Museum  October 19, 2022  Amy Funderburk

North Carolina Museum of Art Collection Reimagined


Visitors snap a selfie in front of new commissioned artwork and you did not even know enough to be sorry, 2022, by North Carolina artist Elizabeth Alexander.

The North Carolina Museum of Art began its “collection of art for the people” in 1928 when the then North Carolina State Art Society received a bequest of approximately 75 paintings from Robert F. Phifer. Now housing over 4,000 works, the institution recently debuted The People’s Collection, Reimagined with over 1,000 thematically presented works currently on view.

Almost every major US museum has been shaking off the old paradigm by reinstalling their collections, explains Linda Dougherty, NCMA Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary Art . “…In the field right now, there is a very conscious evaluation of how things have been done in the past and how we should change.” Rigid and traditional museum displays using chronology, geography, and Old Masters leave Dougherty posing the question, “What gets left out?”


The People’s Collection, Reimagined; American Gallery installation view.

The NCMA recently initiated a campaign to increase diversity. New acquisitions include a pair of stunning Torah finials by eighteenth-century female silversmith, Hester Bateman, and The Old Indian Arrow Maker and His Daughter, 1867, a sensitively carved marble by African American and Native American sculptor, Edmonia Lewis. With a longer acquisitions wish list at odds with budget limitations and high demand, the team took creative approaches to further augment the collection. The NCMA’s ongoing strategy is to make key acquisitions and then borrow works from other museums to fill in the gaps. Additionally, works that had not been on view in years were discovered in storage by new curators.

To shape the reinstallation, Dougherty and her team expanded on an earlier program, where they paired two completely different artworks to create “conversations between collections.” New juxtapositions are designed to shift aesthetic perceptions of connections between individual works as well as the whole collection, based on Dougherty’s observation that there are common themes, narratives, and ideas found across time and place. She looks for this “common humanity…. There is this sense of connection.” Once visitors walk through thematic galleries, the goal is that they will continue to make connections as they view the rest of the collection.

© 2022 Kehinde Wiley, Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art and Sean Kelly, New York

Kehinde Wiley, Judith and Holofernes, 2012, oil on linen, 130 1/2 × 997/8 in., Purchased with funds from Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Hanes in honor of Dr. Emily Farnham, and with funds from Peggy Guggenheim, by exchange, 2012 (2012.6)

The resulting new thematic galleries include Made in the Americas, Portraits and Power, Art Conservation, and The Arts, an area devoted to all facets of creative arts expression. In the gallery, The Africa We Ought to Know, the reunion of ancient Egypt with the light-sensitive African collection was made possible by the conservation staff who found ways to mitigate the abundant sunlight in the West Building. Caroline M. Rocheleau, Curator of Ancient Collections, explains that, in addition to emphasizing that pharaonic Egypt and Africa are part of the same continent, their reunion is actually part of a larger concept: “integrating the archaeological collections with the art collections in continental groupings.” 

Dougherty describes a particular gallery, located nearby The Arts: “…[T]here's a juxtaposition of an African masquerade costume, a Nick Cave performance costume, an [Alexander] Archipenko and a [Jean-Baptiste] Carpeaux…that [combination] to me is really successful because it's…such a huge range of expression all about the same idea.” Since Cave looked at similar African pieces when developing his Soundsuits, such comparisons can also lend insight into an artist’s creative process.

Image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art

The People’s Collection, Reimagined; installation view: Flemishkunstkamer, replicating a 17th c Flanders collection room, including a Dutch chandelier and works by Peter Paul Rubens and the workshop of Anthony van Dyck.

The NCMA’s reimagining turns the quest for a favorite work into an opportunity to discover treasures that are otherwise overlooked. New technology is being instated throughout the museum, but in the meantime, in lieu of a digital interactive guide, a printed map highlights visitor favorites. This is not a static installation – Dougherty refers to this as a living collection where works will continually rotate. Light-sensitive items, like photographs or textiles, are to be rotated every six months. “[I]n a year, there will probably be a big change out because a lot of the loans we borrowed will then have to be returned,” explains the curator.  

Dougherty’s hope is that no matter who you are or where you are from, you will find something to connect with in the museum: “that you will see a reflection of yourself or your life on the museum walls, and that there will be this more immediate connection for all visitors.” Dougherty says, “I think the curators in general hope that what we're doing makes the entire collection relevant to visitors today, so no matter whether it's ancient American or contemporary African, it feels relevant."

The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Installation view, A Modern Vision: European Masterworks from the Phillips Collection.

Several special exhibits are also on display at the NCMA; as Dougherty points out, two share the thread of art collecting. A Modern Vision: European Masterworks from the Phillips Collection features luscious highlights from early to mid-20th-century European art history. This ticketed exhibit will be on display through January 22, 2023. Start Talking: Fischer/Shull Collection of Contemporary Art contains selected works from a promised gift to the NCMA by active collectors Hedy Fischer and Randy Shull, on view through February 5, 2023.

From October 22 through January 15, 2023, Kehinde Wiley's 2012 painting Judith and Holofernes from the NCMA collection will be displayed with the famed Italian masterpiece by Artemisia Gentileschi, circa 1612–1617. Thanks to this loan from the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, the juxtaposition will give viewers context for the Wiley painting through the lens of art history.

About the Author

Amy Funderburk

Amy Funderburk is a professional artist and freelance arts writer based in Winston-Salem, NC, specializing in visionary works in which she explores the intersection of the physical with the more fluid, spiritual and emotional realms. She works out of the Sternberger Artists Center in Greensboro, NC, and maintains a blog, Drinking from the Well of Inspiration, to provide deeper insight into her creative process. Follow her on twitter: @AFunderburkArt and on Instagram: @AmyFunderburkArtist.

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