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The Duke University Museum of Art has had a troubled history. Will a grand new building finally give it direction?

Work of art 

The Duke University Museum of Art has had a troubled history. Will a grand new building finally give it direction?

On a March afternoon earlier this year, three well-dressed men walked through the crisp grass and dusty earth on Duke University's Central Campus. Bulldozers had begun to clear the wooded area into a building site. Thirty-four years after the Duke University Museum of Art opened in a cramped, renovated science building, the home of the $23-million Nasher Museum was finally becoming a tangible reality.

Duke expects the Nasher to open by 2005. When it does, it will no doubt attract international attention for its unique architecture, and will be one of the most impressive buildings on Duke's campus. It will be home to the 12,000 works of art that are already part of the DUMA's permanent collection, which it has managed to build with very limited resources. But in another sense, the Nasher Museum will be empty, awaiting donors who will see its potential and offer the museum more truly valuable work than it would have been able to house or display in its old incarnation. More significantly, when the Nasher opens, two of the people most responsible for its existence won't be part of it.

This is the story of the Duke Museum of Art's fraught history, grand ambitions and uncertain future.

That day in March, world-famous architect Rafael Vinoly, whose design won runner-up in the competition to rebuild the World Trade Center, was inspecting the site with museum Director Michael Mezzatesta and its namesake and principal donor, Raymond Nasher, a Duke alum, real estate magnate and art collector from Dallas. They looked at the cleared space among the tall pine trees, which will house five different galleries. The centerpiece connecting them will be a 13,000-square- foot entry space--larger than the interior of Cameron Stadium--with a 40-foot glass ceiling, designed to cast elaborate geometric patterns of light and shadow across the interior.

Together, the three men looked at samples of custom-made concrete in different patterns, textures and colors to find the right one for the exterior. They picked one that would stand out from Duke's signature gothic stone pattern--in other words, the Nasher will not look like a Duke building, but like a great attraction, a unique architectural statement meant to draw in members of the public.

Vinoly's grand design is a far cry from DUMA's current home, virtually hidden away in the 76-year-old chemistry building on the university's East Campus. Many students have never visited the museum, and many Triangle residents don't even know it exists. Yet the space is used to maximum capacity. It has hosted hundreds of exhibitions over the years, as well as dance performances, concerts and parties. Museum curators have occasionally had to shield artwork from caterers and dinner-goers attending functions there, on a campus where space for such events is hard to come by. In fact, the cramped space proved to be such a serious problem that it raised the concerns of the American Association of Museums a few years ago.

As a symbolic example of the contrast between the present and future museums' appeal to the community, consider that there are only five visitor parking spaces at the DUMA's current home--and those five spaces usually aren't full. At the Nasher, there will be more than 90.

Curators, donors, artists, patrons--everyone involved with the DUMA has kept their eyes firmly fixed on the prize since its creation. Some have worked for more than a decade driven by the dream of a new museum.

But one of the men in this picture won't be part of the museum when it opens. The university credits Mezzatesta, director of the DUMA for 17 years, as being arguably the most important person in the realization of the Nasher. But the administration decided in May not to renew his contract. As of this month, he has been on paid leave, and will not be returning.

A strange and troubled history
Not many people in the Duke community can remember as far back as Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, the 83-year-old grandniece of university founder James Buchanan Duke.

"It's a miracle," says Semans over and over. After decades of struggling to make it happen, North Carolina's leading philanthropist for the arts still can't quite believe that the DUMA will have a permanent home in her lifetime. "I didn't know whether any of us would live to see it!"

Semans can remember every phase of the DUMA's existence. Sitting in the Durham office of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, on the ground floor of a Forest Hills mansion, she thinks back to an event that still upsets her: In 1940, William Hayes Ackland bequeathed his art collection to Duke, but the university turned it down. They didn't like the conditions: that Ackland be buried on site, and that his money be managed by trustees in Washington. After years of legal wrangling, the collection eventually went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is now the Ackland Art Museum.

"It's a very strange history," she says. "I think there were a lot of people who sincerely felt that Duke probably never would have a good museum, because of what they did in turning the Ackland down. But they just didn't have enough people interested in the arts to ever make a go of it. I've sensed this. And goodness knows, I wouldn't blame them, because it was a terrible thing to turn that down."

Semans' mother, Mary Duke Biddle, was very upset. "My mother said, 'What would possess them to turn down the Ackland?' I said, 'Mother, I don't know. There are still people who feel that art is of secondary importance.'"

Then in the late 1960s, as the administration was facing protest marches, museum backers got a break. The Brummer family offered to donate their collection of medieval sculptures and paintings that constitute what is even today the most valuable part of the DUMA's collection. The head of the art history department at that time was William Heckscher, and his interest in the collection made it a natural for Duke. But there was nowhere to put it.

