Roger Manley can finally talk about art again. For more than three years now, the director of the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at N.C. State has been discussing ducts, lighting, and rock drills, ever since the old incarnation of the museum closed when the student union underwent a major renovation.
This Saturday, the Gregg reopens in its new building with a day of family activities, tours, and artist demonstrations. It also launches three new exhibits, including selections from the museum's collections, a substantial donation of Native American art and artifacts, and a gemlike presentation of N.C.-based painter Herb Jackson's work.
"For a long time, the Gregg has had a reputation as a quilts-and-baskets museum," Manley says. "What I'm trying to do in this inaugural installation is suggest something of the spectrum of what we could do."
The student body at N.C. State barely knows that it has an art museum. Since the Gregg moved into limbo in an offsite storage area in 2013, it has offered only a couple of shows at Meredith College and N.C. State's African American Cultural Center, though it has hosted classes that leverage its collection of more than 35,000 objects.
Now it trades obscurity for high visibility. The university gave the Gregg its historic chancellor's residence, with its coveted Hillsborough Street frontage, and the museum partnered with architect Phil Freelon at Perkins+Will to design a contemporary addition on the side of the Georgian-style brick house. Construction began in 2015 with a project cost of $9.5 million, paid for by student fees, the university, the City of Raleigh, Wake County, and $4 million the Gregg raised privately.
The new Gregg, twice the size of the old, is a huge improvement. It's in a building designed for its purpose, with uncarpeted floors, proper museum lighting, and lots of natural light instead of being jammed into a dim, utilitarian student center. Its spaces are flexible, so the museum no longer has to shut down completely to change a show. Nor must it adhere to the academic schedule (the Gregg used to close with the rest of campus over holidays and breaks).
It looks terrific, too, beautifully merging two buildings and incorporating a pollinator garden designed by horticultural science students. The new location is close to neighborhoods and restaurants, part of an emerging arts hub that includes N.C. State's Pullen Arts Center and Raleigh's Pullen Park.
The new building positions the Gregg to better fulfill its missions as both a university and community museum. Remember the Duke University Museum of Art? Didn't think so. It wasn't until Duke built the stand-alone Nasher that it acquired a national—heck, even a local—reputation. Now N.C. State also has a stand-alone museum, situated on the edge of campus, where thousands of commuters will pass by daily.
"We're not embedded in the campus anymore," Manley says. "We're sticking out here like Florida. We're really surrounded on all four sides by Raleigh now.
From a programming standpoint, the Gregg plans to build upon its focus on regional and outsider artists, and will make its diverse, vast collections more visible. Every museum director has an exhibition wish list, and now Manley and his staff get to check some off.
"I want there to be something for everyone, and that wasn't so possible in the old place," he says. "Here we can do a show of customized motorcycles in one room and have landscape paintings in another. The sheer flexibility is the biggest difference to me, and that's what shaped our whole design process. I didn't want the building to determine what we could do in it."
Manley describes the largest of the opening exhibits, Show and Tell, as a "core sample" that shows the range of the Gregg's collections. Visitors can step on a button to set a Vollis Simpson whirligig in motion, gape at an eleven-foot-high tribal mask from New Guinea, drool over an impressive array of modernist chairs, and resist laying hands on a lovely cast-glass work by Rick Beck. Photography, antique fans, ethnographic materials, ceramics, textiles, and much more will appear.
The Herb Jackson show might be the one that people will be talking about, however. The Gregg created a special lighting treatment for the abstract painter's work that shouldn't be spoiled by description. Even if you've been admiring Jackson's work for decades, A Door Is Not a Window will show it to you in an unprecedented way.
The next show in the main space, in 2018, will be a retrospective of N.C.-based sculptor Bob Trotman, whose "Vertigo," a life-size businessman suspended in freefall, will be borrowed from the North Carolina Museum of Art to hang in the Gregg's lobby. Other future shows include images of blues musicians from Hillsborough-based photographer Tim Duffy, craftwork and collections from Robert Keith Black and J. Ormond Sanderson (who were substantial donors to the Gregg renovation), customized motorcycles, surrealist furniture, pareidolia photography from the Southwest, and, as Manley puts it, "the Vernon Pratt show that no one's ever done."
Two future collaborations in particular demonstrate the Gregg's increased capacity for creative partnerships. The museum will team up with the NCSU Libraries and the Genetic Engineering and Society Center on a show about the feedback between biotechnology and art. It will also partner with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art on a show of Southern photography.
It's a dramatic re-entry into the Triangle's art scene for the Gregg, and an opportunity for STEM-heavy N.C. State to build its identity in the humanities. Although the Gregg doesn't plan to host hallmark group shows like the Ackland's More Love or feature contemporary art stars, as the Nasher has with Barkley Hendricks and Wangechi Mutu, it now has the platform from which to spring out of undeserved obscurity.