Nasher Equilibrium

This is how it begins. In an empty room made of concrete panels and industrial glass. In a room made of negative space but with countless walls. With a ceiling made of glass that fades into the sky or at least into the sun. With shadows on the floor from the white steel supports and the industrial-strength air conditioning ducts. As the sun shifts overhead, the soft light shuffles across the concrete floor and oozes into corners that were never dark to begin with, and the gray imprints of all that piping shimmy across the floor.

In June, this is all there is to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. The room with the light is 13,000 square feet of emptiness, with a University-issue metal and Formica desk and a non-uniformed security guard directly in the center. Instead of art, a thin beige telephone cord snakes across the grey-green slate floor. That's all. The great hope for Duke arts: a very expensive building designed by an architect Duke is hoping will soon be very famous. His name is Rafael ViA±oly, and he is one of the people to whom Duke has given a great deal of faith and money with the aim of creating a vivacious art culture.

The moment of conception actually came long before the light streamed through the ceiling of the new building and before members of the Board of Trustees sat with scotch in the bar of the Washington Duke Inn and discussed the potential to build a massive museum on Campus Drive that would attract known masterpieces. Even by the time a University committee sat at a table trying to decide which projects would catapult the school once and for all into the upper echelons of American universities, administrators already knew they would dedicate substantial finances and energy to improving the cultural life on campus.

The motives are, in some ways, noble. All of the people involved in this project are already ensconced in art themselves. For them, art is mingled with even the most mundane activities, and the idea of aesthetic is entangled with science, English, math and history. But some part of this sudden, intense experiment is competitive. Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Princeton-the competition that perennially seems to overshadow Duke-all have stunning art programs and facilities. "Frankly," reads a confidential report from a 2001 University committee, "compared to these universities and others in our class, the arts at Duke look shabby."

The ability to change that reputation now hinges largely on the success of the Nasher Museum of Art. If the opening, set for October 2, goes well, Duke will earn instant renown for pulling off one of the fastest transformations the serious art world has seen. Two years ago, Duke's museum was an old science classroom with some art scattered throughout. October 2, it will be a full $24-million display case reverberating with tangible works of Max Weber, Henri Matisse and Andy Warhol.

But in July, the museum is still empty, and all the art is locked away in the storage chambers of the basement, rooms that are carefully climate-controlled and secured to sustain crates of artwork. A variety of high tech gadgets-humidifiers and dehumidifiers, specifically calibrated air conditioners and heaters, complicated locks-maintain an environment that makes it safe to store delicate textiles, partially decayed wooden statues and canvasses thick with cracked paint. Even though the galleries several floors above the basement storage are the flashy part of the new museum, these storage closets are the improvement that will let Duke's museum entertain a goal of excellence. They are the part that is truly about art.


The Duke University Museum of Art began in 1969 when Duke acquired the Brummer Collection, 250 pieces of Medieval and Renaissance art. The pieces range from the 9th through 16th centuries and originate from regions across Europe. At the time Duke found a building on East Campus to display the works. It was once a science building, but the University cleared out the second floor and created some large spaces with intense lighting. A sign went out front and hours were stenciled on the door. This became the DUMA. Until 2004, it remained the center of visual arts on campus.

It was a good museum. Well, good for a smallish town in the middle of the South. Display cases lined the walls where science classrooms had been converted into exhibit halls that were sufficient to display pre-Columbian art, some Medieval works and a handful of classical pieces that comprised the majority of Duke's permanent collection. There was even some space downstairs for slightly larger pieces and temporary student-run shows. But it wasn't quite good enough. The light was filtered through dust sometimes because the ventilation systems were out of date. And the art had to be transported in and out like furniture being carried through an old house; it required contortionist maneuvers to avoid chipping it on the walls.

"Collectors in general, even alumni at Duke have not wanted to lend to us because the space was not a real museum space," said Sarah Schroth, Nancy Hicks Senior Curator.