A couple named Marshall agreed to pay for an upgrade of the old chemistry building on East Campus, and Heckscher worked with the university to renovate it to their satisfaction.

"Then they withdrew the whole thing," Semans says, exasperated. Eventually, the museum did open in the renovated space, with the Brummer collection as its centerpiece. But the university had to do without the Marshalls' help. "We don't know what happened to them. The last thing we heard, they were going to offer it to the queen of England." The couple was rather eccentric, she explains. "They drove an old Ford car, and lived in second-rate hotels. Somebody told me this. I never met them."

Just then the phone rings--one of those old-fashioned bell-sounding rings, not the bleep of a brand new phone. The foundation office is bustling as always. On the floor is a worn oriental carpet; against the wall are bronze busts of Duke family members. Between them is a bronze sculpture of dancing Shiva, along with snapshots of the Semans' friends. The kitchen wallpaper is a bright 1970s pattern. Semans wears a dainty white blouse with a black skirt and tights, and black patent-leather Mary Janes. Her long salt-and-pepper hair flows down her shoulders and as she speaks, her keen blue eyes gently fix on the listener's face.

"So poor Dr. Heckscher, he said, this is something we really must try for, all of us," she continues. "So when he left, it was sort of up to all of us to get behind the whole affair." As a result, in 1969, the DUMA was established in the renovated space.

From shopping malls to Matisse
Meanwhile, another influential member of Duke's leadership had a dream for the arts at his alma mater. Raymond Nasher, an economics major from the class of 1943, was on Duke's Board of Trustees from 1968 to 1979. Nasher was a real estate developer building his fortune in Dallas--along with an impressive collection of modern paintings and sculpture. He has the largest collection of Henri Matisse sculpture in private hands, as well as pieces by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, August Rodin and Alberto Giacometti.

Nasher's interest in the arts and his demonstration of civic pride has the ring of a Texas millionaire: Besides serving on boards at the Tate Modern in London and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, he has donated millions and offered much of his collection to the Nasher Sculpture Center under construction adjacent to the Dallas Museum of Art. He has even adorned his NorthPark mall in Dallas with massive sculptures by Frank Stella and Jonathan Borofsky, and a row of prints by Andy Warhol.

Even as an undergraduate, Nasher thought Duke's reputation as a first-rate university was held back by its feeble commitment to the arts. "Duke needs an art and music school," he wrote in his column in the Duke paper, The Chronicle, in 1943. "Art and music are basic cultural entities which must not be lost in the shuffle of bread and butter seekers." In the column, he called the absence of these two elements "Duke deficiencies."

While on the board of trustees, Nasher and Semans did not find those deficiencies quickly rectified. "We'd think we got somewhere, you know, and then everything would fall," Semans recalls.

So the DUMA did what it could with what it had. Duke lured Mezzatesta away from his job as curator of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex., in 1987, with the promise of a new museum. From the beginning, his vision of the museum's future dominated his work there. He spent time wooing donors, and brought in architectural exhibits and critics to speak.

"When Michael Mezzatesta came he brought a lot of wonderful exhibits," Semans recalls, "one or two which were written up in The New York Times and were taken to Harvard. We were sort of off to the races, if you know what I mean."

"It took shape as a museum of some distinction and we had some good pieces," Semans says. But the museum itself never took off.

The excruciatingly slow progress reportedly frustrated Mezzatesta, and in 1993 he accepted a job with the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. But no sooner did he arrive on the job than a fight erupted with the board of directors, who rescinded their offer and sent him packing. Mezzatesta returned to Duke, and new president Nan Keohane embraced him back into the fold.

A shot in the arm
Keohane managed to revive interest in the museum. As president of Wellesley College, she had overseen the creation of the $16.7 million Davis Museum and Cultural Center, which houses 6,000 works of art and opened the year she left to come to Duke. "I knew how important it was and how valuable a museum can be in an academic community," Koehane said by phone, "so that experience probably was relevant."

Then came a promise from Nasher: He offered the university half the cost of building a new museum. "That of course gave the biggest shot in the arm that you could have," Semans says.

Nasher had the perfect spot picked out from the very beginning: An empty field at the southeast corner of Campus Drive and Anderson Street. Except it wasn't exactly empty. A botany professor had been using the site for research, and it took years for the university to resolve the dispute. The administration tried to convince Nasher to pick a site closer to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, the campus' most popular attraction to visitors, but the donor threatened to rescind his offer.

