Walter Profile: The Gregg Museum

Art and the Future
The new Gregg Museum celebrates both

by Liza Roberts
photographs by Keith Isaacs

When N.C. State opened the doors of its new Gregg Museum of Art & Design last month, the university unveiled a prominent landmark and an important new era for the visual arts on campus in a single stroke.

The museum provides “an opportunity to not only celebrate the arts and design at N.C. State,” says chancellor Randy Woodson, who helped spearhead its development, “but to welcome the community onto our campus in a new way.” Newly elegant, among other things. The Gregg’s picturesque home – a stone’s-throw from the N.C. State bell tower on Hillsborough Street – is a combination of the historic former chancellor’s residence and a just-completed, architecturally significant addition. Together they provide a sleek but understated showcase for the university’s encyclopedic collection of art and artifacts.

“There are too many art museums where the art plays second fiddle to the building,” says Gregg director Roger Manley. “We wanted the art to be the focus here.”

There’s a lot of it to focus on. The museum’s massive collection – which the university began to accumulate in the late ’40s, grew in the ’60s, first cataloged in the ’70s, created a home for at the Talley Student Union in the ’90s, and has kept in storage for the last few years – encompasses more than 35,000 objects. They range widely, and include textiles, Native American art, North Carolina pottery, Japanese prints, photography, and one of the state’s largest collections of outsider art. Some of it was acquired for educational purposes, some was donated, other objects were acquired to better represent the art of the state and region. A newly complete 330-page catalog was years in the making, and the first main exhibit in the museum’s new building takes the form of a broad, eclectic overview.

Also kicking things off, in a smaller gallery in the back of the new building, is an exhibit of paintings by the abstract artist Herb Jackson, which Manley says is Jackson’s first dedicated museum show in his own hometown. Stunningly lit on dark walls, the exhibit electrifies Jackson’s works, dramatically showcasing their color and energy. Also on view for the launch is a show of Native American art that fills the walls of the residence’s ground floor.

Dedicated team

It’s an impressive debut for the latest addition to Raleigh’s museum firmament, reflecting the determination of Woodson, Manley, a fleet of supporters, and the Gregg development team. None of it came together quickly. Manley and his colleagues spent years raising money and navigating roadblocks – some of them literal – before the 90-year-old, Hobart Upjohn-designed, 8,000 square-foot house could be fully renovated, and before its state-of-the-art, LEED-certified, 15,200 square-foot addition was ready to go.

All of it took time and money they hadn’t expected to spend. But through it all, Manley says, the Gregg’s supporters and the community at large rallied. “The story of the Gregg has been that people want to help,” he says.

That help came in the form of 400 donors, who contributed to the $10 million price tag, and success required the university’s perseverance. Manley and the construction team found themselves forced to maneuver around unmapped trolley tracks and wooden Civil War-era sewage pipes that blocked the course of the museum’s planned water line; they had to import excavators from the mountains to dig up a 20-foot-wide seam of granite that stood in the way of a new foundation; they had to take fiber-optic cables on an unexpectedly meandering underground detour, up the road and around the roundabout, just to get to campus. Somehow, they had to also keep the neighbors happy.

Flattering companion

Above ground, leading architects Perkins+Will focused on the purpose of their project and its symbiosis with the neighborhood, the landscape, and the existing chancellor’s residence. The resulting building has the good manners to flatter its century-older companion instead of outshine it.

“There were two driving inspirations” for the addition, says Kenneth Luker, design principal for the project at Perkins+Will. “One was the chancellor’s residence, and the second was the Gregg collection itself. The museum was an opportunity to bring together these two amazing assets, and give a new home to both of them.”

One sunny August morning before the grand opening, donors Lyn and Chip Andrews toured the new Gregg for the first time. “It’s incredible,” Lyn Andrews said, taking it in. “It’s kind of emotional to see it, to have this space.” She and her husband have been active supporters of the arts at N.C. State since the ’80s, when a push to create a museum first gathered steam, led in part by Chip Andrews, now an N.C. State trustee. He ultimately credits Woodson for making the new Gregg come to life. “You can have a vision, but you have to have someone who makes it work,” he said. “Without Randy, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Bing Sizemore, another donor seeing the Gregg for the first time, predicted that its impact on the life of the campus would be significant: “I think you could consider this the entrance to the school now.”

The new gateway features a “collection of gallery spaces that flow seamlessly, like patchwork on a quilt,” Luker says. The material chosen for the building’s exterior – a warm, indigenous eastern red cedar – was considered “appropriate for a residential-scale building,” Luker says, and “something you might imagine might be crafted the way the artists crafted the objects in the Gregg collection.”

Meantime, the former chancellor’s residence informed the new building’s horizontal lines, which are designed to echo its brick coursing and “horizontal quality.” Until recently, many Raleighites had never seen, much less admired, this former residence or its handsome lines, because it was hidden, as Manley jokes, “like Sleeping Beauty’s castle” behind “a Great Wall of China made of greenery.” Indeed, the Georgian mansion was for many years eclipsed by tall hedges, invisible to even its neighbors directly across Hillsborough Street.

Today, its grounds are clear, magnolia-shaded, and ready to impress. Still, “it was very important not to try to mimic the chancellor’s residence,” Perkins+Will’s Luker says. “We wanted it to be different, but we wanted it to be harmonious.” The new building’s modest profile – which belies its roomy interior – is also in harmony with the neighborhood, which includes houses, churches, and the burgeoning arts plaza comprised of Pullen Arts Center (getting ready for its own multi-million-dollar makeover) and the busy Theatre in the Park.

Roger Manley, director Gregg Museum

Sparking ideas

For director Roger Manley, the museum’s opening represents a finish line he’s worked hard to reach, as well as a beginning. For years, the Gregg’s director has been focused on making the museum a reality. Today, he has the Gregg to run, shows to curate, programming to plan, and new communities to foster. With such a massive collection at his disposal, it would seem he’d have no shortage of art to rotate through his new space; still, he’s eager to collaborate with other museums and universities to create exhibits he can’t on his own.

The result will not be “art for art’s sake,” he says. “I really think that art needs to do something. It needs to be about something. I’ve really had it with art that’s not about anything other than itself.”

His main audience, Manley, says, will be the students; the art he chooses to exhibit will have to “do something” for them. He describes his mission in a sentence: “The Gregg: Where objects spark ideas.” He expands: “You don’t come home from the Louvre and say, well, they can paint, so can I. Instead, you might want to throw away your brushes, if anything. But I want people to go away from here thinking: That’s a cool idea, I want to try that.”

A photographer himself and a renowned scholar of outsider art, Manley has a particular affinity for art that is “about problem-solving: art that is utilitarian first, and art secondarily.”

That fusion of art, education, inspiration, and purpose has a particularly fitting home at N.C. State. “We have been at the forefront of design since the College of Design was opened in the ’40s,” Woodson says. “And companies like Apple have pointed out the critical role design plays in new technology. This museum has given us an opportunity to not only celebrate the arts at N.C. State, but do it in a way that’s really relevant to our history in science and technology.”