The Nasher turns 10: How Duke’s obscure campus museum grew into a world-class mirror for Durham | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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The Nasher turns 10: How Duke’s obscure campus museum grew into a world-class mirror for Durham

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Twenty years ago, talking about the Triangle's art scene would have been like talking about its great public transit system or its plentiful vegetarian restaurants­—more aspirational than accurate.

A lot has changed. The number of artists in the region, and the number of places they can show—from small, flexible galleries to large, world-class facilities—has skyrocketed. Now the problem isn't finding something good to see; it's finding time to see everything good.

With its relatively low cost of living and relatively large amount of cultural opportunities, the Triangle was primed to nuture a thriving art scene long before it had one. The missing element was venues to get work into the public sphere and galvanize communities around it.

In our cover story this week, we look at two indispensable spaces that are celebrating milestone years­—one that has helped build the scene from the top down, the other from the bottom up. Between them, we get a well-rounded picture of how local art has matured, startlingly fast, over the last two decades.

The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University feels like such a permanent fixture of Durham that it's easy to forget it has been there for only 10 years. We delve into the story of its humble origins as an obscure campus museum and how it developed its unique collection area in the art of the African diaspora.

Lump has held down its Raleigh spot for an astonishing 20 years. As grassroots and grungy as the Nasher is grand, Lump's gallery and collective model feels more like Durham in 2015 than Raleigh in 1995. The little gallery that could's contributions to local life cannot be overstated, and its innovative shows continue to challenge, confound and confront. In celebrating the birthdays of Nasher and Lump, we celebrate the Triangle's artistic growth, and we can't wait to see what the next 20 years will bring. —Brian Howe


According to the lore, the botanist threatened the art collector with either a firearm or a gardening tool. It depends on whom you ask.

"That's how urban legends start," Nasher Museum of Art director Sarah Schroth says, laughing. "I heard shovel. Like he would hit him over the head with a shovel."

Wendy Hower, the Nasher's longtime outreach director, says she once asked Raymond Nasher if the botany professor really chased him off the future site of his museum with a shotgun.

"He said, 'I'm going to stick with that story,'" Hower says. "I couldn't confirm this, so I couldn't put it in the book," meaning the detailed history of the museum she compiled this year for its 10th anniversary celebration.

Reporting from The News & Observer and The Chronicle provides a less mythological record of the dispute. In 1989, professor Janis Antonovics encountered Raymond Nasher, Michael Mezzatesta and an associate on the 8.8-acre meadow at Duke University Road and Anderson Street where the esteemed botanist kept his research plants. He ran up to the trio, demanding to know what they were doing in his field.

In fact, they were scouting it as the location for a new museum to replace the small, ad hoc Duke University Museum of Art, stashed in a science building on East Campus. Mezzatesta was its director. Nasher was the Duke alumnus who was prepared to donate millions to replace it.

By 1990, after much public debate, the botanist and the museum had agreed to share the site. Landscape architect Peter Rolland drew a map, and the board of trustees, to which Nasher belonged, approved it. But by 1991, the compromise had collapsed in the museum's favor, and Antonovics decamped for a distinguished career at other universities.

More than a simple land dispute, the incident was symbolic of a turning point, between old Duke and new Duke, in the institutional status of the arts at a research institution that prided itself on science and medicine­.

"Duke as a whole didn't support the arts until this project," says Schroth. "President Brodhead says it all the time: In the arts initiative at Duke, the milestone was the building of the Nasher."

Ten years and one million visitors later, the Nasher has added about 1,000 pieces, mostly contemporary, to DUMA's collection of about 13,000 pieces, mostly from antiquity. It has launched touring exhibitions into prominent urban arts institutions throughout the country, a rarity for academic museums, bringing accolades to Durham from the likes of The New York Times and Artforum. And it has pulled ahead of many larger, older, better-funded institutions in collecting the art of the contemporary African diaspora, its defining strength.

"We've been able to lead in that area, no question about it," Schroth says.

The museum has accomplished this with many kinds of support: from the university, from the donors and board members whose names adorn its pavilions, and from its unique staff. But it all started with the drive of Raymond Nasher and Michael Mezzatesta.

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