In addition to the space issues, the building itself was too nondescript to draw attention to itself. The front entrance was virtually indistinguishable from the dorms and classrooms on East Campus, and parking was virtually nonexistent, with foreboding warnings of "Permit Required" dotting the driveways and parking spaces nearby. People who worked in the DUMA estimated that about 50 percent of students did not even know the museum existed.

The museum was also underfunded with a paucity of members and limited space. The conditions made it difficult to borrow art from other institutions because, despite the care of the curators and administrators, the facility was sub-par.

When the museum finally got its first professionally credentialed director in the mid-1980s, the search for a better museum began. Michael Mezzatesta, who served as director until 2003, helped convince Duke to build a new museum in 1995. Meanwhile, he continued to focus on outreach and education efforts from his own paltry facilities.

The shifting moment came in 1998 with one man, an alumnus who had long hoped to improve Duke's relationship with art. Raymond Nasher offered the University $7.5 million to found a world-class museum. He graduated from Duke in 1943. Mr. Nasher and his late wife Patsy are known throughout the art world as two of the foremost collectors of modern sculpture, but they collected across a wide range of styles. He grew up an art aficionado who spent countless hours wandering through the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


From the moment Mr. Nasher became involved, the trajectory of Duke arts seemed to feed upon itself. His enthusiasm grew and looped back on itself, and his passions are still in the process of becoming the obsession of the University of which he is now a patron. In April 1943 he wrote an endorsement of the arts in his regular column in the school newspaper, The Chronicle. "Our university should enfold culture of every nature. Art and music are basic cultural entities which must not be lost in the shuffle of 'bread and butter' seekers," he wrote.

Just over 50 years later, fueled by Mr. Nasher's money, Duke finally began to act on his words.

The physical space of the Nasher Museum of Art is the initial step. Driven by Mr. Nasher's influence, Duke hired Rafael ViA±oly to design the building in 2000. The architect had already made a name for himself in 1989 when he won a competition to design the Tokyo International Forum. Born in Uruguay and educated in Argentina, Mr. ViA±oly's work is characterized by the way it blends and works with its environment and purpose while still being distinctly modern. His signature feature is the use of glass and steel. He designed the expansion for the proposal of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Duke picked Mr. ViA±oly not just for his designs or his belief that art is integral to life and living but also for the renown and resultant power that comes with his name.

In order to make the leap from local collection to serious art museum, Duke needs all the abstract capital it can get. As the new building began to become a reality, the University decided to switch directors. It wanted someone with glistening academic credentials as well as fundraising savvy and a distinct sense of how art works educationally. Provost Peter Lange, who was involved with the decision as head of academic affairs at the University, noted in 2003 that the ability to attract potential donors was a factor in switching leadership. So was the need to cultivate a museum that far exceeded the old one in both scale and scope.

Duke managed to lure Kimerly Rorschach away from the David and Alfred Smart Museum at the University of Chicago. She had worked as curator at 15 exhibitions and served as a trustee of the Association of Art Museum Directors. In addition to a clear sense of how to integrate education and art, she came with connections-an essential resource in a business that is all about trading favors.

Ms. Rorschach said one of the major obstacles in putting together a show is to make collectors and institutions feel like the University is taking art seriously. While the technical aspects of the building, which were all specifically designed to accommodate and protect art, demonstrate that on a primal level, the hyper-famous architect adds credibility. "For any partnership, any museum has to see that it's in their interest," she says. "Things we have going for us are the Duke name, the Nasher name and the architect, Rafael ViA±oly. People care about that."

What the University is trying to do in the art world is almost unheard of. While maintaining its educational mission, Duke is attempting to catapult over dozens of university museums to be able to consider itself a peer with the best galleries in the country.