Even Vinoly's first design for the museum caused a problem. Neither Mezzatesta nor Nasher felt it was practical enough. The director sent a 12-page critique to the architect's office; Vinoly refused to read it. Eventually they all agreed on the new design. But it's worth noting that at no point has the creation of a new museum been smooth sailing.

And the university still has not raised the money required to pay for its jewel--as of March, it was short almost $12 million for construction costs, endowed curatorships and exhibition costs.

A "shocking surprise"
On a sunny summer weekday afternoon, Joseph Rowand is sitting in the office of his Somerhill Gallery in Chapel Hill, waiting for an artist client to arrive. The chime rings as Eastgate shoppers enter to browse the eclectic and colorful jewelry, blown glass, ceramics and paintings for sale. Rowand is seated on a zebra-printed chair cushion, underneath a metal mobile sculpture that hangs from the high ceiling, moving gently as the vent pumps cool air through the lofty space.

From this perch, Rowand plays a very important role for the DUMA, one that has nothing to do with academics. He tells the artists and buyers that frequent his gallery about things going on at the DUMA--exhibits, lectures, special events. He gets people onto campus that otherwise might not even know Duke has a museum, much less what it might have to offer.

He has a more formal role, as well. As president of the Friends of the Museum, Rowand keeps donors involved in the museum's goings-on. He chairs board meetings and finds ways to reward long-term benefactors who have hung on through years of lukewarm interest in the arts from the university at large.

Rowand has a sturdy presence. He is tall, with a serious manner balanced by a quick, deep laugh. He uses the word "fabulous" often to describe artists he works with, exhibits the DUMA has put together over the years, and the skills and qualities of his good friend, Michael Mezzatesta. "Friendship is like rings on a tree," he explains. Rowand had been a member of the Friends for years before Mezzatesta became director. When they first began working together 17 years ago, the two were strangers. "You get to know somebody," he says. "I saw my job as leader to support the museum, and of course Michael is the museum. He is the person who pumps the heart rate of that museum."

"Michael has what I would call a large personality, a gregarious personality. Charisma is a word you would use in a sentence with Michael," he muses. "There are times when we would both be on the dais at the same time, me in my role and he in his role as director. Often, if the Friends were hosting something, I had the microphone to introduce him. I have to script everything, have to write it down. Michael thinks well on his feet. His extremely bright mind is always on call, and he also is very funny. I think of Michael and I think of his humor, his quick wit and his easy smile and his easy laughter. One of the hardest things that I have to do in running a board meeting is keeping the laughter down."

So when Rowand heard the news that Mezzatesta wouldn't be continuing as museum director, "It was a shocking surprise," he says. "It came with no warning. On a personal level, all the years I've been there to help him and all of a sudden, the same year that my term is up, you know, his relationship is severed. It's sort of sad."

The university says this announcement wasn't meant to be so abrupt. Every five years, the administration conducts reviews of its officers. "We made a decision, the provost and I, at a time of routine review and reappointment, to thank Michael for his dedication and move on," Keohane said by phone. "We very rarely reappoint people for four five-year terms, and it was part of a normal review."

(Mezzatesta, who is currently on vacation, is still negotiating his severance and could not comment on the university's decision.)

There are two different work cultures at any university: the tenure track and the administrative one. Tenure itself is under fire these days, but it still offers a relatively stable position that supposedly insulates professors from university politics. Not so with the administrative track. Provosts, presidents and directors are rarely around for as long as Mezzatesta was.

But why now, as the museum he worked for finally begins to rise from the dusty red dirt of central campus?

According to university spokesperson John Burness, the review process "raised questions," some of which the president and provost were already aware.

In other interviews, Keohane and other administrators have said that they did not feel Mezzatesta had the strengths that she and Provost Peter Lange had decided were necessary to take the Nasher Museum to the next level: creating major exhibitions, building a collection and bringing national exposure to the museum.

"The question comes up," Burness says, "is the person who was totally instrumental in getting you to a certain point the right person to take you to the next? I think ultimately the president decided that he wasn't. They had to make a very, very difficult decision, recognizing that his commitment to building the museum was arguably more important than anyone else's."

However routine, the decision rocked certain members of the arts community at Duke, especially those who have worked with the director for years.

"We've always gotten along so well," Semans says. "He just had real vision. I'm regretful, really, especially since he pushed so hard and worked so hard."

But speaking by phone from his Dallas real estate office, Nasher sounded positive about the decision. "I personally think there should be a change every 10 years or so in major positions," he says. "Mike was an excellent person, he did a good job, he was there for a long period of time, and I basically feel he did his part in the development of the museum. I'm sure he'll be around for the opening."

