Art and Landscape
North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, N.C.
By Dave Ramont
Many would consider nature a work of art—a raindrop dangling from switch-grass, the sun peeking over a thunderhead. So it seems natural to blend these randomly occurring masterpieces with manmade works of art, and that's just what the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) strives to do with its Museum Park.
In 1983 the museum landed at its current site on Blue Ridge Road in Raleigh, after several moves and a colorful history dating back to 1924. The 50-acre site was once a Civil War training camp, and at that point it sat next to a prison. In 1997 an outdoor amphitheater was added, hosting local and national music acts. More land was acquired, and soon after, the museum began work on Museum Park, a trail system and a sculpture program.
The prison was shuttered in 2002 and the final bit of land was obtained, expanding the campus to an impressive 164 acres. A brick smokestack from the former prison still stands, as a symbol of the park's transformation. In 2010, a second, award-winning building was erected to house the museum's permanent collection.
In the summer of 2015, expansion on the Museum Park began, with Denver-based urban design and landscape architecture firm Civitas Inc. developing the plan. Dan Gottlieb, NCMA's director of planning and design, led the project. The goal was to connect nature, art and people; to blur the lines between the museum and the park; and integrate it all into one memorable destination.
"Our sweet spot really is in inviting a broader and more diverse public to use the museum through these outdoor spaces and to develop a cultural campus here that integrates art into the environment with recreation and informal experiences of art," Gottlieb said. He related how every forward-looking museum desires ways to expand their audience base and their mission, but very few in the world with significant collections enjoy access to this kind of land.
And they've taken full advantage of their natural surroundings, which includes three miles of walking and cycling trails. Or visitors can take in the meadow and hardwood forest views from the Ellipse, a manicured lawn surrounded by a 600-foot elliptical ipe-wood bench and tables and chairs under red umbrellas. It's ideal for art installations, community programming or just gazing. The Promenade connects the park to the galleries, winding past works of art and long, serene views. Twenty mounded gardens—the Wave Gardens—feature paths, benches and the beauty of more than 150,000 native plants. And the Parterre Lawn and Gardens—two lawns flanked by 10 raised and tilted gardens—are also used for art and events.
The Civitas team believes that design-thinking demands that assumptions be questioned, that every project should be totally unique to the space. Gottlieb said Civitas helped look at ways to unify the campus, particularly along the street front where the abandoned prison building sat, changing the visual identity of the whole site into one that is "really a high-style landscape and museum campus."
Five hundred parking spaces were added with tree-planted islands, and even parking areas can be used for events, such as the twice-annual plant sale held in partnership with the North Carolina State University Horticulture Department. Gottlieb also mentioned a partnership with outdoor outfitters REI, where they'll be offering regularly scheduled recreational activities that blend art and recreation. "We have partnerships with all kinds of organizations to use the site in many different ways," he said.
Gottlieb hoped the Museum Park embellishments would blend informal and formal experiences. For instance, maybe you arrive to take a walk or bike ride and then come into the galleries, encounter art outside, or take in a performance in the amphitheater. "You have this layered experience that reaches out in a more socially engaging way, to embrace a much larger community."
And, he said they're seeing that happen, with park users going from zero to nearly 200,000 annually in the past 10 or 15 years, which pushes the number of visitors to the museum as well, inviting more multigenerational use.
Sustainability has also been a major focus through the years, with ongoing forest and stream management projects, such as diverting all hardscape surface water into a natural bio-filtration system that takes out all the pollutants before it runs into the stream system.
Several compelling sculptures have been installed on the grounds by such world-renowned artists as Yoan Capote, Giuseppe Penone and Mark di Suvero, with more coming. Some are permanent, while others are on loan. Gottlieb emphasized that they're not interested in becoming just another sculpture park filled with permanent pieces. "It's going to be much more interesting for us and for our visiting public if it changes over time. So pieces may come for one, two or three years and rotate out, and some pieces may be here for just a week."
For example, Australian artist Amanda Parer's five giant inflated and illuminated rabbits visited the Ellipse for 10 days last November, to christen the new space. "We had 25,000 people while they were here," Gottlieb said. "They were loved to death!"