"It's hard to go from here to there in one leap versus over several years," Ms. Rorschach says. Operating costs of the museum have risen exponentially since it moved from East Campus a year ago, and in order to reach the goals set, they need to continue to rise, she says. But Duke has made the museum a priority in a way that few other academic institutions have attempted. Already the new building has earned accreditation from the Association of Art Museum Directors, an instant mark of approval about the conditions of the display space and the ability to handle art safely. Such a seal would have been impossible in the old space. "What's different about this is that it's such a great opportunity, and there are the resources available to take advantage of the opportunity," Ms. Rorschach says.

But it is still just that: an opportunity. Mr. ViA±oly said in 2003, as he finished the building design, that the space he was crafting was not for anything that exists, but rather for "the aspirations of the collection."

The result resembles a parking garage from the outside. The walls are made of precast concrete both inside and out. The tile on the floor is a gray-green granite. Five freestanding pavilions comprise the space of the three galleries, offices and an auditorium. Connecting them all is a full glass ceiling nearly five stories overhead that covers an interior courtyard of 13,000 square feet.

Sun floods the room threateningly from every corner. Light is so pervasive in the building that it seems that at any moment it will slip away from the architect's controlling designs and glare directly at paintings, fading them forever. Precautions, however, have been taken. In the galleries, natural light is filtered through an elaborate system of angles so that no direct sunlight will ever hit the walls or the floors. But during the day each gallery glows a little with a halo of light surrounding its ceiling. The golden wood floors of the galleries gleam back with consistent warmth. From nearly every point in the entrance hall the visitor can see green outside and yellow light from the sky. The shadows alter the sense of the room in a way that creates an experience fully distinct from any pictures. The room must be felt, not just seen. The adjoining gallery spaces are equally airy. Two galleries will house traveling exhibitions, and the largest one will display pieces of Duke's permanent collection.

This is all as much the vision of Mr. Nasher as it is of Mr. ViA±oly.

From here, just as Duke's art commitment seems to revolve around its patron, building up Duke's art reputation is entwined with Mr. ViA±oly's creation. Because without some magnificent creativity, a fantastic building would be all Duke had.


A museum needs art. That's the tricky part.

Duke's permanent collection is meager by art world standards. While the Brummer Collection is widely regarded as the finest of its kind in an American university, the sculptors and painters are not famous; these works are not common flashcards in intro art history classes and PBS documentaries. Medieval art isn't that sexy. It's a building block that sometimes takes a pre-existing appreciation to understand. While school groups and scholars have always wandered through displays of the collection, illuminated manuscripts of prayer books and triptychs of the Virgin Mary aren't exactly a big draw to regular people.

They can, however, serve as a draw to collectors willing to give their own art away to a safe museum, where it can be cared for, used and seen.

Building a permanent collection results from subtle deals. Art museums are driven by educational goals and a sense of the aesthetic, but the game of finding and acquiring all that art is solely business. A business that taps into altruism and high-stakes money and politics. Especially at a university-affiliated museum, collections are built through connections. Alumni donate money that gets earmarked specifically to buy art. More likely, alumni offer to loan or give a piece of art they already own to the school. This is Duke's hope-one foreshadowed by Mr. Nasher's contributions.

Duke plans to focus on acquiring modern and contemporary art. The museum is searching for a full-time curator to lead this effort, and it has already identified and zeroed in on several people affiliated with Duke who are major modern collectors. The theory is to buy early and hope for appreciation of value. "If we do it well, someday, yes, these works will be very valuable," Ms. Rorschach says. It has already worked once for Duke. When it hired Mr. ViA±oly, he was a recently established architect with recognized talent. Shortly thereafter he became the runner up for the design of the September 11 memorial at the Twin Towers and his American reputation has leaped.