A committee has just been formed to search for a new museum director. Most of the members are art history faculty, led by economics professor Neil De Marchi, who studies contemporary art markets. (De Marchi could not be reached for comment.)

Nasher says he is looking forward to new leadership and is hoping that the new director will have a strong "understanding of how one acquires exhibitions, how one relates to other museums, and other directors and galleries and dealers, so that they can really attempt to bring to Duke some of the important exhibitions that are traveling around the country." Nasher says he would also like to see Duke's museum produce top-quality exhibitions that might travel beyond its own walls.

Pitfalls and Damage
Bad storage conditions, poor climate control and limited space meant the DUMA couldn't bring in several traveling exhibitions of old master paintings--they simply didn't have a safe place to display or store the pieces. It also meant that for some curators, like interim director and senior curator Sarah Schroth, it would be impossible to experience the payoff of a life's work until the new museum was built.

Schroth, who studies 17th century Spanish art, has worked for decades on building a relationship with the Museo del Prado in Madrid. But she laughs at the idea of holding the grand international exhibition of Velasquez, El Greco and Rubens that she's been planning, in the DUMA's present space. Not only are the doors, elevator and ceilings too small to handle 12-foot-tall equestrian paintings, "We don't even have a covered loading dock. If it were raining, they'd have to go through the rain in crates, and that's unacceptable." Schroth says the new top-notch facility will make the Nasher eligible for NEA assistance in insuring the borrowed artwork.

But despite the shoestring budget and inadequate building they've had to contend with, the staff of the DUMA has accomplished much in the past 30 years. Under Mezzatesta's leadership, there were an average of 10 to 12 exhibits per year (see sidebar, "At the DUMA," p. 23).

He has also always taken the university mission seriously, and has involved students by inviting them to curate one exhibition per year. There is also an annual event called "A Moving Experience" in which dance students select a piece from the permanent collection to use as inspiration for an original choreographic composition that they perform at the museum.

But according to a former employee, Mezzatesta's efforts have often not been met with enthusiasm, even by the museum's own staff.

Jim Kellough, a freelance artist based in Durham, worked for the DUMA from 1998-99, building and putting together exhibits. He remembers Mezzatesta's charm and hard work, his dynamic energy, and he also remembers his anger and frustration.

"Michael was a smart guy and attractive and powerful," Kellough says. But he had trouble generating enthusiasm and support for the ambitious projects he wanted to undertake. "He wanted to do an exhibition and they'd say, 'We don't have the money, we don't have the time,'" Kellough recalls. "He would show up on the weekends to do the work." Kellough says Mezzatesta would also yell at the staff in moments of frustration, which created resentment. "I feared that the way he treated the employees was going to result in their retribution."

The problems went deeper, however. Inadequate storage and poorly designed museum display structures caused artwork to get damaged, Kellough says, and this kind of damage came to seem almost quotidian. "Because the vitrines and pedestals were so poorly designed and built, you never knew if you took the top off of an exhibit whether the thing inside would get broken because you had to bang on it to get it open."

Kellough remembers an even more disturbing discovery: a limestone medieval sculpture of a saint, smashed into little pieces, in storage. "That's a shocking thing to discover when it's your job to worry about these things." Kellough had built the platform the statue was sitting on. He recalls that an internal investigation determined that the piece had been dropped accidentally, but no further oversight was put in place.

Kellough says he was shaken up by the sight of damaged art, and he felt the museum registrar and assistant director never completely addressed the problem while he was there. "It seemed like a paralysis," he says. "When I told the director that I was uncomfortable working in a place where so much of the art was being damaged or destroyed due to poor design and management, he told me, 'If you leave, you will miss the chance of a lifetime to work in a new museum,'" Kellough decided to leave in 1999.

Problems with the facilities finally became so acute that year that the American Association of Museums (AAM) decided to delay the renewal the DUMA's accreditation until it could find a safer place to store some of its works.

The AAM has a policy of confidentiality and declined to share its findings. But in an email, Mezzatesta explained the situation. "The university was given a year to address the issue of the storage of art in the attic and basement in spaces that were not up to professional standards. We had been trying for many years to get the administration to address the situation, but to no avail. The AAM report was just what we needed to obtain the funding necessary for a proper off-site storage facility. Once that building was secured and the art moved out of the attic and basement areas, the museum's re-accreditation was granted."

A collection taking shape?
Today, the DUMA staff is busy cataloging and preparing art for the big move. The main gallery, just behind the staircase in the main entrance, has been converted into a preparation room. A medieval wooden sculpture of the crucifixion sits in Styrofoam in a box, near a huge modern painting covered in plastic. On the back wall, a set of modern abstract paintings is displayed above a wall-to-wall shelf full of pre-Colombian pottery, which sits in rows on thin sheets of plastic foam.

