Celebrate Good Times

A good way to leave is to leave a good impression, and Larry Wheeler is doing just that. On September 22, friends, donors, artists, and other cultural enthusiasts joined Larry at the North Carolina Museum of Art to celebrate 24 years of his leadership as the Museum’s esteemed executive director. Larry will retire in November.

The unforgettable evening brought new life to much of the art that will become Larry’s legacy. Performers and movement artists stood before familiar works — in that often edgy and unsettling space between art and observer — and beckoned attendees to know the works more intimately. “You belong here,” the performers seemed to say. “This is yours.” And it is. As Larry likes to point out, every brush stroke, pixel, and casted hunk of metal in the Museum’s permanent collection belongs to the people of North Carolina.

“The belief that art is for everyone is at the core of my being,” he told the Raleigh News & Observer last November when he announced his retirement. “I would never have taken this leadership role if I did not believe it was an opportunity to make art, the great treasures created by the hands of man, available to as many people as possible.”

Over the course of the last 24 years, Larry has put together a collection so diverse, meaningful, and relevant that it has made the Museum one of the pre-eminent cultural institutions in the country. The evening of celebration was the perfect tribute to his triumphant career.

The belief that art is for everyone is at the core of my being.

— Larry Wheeler

Upping the Game

Larry would have a hard time leaving a bad impression. He’s never been caught doing anything scandalous, and even his controversies turn into wins. Early in his directorship, for example, he purchased Anselm Kiefer’s Untitled (1980–86) triptych at auction for $600,000, an unheard-of amount for the Museum at that time. But the ensuing controversy quickly subsided as business leaders and lawmakers began to see the benefits of upping the state’s cultural game. And there was the time he was lampooned for art excursions with a governor’s wife, but that was Museum business, it turned out, and he joined many of his fans in celebrating, with gleeful mockery, all the wonderful publicity.

Those fans, of course, are spread far and wide not just across the state of North Carolina, but in cultural destinations throughout North America and Europe. They’re impressed because Larry is more than simply an ambassador for the arts, he’s a channel.

Larry’s career is well documented. He is Dr. Lawrence J. Wheeler, having earned a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Georgia (he earned an honorary Ph.D. from North Carolina State University in May 2016). He taught European history for four years at Pfeiffer College, his undergrad alma mater, and then found himself organizing North Carolina’s 1976 Bicentennial events. A year later, he accepted an appointment as deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, where he spent eight years honing his craft in the art of building excitement. He pushed state leaders to a level of excitement that cinched approval for the funding and construction of the original NCMA building.

This led to his next gig, in 1985, as assistant director and chief development officer of the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio. In 1994, North Carolina wanted him back: Cultural Resources Secretary Betty McCain and museum trustees offered Larry the  position of Museum Director.

You'll like what I'm working on at the moment. It's BIG!

— Larry Wheeler

Success on the High-heels of Success

The Museum began experiencing head-spinning growth. The Monet to Moore exhibit from 1999 boosted annual attendance to a new all-time high of 443,000, and it was followed a year later by Festival Rodin, which pushed 2000’s attendance to 475,000. The Rodin exhibit was the largest anywhere in recent memory. Larry helped put it together for the risky sum of $2.4 million, six times greater than anything the Museum had spent before on a single exhibit, and it made legislators jitter. He’s at it again, they thought.

But it worked. Larry understood North Carolinians’ latent voracity for fine art. Since then, four exhibits have seen even greater attendance: Monet in Normandy from 2006, Rembrandt in America from 2011, The Worlds of M. C. Escher: Nature, Science, and Imagination from 2015, and You Are Here: Light, Color, and Sound Experiences, which I consider to be Larry’s pièce de résistance, from 2018.