While Duke waits for and seeks out major artists, though, its collection is only 13,000 works and is largely ancient American, African, classical and Medieval. To highlight the collections' usefulness rather than its impressiveness in the realm of name recognition, the Nasher has chosen to organize its permanent collection in an unusual way. The large gallery for the pieces is partitioned into four thematically-oriented spaces and each is tied in with a class currently being offered this semester at Duke. One quadrant is devoted to gender, another to ritual, a third to nature and the last to Rome: lives and afterlives. The result is a juxtaposition of contemporary pieces with ancient artifacts and a display that spans time and space and thrusts forward the differences and universality of certain aesthetics.

But the permanent collection, even with its provocative display, will not be the draw point of the museum. Instead, a series of traveling exhibitions will form its core. Since temporary shows largely depend on borrowed pieces, they are the fastest way to lay at least peripheral claim to famous art. Through loaned pieces, the Nasher will open its doors boasting of a display that includes works by Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso and Auguste Rodin. "We can do great exhibitions starting in October, but we can't build an incredible collection," Ms. Rorschach says.

The resident curators took over the work of assembling temporary shows that would produce the "wow" factor necessary to attract a pop-culture-educated public. They began planning the two inaugural shows before Ms. Rorschach came to Duke, but once she arrived, the curators began the finagling necessary to convince other museums to loan fantastic works of art. Some of the trading works quid pro quo, but Duke's collection still falls short as an object of curatorial lust. With very few pieces that other museums might want to borrow, Duke is relying on personal reputations and the majesty of its new building to entice generosity. They are also trying to create exhibits that generate enough intrigue to prompt loans.

The major contemporary exhibition is "The Forest: Politics, Poetics and Practice," curated by Kathleen Goncharov, adjunct curator of contemporary art. Rather than concentrating on a particular style of art, it explores the way artists are dealing with issues such as colonialism, war and deforestation. The pieces challenge conventional conceptions of art as the show delves into sculpture, film, video and sound. Voyeuristic live views of the Duke Forest will be displayed on video screens, and work from contemporary artists from around the world will be placed next to each other for the first time.

The other opening exhibit tracks the evolution of Raymond and Patsy Nasher as collectors. Sarah Schroth has spent the past year learning the tastes and habits of the Nashers so that she could carefully choose 96 works of art that would show how they grew as connoisseurs. Ms. Schroth has talked to their friends and read their correspondence. She has met repeatedly with Mr. Nasher and with their daughter Nancy, who earned her law degree from Duke in 1979. Ms. Schroth has also spent countless time visiting the Nashers' home in Dallas and the museum they sponsored there; she has pored over the art the Nashers acquired throughout their lives. After sifting through hundreds and hundreds of pieces and successfully begging Mr. Nasher to borrow prized Andy Warhol portraits, Ms. Schroth only has a few more works of art to choose.

On a sunny day in mid July, she is standing amid a sea of Navajo rugs spread across the floor of an otherwise-empty gallery at the Nasher Museum. And as she stares at them, she breaks the cardinal rule of museums: she touches.

"That one is so Patsy!" she exclaims, pointing at a multicolored pattern that seems to jump from the floor.

"But this one is really important," she says, noting a comparatively understated yellow and beige rug nearby. And Ms. Schroth is torn as she tries to channel the tastes of her muses, the Nashers.

For the next hour, she shuffles through the rugs on the floor, trying to discern minute differences of importance and the potential sentimental attachment they inspire. Without gloves, she lifts the rugs up and flops them on top of one another as she places colors and patterns next to each other to match them for the show. Eventually, she decides on the original two that grabbed her attention and marks them to be prepped to hang on the walls, far from other people's hands.

Later Ms. Schroth gets a rush from remembering the way the object feels and the energy that seems to rush through it.

"It's an intimacy with the object that you get when you're able to get that close," she says. "Each object is an artifact of history. It speaks so much about who the artist was, what the object was trying to do, what was going on in the time."

Her words are even clearer when it's possible to see the transformation that takes place as soon as even a single piece of art is placed in the galleries. The room seems to shift around the works, adapting itself to frame the object not just as a thing but as a centerpiece and a focal point.

