pieces and discussing the artists who created them.
A story about the collection’s centerpiece, an elegant blown-glass sculpture she commissioned from renowned artist Dale Chihuly, is a favorite. Only after its completion, she says, did Goodnight learn the serendipitous fact that Chihuly called the style of the graceful, flowing piece Ardea Figura, and that Ardea refers to a genus of large, strong-flying herons. Chihuly was unaware that Goodnight had named the hotel’s five-star restaurant Herons.
Goodnight is eager to give credit to every artist represented in her hotel’s collection. She is enthusiastic about each of them and knows the story behind all of their works. One that she singles out is Lynn Boggess, a West Virginia painter whose work she admires for the Impressionist way he portrays art in nature. She describes Boggess’ technique of using thick layers of paint, shaped with a cement trowel, to pull viewers into the scene. Several of his works are on display.
Goodnight also draws attention to the hotel’s large collection of pottery. Ben Owen III, a third-generation artist from North Carolina’s distinguished Owen family of potters, is widely represented, as is Mark Hewitt, a potter from England who lives and works in Pittsboro. Though she is enthusiastic about the accomplishments of the artists she champions, she is modest about her own, and eager to credit others with helping to achieve her goals. The proud mother of two daughters and a son, and the grandmother of three, Goodnight deflects attention.
“I have no formal education in the arts,” she says when asked about her involvement with NCMA, where she is also a member of the board. She credits the museum with “nurturing” her interests in the visual arts.
“Don’t let her modesty fool you,” says the NCMA’s Wheeler. “She already had the interest in and enthusiasm about art before getting involved with us. She believes in the integration of the arts into education, the community, and the workplace.”