Dodging a dump truck, I skirt the chain link fence past the dirt pit behind N.C. State's Talley Student Center.
Finding my way into the building through the food court, I enter a dim cinderblock hallway, the end of which frames a student sprawled on a couch in the lobby. Her slumber is undisturbed by cackling laughter from the information desk nearby, where a couple of guys in Wolfpack-red golf shirts are loitering in the end-of-semester calm. For fun, I ask them where the Gregg Museum of Art and Design is, and one fellow wordlessly raises a hand clutching a Doritos bag, extending a finger to point at the steps. Ah, upstairs. Thanks.
This is how to get to the fantastic conceptual exhibition of clothing at the Gregg. Barkcloth, Bras and Bulletproof Cotton: The Powers of Costume, now extended through Aug. 31, culls clothing, accessories and photography from the museum's vast collection to illustrate the reasons that people all over the world have clothed themselves so variously over time. Guest curator Janine LeBlanc's choices fit into titillating categories such as "Uniforms," "Magical Protection," "Sex Appeal" and "Transformation." It's the rare show that both a doctoral candidate and an elementary school kid can enjoy.
But if you don't know the N.C. State campus, it sure is hard to get to. The Gregg has been tucked away on the second floor of Talley for decades, during which its name has changed twice and its collection has grown from 1,500 to more than 25,000 objects. It's currently tolerating the noise and dust of Talley's $120 million expansion. But not for much longer.
Over the next calendar year, the Gregg will transition to its new Hillsborough Street home in the old chancellor's residence in the shadow of the Bell Tower, awaiting construction of a modern addition that should give the museum a profile befitting its collection of art, textiles, ceramics and much more. If fundraising goals are met, the Gregg will almost triple its exhibition space when it opens its Freelon Group-designed addition sometime in 2014 or 2015.
"We're at a really interesting point in the history of the Gregg," museum director Roger Manley told a small but well-heeled gathering of potential donors and Friends of the Gregg in a Cameron Park home last month.
"The Gregg Museum is about to sprout wings and fly. Or maybe a better metaphor is that it's about to go into a cocoon and emerge as a butterfly."
The caterpillar has begun spinning the cocoon already. The collection, which totals more than five times as many objects as that of the North Carolina Museum of Art, is being photographed for a comprehensive catalog as it's being packed up. The arts development department now courts donors out of offices in the old residence, and some highlights from the collection have been hung on what used to be Chancellor Randy Woodson's walls.
Money, more than art, is being collected now. In response to the state's economic outlook, the university has tightened its construction funding policies so that a project's full budget has to be funded—at least half cash-in-hand and the rest securely pledged—before a shovel hits the ground.
Of its total $7.5 million renovation and construction budget, the Gregg has $3.6 million in hand from university support and another $1.5 million pledged and given from private donors, including a generous $750,000 challenge grant just put on the books last week. Just $2.4 million more, and only about $150,000 of it in cash, and Manley can get his shovel out of the shed. Until then, the museum will mount small rotating shows from the permanent collection to stay visible and accessible to donors.
"We'll be able to do a lot of things that we haven't been able to do before," Manley says. "We'll be able to have a sculpture garden. We'll have outdoor programs, screenings, little film festivals, art festivals. Plus it'll be easy to find, it'll be easy to park there. It'll just become a really visible thing."
Manley knows that a versatile, architecturally significant, stand-alone building is a palpable draw. Among comparable university art museums in the Triangle, Duke's Nasher sees the biggest crowds, hosting between 6,700 to 9,500 patrons a month on average over the last three fiscal years. The doors of both the Gregg and UNC-Chapel Hill's Ackland need less frequent oiling. The Ackland has seen an average of 3,500 to 4,500 visitors a month over the last three calendar years, while the Gregg's visitors have numbered from 3,400 to 4,000 a month since Fiscal Year 2008–09.
A variety of other factors play into attendance, of course, such as the allure of specially ticketed shows and the size of a museum's marketing staff and budget, but it's crucial to have a recognizable building with family-friendly outdoor spaces and devoted parking.
Architects at The Freelon Group have planned for all of that and designed an elegant, modern building that draws the horizontal, Georgian lines of the 1920s residence into its rectangular face. Philip Freelon, an N.C. State graduate and designer of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, closes an architectural gap of nearly a century in the design.
Yet even if you have an N.C. State diploma in your den, you might not recognize the old chancellor's residence. Although the traffic in the (soon to be redesigned) Hillsborough Street roundabout is visible from its front stoop, a high hedge obscures the building from a street view. That hedge comes down—possibly at the expert hands of South Carolina topiarist Pearl Fryar—at a public "friendraiser" planned for Oct. 28. Participatory art activities will dot the grounds for the event as the blind spot behind the foliage likely becomes a regional hotspot.
"Psychologically speaking, this is really the perfect location between the community and the campus," notes Marsha Orgeron, film studies professor and Friends of the Gregg board member. Orgeron points out the proximity of the Cameron Park neighborhood, popular gathering places like Locopops and the Players' Retreat, and culturally resonant institutions like Theatre in the Park and the Pullen Arts Center.
Orgeron also acknowledges the role Chancellor Woodson and his wife Susan played in raising the profile of the arts at N.C. State, a point driven home by their strong advocacy for their former residence going to the Gregg. Susan, herself a visual artist, is part of the Roundabout Art Collective just up Oberlin Road as well as the honorary chair of the Gregg Campaign Committee.
For now, raising awareness of the Gregg's transition is as important as raising the money to underwrite it. As N.C. State celebrates its 125th birthday, its transformation from land-grant agricultural and technical school to creative class think tank is reflected in the grand plans for the Gregg.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The best museum you haven't been going to."