Now that the Nasher is a big priority for Duke--and a big showpiece--donors are coming out of the woodwork. Duke alumni are emerging from all over, eager to share their collection, or to leave it to the museum in their wills.

Duke is proud of this, naturally. A spokesperson for the museum says several famous collectors, whose names they can't divulge yet, have approached the museum, eager to donate works.

But with all this art coming in, and the museum's leadership packing up, will the permanent collection that's been dreamed about for so long just turn into a mish-mash of tastes?

Denise Dickens was curator of Raleigh's Contemporary Art Museum for 13 years until being voted out by its board of directors last fall. She can attest to the difficulties of staying true to a curatorial vision while building relationships.

"It takes a lot of tact and savvy and cultivation of the donors that sort of makes sense with the education and your collection vision. That is always a delicate balance, because when people want to be generous, you have to find out ways to guide that to help the donor and help the institution."

Dickens says she thinks the Duke museum is poised for great things. "I think we'll see a higher level of good exhibitions and it will put the Triangle more on the map."

As the university searches for its new president, it will be searching for someone who will take the central leadership role in an emerging arts center, one designed to compete with museums at Ivy League institutions like Yale and Princeton. Nasher says he thinks the museum will be a draw for potential administrators.

But under new leadership, will the arts remain a priority at Duke?

Semans thinks so. But, she adds, "We have to be very careful that we keep pushing it. We can't stop, in other words, just because it's being built. That's all the more reason why we should push and get new people and get more people involved and continue to build enthusiasm."

Architect Rafael Vinoly described the greatest challenge of the Nasher as being that he is designing for "the aspirations for the collection." In other words, he did not design a structure for a museum that exists, but for one that will exist in the future, long after its doors open for the first time. EndBlock

At the DUMA

With 12,000 objects to pack up for the big move, the Duke University Museum of Art has scaled back its schedule of exhibitions and events in the past few years. But even the reduced roster shows the range of styles and community involvement that the DUMA has striven for.

ONGOING-- The Mary and Jim Semans Lecture: An endowed speaker series brings in artists and critics, including several in architecture. Rafael Vinoly, who designed the Nasher Museum, spoke in 2001.

Academic Eye: Duke faculty members are invited to curate one exhibit per year. Reynolds Price, focused on the work of Rocky Mount-based landscape painter Danny Robinette. Vice Provost and author Cathy Davidson brought in photographs by Tammy Rae Carland.

A Moving Experience: Each year, Duke dance students are invited to choreograph and perform an original dance inspired by a piece from DUMA's permanent collection.

Art Club Tour: Durham elementary school students give presentations on DUMA works.

2000-- Southern Gate: Seven African American Paintings from the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

To Conserve A Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. This exhibition was created in conjunction with N.C. Central University and the Center for Documentary Studies, and featured more than 200 artworks from the collections of six historically black colleges and universities. Events included films, lectures and a concert by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Xu Bing: Tobacco Project. Contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing created a series of site-specific installations in Durham, using tobacco products as a tool of exploring the intersection of American and Chinese culture.

2001-- Bad Boys of the '80's: Francesco Clemente, Eric Fischl, David Salle. Four graphic paintings by three provocative artists of the 1980's explored issues of sexuality.

Mary Lou Williams: In Her Own Right. This exhibition of archived and commissioned pieces celebrated the life of a musician and Duke artist-in-residence who died in 1981.

R.B. Kitaj: This exhibition featured lectures by John Coffey, a curator of American and modern art at the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Erik Zakim, a Hebrew professor at Duke.

2002-- Missing: Documenting the Spontaneous Memorials of 9/11. Photography.

Talk by Aimee Molloy, remarks by Nan Keohane.

Pedro Figari (1861-1938): Lines of Uruguayan Life. A student-curated exhibition.

2003-- North Carolina School: The Art of Architecture. This celebration of North Carolina architecture featured lectures by renowned architects Phil Szostak, Robert Burns, Frank Harmon and Bernie Reeves.

CURRENT-- Prints by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, Moscow architects who were censored by strict Soviet styles and became leaders of the Moscow conceptualist movement of the 1980s. Through Sept. 7.

Dyshlenko--Change of Situation: Yuri Dyshlenko was born in 1936 and spent three decades in Leningrad before emigrating to New York in 1990, where he died five years later. His style was collage-like, an information age bombardment of visual data--a monument of the Soviet myth of the American lifestyle. Through October 26.

Call the DUMA at 684-5135 for details and hours.

This story has been corrected since it first appeared.

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