I first met Larry in 2005 on a quiet weekday night at the popular back bar of a restaurant in Chapel Hill. He was having dinner with a neighbor. The three of us struck up conversation, and I was immediately struck by Larry’s humility and boyish curiosity. About two weeks later, on a crowded weekend night, I went back with my wife, and we grabbed the only two open seats at the bar — which were right next to Larry. We all had a good laugh and talked for the rest of the evening. He learned I was a marketer and involved, at the time, in real estate and construction.

“You’ll like what I’m working on at the moment,” he said as a mischievous twinkle shot out through his glasses. He shifted in his seat, and his boyish excitement kicked in. “It’s BIG!”, he said, drawing out the word “big” in playful Larry fashion.

You know what, Larry? I think we’re on the same page.

— Iris Cantor

The Art of the Build

A short time later, I visited Larry at his home where he rolled out the blueprints for what would become the West Building. I was spellbound. I studied the design and engineering specifications as he explained how daylighting — the careful use of natural light — would illuminate the collection’s 5,000 years of art so that visitors could see it as naturally as possible. Track lighting would augment the experience, but the interplay of sun and clouds on any given day would create varying experiences as visitors walked through the different galleries. The use of natural light is risky with great works of art, so, yes, this was big.

After the success of the Rodin exhibit (people couldn’t stop talking about it), Larry took an idea to Iris Cantor, the philanthropist who had loaned the Rodins and who was now a friend. She should create a center for Rodin in Raleigh at this new museum he was building, and it should be one of the great Rodin experiences anywhere in the world.

“You know what, Larry?” she told him. “I think we’re on the same page.”

In 2009, the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation board of directors presented a gift of 30 Rodins to the Museum. The collection would be the anchor for the new building.

I saw that the building plans named Thomas Phifer and Partners as architect. Phifer, renowned for his environmentally advanced designs, worked with Larry and Dan Gottlieb, the Museum’s director of planning and design, to create a building that takes advantage of the surrounding nature of the 165-acre Museum park. They decided to put the building on a single level, inserting pieces of landscape into it so visitors can see the natural world from any vantage point and connect the experience of nature with art.

In March 2010, a month before the new building opened, I met Larry at the museum for a private tour. The three figures of artist Jaume Plensa’s work Doors to Jerusalem I, II, & III that I had seen months before, crated upright in the tunnel between the two buildings, now crouched high above us in their permanent state facing the floor. Stella’s Raqqa II shone anew on its own solid white wall lit by the elliptical light-diffusing skylights. The Rodins? I turned and saw them far down at the other end of the museum. I walked toward them and their number grew as the gallery opened up before me. We accessed the Cantor Courtyard effortlessly, and once outside, we walked among all the new art — Rodin’s The Three Shades in the courtyard, Ursula von Rydingsvard’s cedar and graphite Ogramna (fanning out to a height taller than the building itself), Roxy Paine’s Askew (the “Silver Tree”). We even trekked around the rim of the Museum, the narrow portion of the building’s slab, to see up close the exterior’s overlapping, tilted aluminum panels and their mirror-like metal edges. Larry, Dan, and Tom had left no detail undone.

On April 24, 2010, the new building opened, and Larry’s legacy was sealed. “If I do nothing else here, I’m happy,” he said to me shortly after. He quickly recanted. “Oh hell, who am I kidding. I have so much more I want to do!

I have so much more I want to do!

— Larry Wheeler

A Peek over the Horizon

You are Here allowed a peek over the horizon at the coming tsunami of digital art, making this exhibit the perfect capstone to Larry’s career. It ran from April 7 to July 22, 2018. The exhibit reached into the now of art, the manipulation and rearrangement of elements by the hands of modern sculptors and painters whose media are a mixture of algorithms, computers, video, light, and sound. Twenty immersive installations from 14 international contemporary artists took over an entire floor of the Museum and spilled out into the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park.

Larry knows what we look for; he knows what we will want to see. I think that’s why he’s been so successful. He never told us what to like, but he always knew what it would be. And in all these years, he has liked the same things we do, right along with us.