"It's all in that one piece," Ms. Schroth gushes. "To be able to touch what the artist touched, the same material that the artist created, it's the closest that you can get to understanding. It erases time and space."

That erasure is the goal of these shows, and really, the goal of the building as well. Just as outside and inside blur together in the Nasher foyer, the art seems to morph into something else when it is assembled. The pieces interact in a way that has been carefully determined to create a kind of educational statement. They are collected with auctorial intent.

Eventually more and bigger shows will come to Duke. For the first several years, they will be a mix of visiting shows from other institutions and Duke-curated exhibits that will also travel beyond the University. Each show will enhance the museum and, if they remain of high quality, they will expand the reputation of the Nasher as well. The galleries will be filled with art that continually changes to tie in with trends in the industry and with educational ideas. And institutions as prominent as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston are already showing a willingness to let Duke borrow their pieces. The once-vivid danger that the huge gallery space would remain empty has subsided.

"When I first was in there, I used to get very nervous about how are we going to fill this space with art? We don't have much of a collection, and it's mostly small objects," Ms. Rorschach says. "I don't feel that anymore."


Even with all these pieces in place, there is still another beginning point for Nasher Museum: its opening. In the weeks leading up to the grand unveiling, the tension at the museum cuts through the visual stunningness of the space. As workmen install shades in the cafe and reporters start to flock to the galleries to see the half-installed exhibitions, crates of art are continually shipped in and unloaded from across the country. The edges of some rooms resemble cargo holds with plain wooden boxes with the word "FRAGILE" stenciled across the top acting as stand-ins for the sculptures that will eventually be unearthed from within to replace them. Already, the sun and the shadows stream over them, changing their appearance from moment to moment.

The galleries full of art are drastically different than the open spaces that have reigned for the past few months. The pictures in most places are not yet hung. Instead they lean against the walls as Ms. Schroth and Associate Curator Anne Schroder stare at a single piece, trying to decide how high, exactly, it should go on the wall. The outlines of the galleries are done, but everything is mutable until the very last minute.

Meanwhile press releases from the Duke communications department flood the mail boxes of reporters and potential patrons. Giant banners hang in airports and from flagpoles. Every day Wendy Hower Livingston, manager of marketing and communications for the Nasher, crosses her fingers that her to-do list will remain stable, and every day more surprises come up. She is confirming an opening-day parking space for Mayor Bill Bell. She is ordering 20,000 little metal buttons that will serve as admissions tickets. Just a month ago, she and her colleagues realized that the museum cafe would serve as a full, gourmet restaurant (on Duke food points, of course) rather than just a sandwich bar. They scrambled to publicize the development.

The biggest immediate question is, "Will anyone come?" The media blitz that is just starting will help ensure that someone does. Receptions are being finalized for members, for patrons, for students, for Durham residents. Ms. Hower Livingston explains that museum publicity is easy to sell to reporters. "It's a good story: It's Ray Nasher; it's Rafael ViA±oly; and it's Duke." The latest articles have appeared in Art News, Art in America and Metropolitan Home.

In mid September, it took eight to 10 people almost an hour staring at a sculpture to decide which way the fully three-dimensional object should be oriented in the fully-three dimensional space. For now, it has been engulfed in bubble wrap to protect it from the workmen who are still finalizing building details.

The information desk has been delayed in production, and while it is supposed to arrive in time for the official opening, everyone is holding their breath.

"I feel the pressure, no question," Ms. Rorschach says.

The building itself seems to be emitting the tension, especially as October 2 grows closer. The weight of the potential presses down on everyone who enters through the glass doors.

Of course, they can also see the outside from the glass doors. And when they stand there, surrounded by art and staring out into ambiguous green space that just might be inside the building, it's tough not to believe that this just the beginning. After all, there's a Mark Di Suvero sculpture owned by Raymond Nasher sitting right outside the window, and the shadows are just starting to change.


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