Thinking big

Alumnus Larry Wheeler has steered the N.C. Museum of Art for 18 years with the people of the state in mind

Thinking big

Larry Wheeler and Gov. Beverly Perdue

Larry Wheeler is embarrassed to admit it, but he never set foot inside the Georgia Museum of Art during his years studying European history at UGA. His plans then were to become a university professor, and his primary interest in art was in what it had to say about a culture or a time period he was studying.

Yet today, Wheeler (PhD ’72) is the director of the N.C. Museum of Art, one of the first in the country to receive state funding—a $1 million appropriation from the N.C. General Assembly in 1947. The museum, which sits on a 164-acre park of public trails, public art and a performance amphitheater, has blossomed since Wheeler took charge in 1994. It has hosted blockbuster exhibitions on artists such as Rodin, Monet and Rembrandt, while building significant collections of European, American and contemporary art. In 2006, the museum nearly doubled its exhibition space with a 127,000-square-foot expansion that is surrounded by sculpture gardens and reflecting pools.

Wheeler is almost giddy as he reflects on what the museum has become in the past two decades. But his excitement is less about the 28 works of Auguste Rodin that were recently given to the museum, the contemporary piece by Anselm Kiefer that he bought at auction for $574,000 shortly after he took the job or the works by African artist El Anatsui that were shown this year. Wheeler is thrilled that the museum has been embraced by the local community and people throughout the state, and that there is an anticipation about what exciting new show or addition the museum—and Wheeler—will cook up next. After all, he says, this is the people’s art collection.

“I don’t care about building palaces for rich people,” he says from his office overlooking the park that surrounds the museum. “I care about building opportunities so that everyone can have a natural relationship with art. That’s why I care about it.”

It was prisons, not palaces, on Wheeler’s mind when he became director. The museum was built on the western edge of Raleigh, not downtown as some had proposed, with a youth prison as its closest neighbor.

“The prison was up there with prisoners and barbed wire and guard towers, and that was the front door to the museum,” he says. “And we had all this raw land out here. What can we make out of this? How it all came together is a miracle, really, because it was just a matter of opportunities and political connections and seizing the moment.”

Wheeler is not an art historian, the more traditional background for a museum director. Instead, he is someone who understands politics (from years of working for the state Department of Cultural Resources after giving up on his short career as a college professor), has a keen sense of marketing and fundraising (from a nine-year stint as director of development at the Cleveland Museum of Art) and an uncommon willingness to think big. The prison was soon closed, and a wealthy patron agreed to foot the bill to have it removed when the state was short of funds. He finished the amphitheater, which he calls “our first expression that our mission is beyond the walls of the museum.”

He also put together blockbuster exhibits on Matisse and Picasso and, finally, steered the completion of the new building through the byzantine process of state government.

“I’m very impatient with low productivity,” he says. “I want big ideas. I want action and I want people to buy into it. Enlarging the picture, that’s what I do.”

—Bill Krueger is the senior associate editor of N.C. State Magazine at North Carolina State University.