Just days before it reopens to the public, the Nasher Museum of Art's Wilson Pavilion looks little like a world-class museum. Closed for renovation since April, the unfinished galleries seem more like the backstage of a burlesque theater, with some of its biggest stars only half-dressed.
Dozens of priceless objects are arranged on padded moving quilts laid over temporary tables, including an astounding assortment of Mesoamerican artifacts tucked between pristine, sock-size sandbags.
"Don't you love all the color?" asks Sarah Schroth, the museum's director. She can see past the dust toward the realization of her vision: sterile white walls transformed by rich hues that imbue thematic spaces with vibrancy.
"Painting the walls just does amazing things for the art. Like that piece," she says, gesturing at a large Mayan figure—an earth-toned incense burner that would have sent smoke billowing from its angry nostrils and chin. Waiting to be installed beside it on the chocolate-brown wall is a bead necklace and ear spools not unlike those worn by today's hipster artisans.
"These brown walls are perfect in here," Schroth adds, with a look of bemused satisfaction. "I mean, in addition to making all this art, [the Mayans] did invent chocolate, after all."
Schroth's excitement is understandable. On Aug. 27, Wilson Pavilion reopens to reveal 5,700 square feet of reimagined display space. Nine distinct spaces, including a welcoming entry featuring never-before-seen Navajo textiles, were designed by curators in collaboration with exhibition designer Brad Johnson.
Wilson Pavilion is the largest of the Nasher's galleries. While others have spotlighted marquee names, such as the recent exhibit of late works by Joan Miró, Wilson has always featured art from the museum's permanent collection. But before the renovation, with fewer walls and space reserved for faculty and student art, only 3 to 4 percent of the Nasher's 11,000-piece permanent collection was available to visitors. Now Wilson will house more than four times the number of objects previously displayed. When the current exhibit ends, many pieces will return to storage so other holdings can take their places.
While museum exhibits are often designed around a prescribed pedestrian flow, Schroth believes the Wilson redesign will achieve the goal of encouraging visitors to choose their own path.
"We want visitors to look through a doorway and go to the space that draws their interest," says Molly Boarati, assistant curator of European art. "And when they're done there, they can do it again and again. We want them to build relationships with pieces—old favorites and new ones—so they'll want to keep coming back to experience the museum."
Because the Nasher is part of Duke, it plays an important role in facilitating discourse among students and faculty. Two undergraduate interns were responsible for staging an exhibit of 18 images by one of the world's best-known photographers—and boldly choosing two in the collection of 20 to edit out. Sharp Focus: Ansel Adams and American Photography, in Wilson's Incubator gallery, is both an inspiring show and a whopper of a résumé-builder. Other displays, intended to challenge planners as well as viewers, will follow.
More of the Nasher's contemporary collection will be revealed Oct. 1. After its current show concludes Aug. 30, the 3,600-square-foot Brenda LaGrange Johnson and Heather Johnson Sargent Pavilion will be renovated to serve as the permanent home for the museum's extensive holdings by modern artists. Exhibits here will also rotate to demonstrate the scope of the collection.
Modern art curator Marshall Price will be heavily involved with that transformation. He's already created a dynamic juxtaposition of cubist and self-taught art, otherwise known as folk art, in Wilson's Modern gallery. The apparently coincidental similarities between Picasso's 1960 painting "Tete de femme (Head of a Woman)" and a collection of expressive face jugs made in the 1990s by rural North Carolina potters are striking.
More impressive, however, is Price's dedication to a portrait of the renowned abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher in the American gallery. While many photos of Beecher exist, Price says there are few paintings, and perhaps no others notated as being "from life," like this one.
The brother of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, Beecher posed in 1858 for artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter, who later painted a from-life portrait of Abraham Lincoln presenting the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Determined to include Beecher in a group of three paintings to demonstrate how portraiture changed from the European-style formality of 1812 to this more relaxed example, Price was disappointed to discover it was seriously damaged.
Following restoration, which Price describes as "the most extensive the museum had ever undertaken," the Beecher portrait is a standout that shows the influential pastor radiating the light of knowledge and faith.
"It was amazing, like bringing Lazarus back from the dead," Price says. Though the Nasher itself was far from dead, this renovation promises to also give it a new lease on life.
Marshall Price spends a lot of time in galleries and museums. As curator of modern and contemporary art at the Nasher, it's his job to see the most talked-about exhibits and bring back ideas for ways to make the Duke University museum more engaging.
When he visited the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, he saw something so extraordinary, so bold and electric, that he felt the hair stand up on the back on his neck.
"I don't experience that very often," says Price, who found that Sarah Schroth, the Nasher's director, felt equally compelled to bring Richard Mosse's The Enclave to Durham for the museum's 10th anniversary. "It absolutely blew me away. Photography in conflict areas creates an ethical dilemma for viewers when they see such extraordinary beauty." The immersive 40-minute video installation about civil unrest in eastern Congo will make its Southeastern debut at Wilson Pavilion Aug. 27 and can be seen through Jan. 10.
Mosse is an Irish-born photographer who works in Philadelphia and New York City. He uses Kodak Aerochrome, a film stock developed for government surveillance purposes. It translates vegetation and camouflage from earthen greens into vivid shades of pink and purple, creating a surreal beauty amid the chaos of political instability and human crisis.
While Mosse embedded with groups that participated in aggressive activities, Price says there is no "overt violence" in the film, which will be displayed on six screens suspended from the ceiling. "The suggestion of violence ... is more powerful than actually seeing it," he says. "And the music is absolutely haunting."
Meet Mosse in an artist talk and opening event at 7 p.m. Aug. 27.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fresh paint"