For ten years, the Nasher Museum of Art has been a landmark for the Triangle’s art scene.
Designed by world-famous architect Rafael Vinoly, the museum’s off-white facade makes Campus Drive more than just a leafy passage between East and West Campus. It has been included in The New York Times’ 36 hours in Durham, The Boston Globe’s Travel section and Buzzfeed’s “34 Amazing Things That Will Make You Fall in Love With Durham, N.C.” It has also experienced substantial growth since its opening, bringing nationally-renowned, staff-curated exhibitions and growing its permanent collection.
But apart from the national attention, it remains a landmark for students as well—a favorite brunch spot and a built-in campus window to engage with the local art community. And, more recently, it has allowed students to become involved in the curatorial process.
The museum will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year with special events this fall, including two commemorative murals, a party during Homecoming weekend and a block party in downtown Durham, as well as providing a chance to look back on a decade of global art perspectives.
‘Like New York’
When the Nasher Museum first opened in 2005, Sarah Schroth, the museum’s Mary D.B.T and James H. Semans director, said people didn’t know what to make of it. A world-class museum in Durham, North Carolina? It seemed implausible.
“My own son said to me, ‘Mom, this is like New York,’” Schroth said of the museum’s opening.
At the time, Schroth was the Nancy Hanks Senior Curator under director Kimerly Rorschach, alumna of the University of Chicago’s David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art. In 2006, the museum cemented a focus on contemporary art by hiring Trevor Schoonmaker as the curator of contemporary art. Both Schroth and Schoonmaker steered the museum toward curating high-quality traveling exhibitions that garnered them prestige and press across the nation.
For Schroth, the turning point was her 2008 exhibition “From El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Reign of Philip II.”
The show put the Nasher on the map. Time Magazine voted it the no. 3 best show of 2008.
“For me, that was the first time we really got national recognition,” Schroth said.
Schoonmaker’s exhibitions added to the museum’s hype when he highlighted the work of artist Barkley Hendricks in his 2008 show. Hendricks had been mostly forgotten about until Schoonmaker decided to feature his work.
“It picked up the man’s career,” Schroth said. “Because of Trevor’s show, one of Barkley’s paintings was on the cover of Art Forum. That was a big deal for us.”
But though these exhibitions’ reputations increased the Nasher’s fame, the permanent collection was always a priority.
“Temporary shows, they come and go. But the collection is ours,” Schroth said.
In the past ten years, the Nasher has acquired more than 1,000 works of art, said Wendy Hower, director of engagement and marketing.
And now, with this past summer’s renovation of the Wilson Pavilion, the museum will have even more gallery space to showcase the collection. “The New Galleries: A Collection Come to Light,” opened Aug. 27 and runs until Feb. 12, 2016 in the renovated space, featuring installations from seven time periods and cultures all pulled from the museum’s permanent reserves.
Schroth hopes this will encourage community and student engagement with the material.
“I envision a Duke student coming in and saying ‘That’s my African mask’ or a Durham community member saying ‘This is my favorite pre-Colombian cylinder vase,’” Schroth said.
The additional space has also allowed the museum to feature objects they never would have before, like Navajo rugs.
“They’ve never ever been up,” Schroth said excitedly. “Never ever.”
The 10th anniversary will also bring more artwork to Durham in the form of two murals commissioned by the museum in honor of the event. Painted by abstract artist Odili Donald Odita, one mural decorates a wall in the museum and one is featured on an external wall of the Downtown Durham YMCA. At the Nasher, the mural is titled “Shadow and Light (For Julian Francis Abele),” inspired by the architect who designed Duke’s West Campus.
Hower said the murals act to “visually connect Duke and Durham.” The museum is also working in a partnership with Durham School of the Arts to educate the public about the murals, stationing students at the mural sites during their productions to share information and answer questions.
Hower said the Nasher has continued interest in connecting the community with the University.
“It’s not going to end with the murals, that’s for sure,” Hower said.
Since its inception, the Nasher has made student involvement a priority. The museum has hosted student parties and facilitated the Nasher Student Advisory Board, which allowed students to help plan the student parties.
Last year, the NSAB was changed into the Nasher MUSE—Museum Undergraduate Student Exec—to indicate its changing nature. Instead of a focus on student parties, which suffered from shrinking attendance, MUSE is now geared towards engaging students directly with the art.
“People are maybe looking to the museum for something different,” said Marianne Wardle, Andrew W. Mellon curator of academic programs. “It’s not just a big social scene. It’s a more critical way to engage.”
The Nasher has also created an internship program that allows students to work one-on-one with the museum’s staff. Wardle said the program will generally get eight to 12 participants a semester.
Senior Ana Johnson, a former curatorial intern, co-curated the current Ansel Adams exhibition in the New Galleries with fellow senior Rosie Williams during her internship. The two were given the creative freedom to craft an entire exhibition almost from scratch.
“We had to make a checklist, we had to write all of the label text and at different points we’d be checking in with [Nasher staff],” Johnson said. “It was very free form but it was fun we got to do it.”
Wardle has also tried to bring in students who wouldn’t naturally gravitate towards the arts. She is currently on the faculty of a Bass Connections program entitled Art, Vision and the Brain chaired by opthamologist Eleonora Ladd. Ladd took courses in art history in college but gave up her love of art to focus on science. The program has given her a way to teach both.
“My role in that project is helping scientists to think about what they see and articulate it,” Wardle said. “Sometimes that can be really hard and we take for granted a lot of the visual images we take in.”
The Nasher’s success has not left its staff content to sit on their laurels. Schroth wants to look at acquiring more works of art, which would require more funding.
“We’ve been able to do great with the little amount of acquisition money that we have every year,” Schroth said. “But if we had more money we could really make the collection fill in all the gaps.”
Aside from the collection, Schroth is also interested in creating a sculpture park for the museum’s surroundings. She already has some ideas in place.
“You could do young artists, changing temporary things that would stay up and then they’d deteriorate and they’d get rid of them and do another piece,” Schroth said.
And the Nasher is in the process of creating an undergraduate certificate program that would focus on museum theory and practice.
Ten years strong, one thing is clear: the Nasher has solidified its spot in the Duke and Durham community as the preeminent locale to experience world-class art.