"That's the museum with the dead guy in it, right?"
This is what my daughter says when I tell her we're going to an exhibit at the Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill. And it's true—as part of his bequest, William Hayes Ackland lies in state in an alcove crypt off a narrow gallery. But he's the only dead thing about the Ackland, an institution that is taking the occasion of its 60th anniversary this fall to reenergize its spaces and staff, recommit to campus and community, and maybe even kickstart the process of getting a new building that fits its current work and ambitious future.
Under the leadership of director Katie Ziglar, who came on two years ago, the Ackland has reconsidered every aspect of its operations, collections, exhibitions, programming, and especially how it uses its modest space. The anniversary celebrations kick off this week with a surprise-laden exhibition of new acquisitions, an artist residency by Lonnie Holley (see p. 39), the RedBall public art project, and the relaunch of ART&, a hybrid community and exhibition space. Add this to a top-to-bottom refreshing of the Ackland's permanent collection and a flurry of new community partnerships, and it expresses the organizational values that came out of the museum's deep reconsideration: rigor, responsiveness, and playfulness.
"We're getting ready to burst forward," Ziglar says. "I felt, coming in, that our connections with the local community didn't equal what we have with the university by a long shot. So I really wanted to see us improve in that direction."
The first thing Ziglar did when she arrived was to create the Terrace Gallery, the previously austere outdoor space along the street frontage of the museum. She brought in Los Trompos, an interactive installation of huge, colorful tops by contemporary Mexican designers Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena. Students and visitors could climb and spin on what were essentially giant toys laced with fabric woven in a traditional style by Mexican artisans, making the Ackland's front yard into a play space nonetheless charged by art. The terrace is now showing North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty's Step Right Up, five stickwork sculptures big enough to get inside, which were inspired by an ancient pouring vessel in the Ackland's collection.
Ziglar's goal of a more outward-facing Ackland continues with The RedBall Project, which kicks off with a celebration on Thursday, Sep. 20 at 1:30 p.m. Part Instagram-age public art piece, part scavenger hunt, it consists of a giant red ball that changes locations throughout a city each day. The brainchild of artist Kurt Perschke, RedBall has traveled to more than twenty-five cities around the world. On top of recent partnerships with Flash Chorus, earspace ensemble, and the Film Forum series on women directors at the Varsity Theatre, it marks the Ackland as a champion of community involvement.
While transforming outdoor spaces into galleries, the Ackland is also changing one of its galleries back into a multi-use community space. ART&—a flex room that can be lounge, programming, or exhibition space—returns on Sep. 21 with a commissioned work of "bespoke wallpaper" by Baltimore-based artist and UNC alum Lauren Frances Adams. ART& will feature artist talks, performances, art-making classes, and film screenings while remaining open to spontaneous meetings and just hanging out.
Adams's work is timely for UNC and Chapel Hill regarding the toppling of the Silent Sam Confederate statue and the legal proceedings of the activists who toppled it. She ornately juxtaposes racially charged historical imagery—one work combines Google Street View locations in Baltimore where formerly enslaved people lived with the wallpaper pattern from President Andrew Jackson's home—showing how, for many Americans, racial inequity remains an easily ignored background fact in their daily lives. Durham-based artist Stacey L. Kirby follows Adams with an ART& installation planned for spring.
The Ackland also opens the exhibition Birthday Presents on Sep. 21, bringing together sixty recent acquisitions from more than thirty donors. The show offers a look at the museum's broad collecting perspective as well as its emphases on African and postwar work. It includes Rembrandt etchings, drawings and prints by Stuart Davis, Lyonel Feininger, Lee Krasner, Jasper Johns, and Adolph Gottlieb, and video and film work including former art department faculty member Jeff Whetstone's "The Batture Ritual," which showed at Prospect New Orleans last year.
Typically, when people think of visionary or vernacular work, it's by artists from the American South. Working with the American Studies department, the Ackland is challenging the narrowness of those definitions as well as its own collections. Assistant curator Lauren Turner highlights a trio of drawings by Inuit artists, all women, as an indicator of the Ackland's broadened view toward collecting.
"In many ways, these artists meet the definition of vernacular, but not in ways that you'd expect," Turner says. "There are things that need to be redressed from years of collecting patterns."
- Photo courtesy of Brit Worgan
- The RedBall Project
This new thinking won't simply be highlighted in a temporary exhibition for an anniversary year; it will also transform the Ackland's permanent exhibition spaces later in the fall. Walls will be relocated and painted more colorfully. A gallery will be devoted to postwar and contemporary art, shrinking the space for the art of the ancient Mediterranean. Much more of the rich collection of works on paper will be on display (with creative solutions for the light-exposure risks), as well as work from throughout the African continent, both classical and contemporary.
Peter Nisbet, deputy director for curatorial affairs, is excited to show some of the museum's vernacular photography collection, consisting of about forty anonymous works of everyday snapshot photography from around 1900 to the present.
"There are some amazing images that come up when you look at vernacular photography, in a way that's challenging and inspiring and irritating all at once, because often the aesthetic power of these works comes about by chance," Nisbet says. "A photograph taken with a finger partly across the lens ends up being a really interesting composition, or somebody diving into a pool caught at just the right moment can exhibit extraordinary transcendental grace."
And did you know that the Ackland had a second floor? The museum is rebranding its upstairs Study Gallery—where it presents twelve small exhibits per semester in conjunction with UNC classes—as Ackland Upstairs after realizing that the public, assuming the space was off-limits to non-students, almost never climbed the stairs. Elizabeth Manekin, head of university programs and academic projects, has rethought how to make the small shows more engaging for non-academic visitors, offering framing questions with the class syllabi.
"You might not be in a survey course of nineteenth-century romanticism," Turner says, "but you can use this to say, 'Hey, where do you see the sublime in your life?'"
With all the changes inside and outside the galleries, the Ackland has also expanded its staff, bringing on Dana Cowen as the new Sheldon Peck Curator for European and American Art before 1950. A specialist in prints, photographs, and drawings—which make up around two-thirds of the Ackland's collection—Cowen's hire is supported by an $8 million endowment from Peck and his wife, Leena, and will be focused partially on their gift of primarily seventeenth-century European masterworks, valued at $17 million.
"Dana is really committed to working with classes and teaching and research and adopting new technologies into exhibition spaces," Turner says. "She's going to be very good for us, considering how one of our biggest challenges is that we just don't have that many galleries to do exhibitions."
If getting the most out of its space seems to be an obsession at the Ackland, it's because the museum outgrew it long ago. But as the Triangle has seen the openings of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke (2005), the North Carolina Museum of Art's gigantic West Building (2010), the relocation and expansion of N.C. State's Gregg Museum of Art & Design (2017), and Duke's launch of the Rubenstein Arts Center this year, the Ackland has plugged along in its brick box sandwiched between the Hanes Art Center and some retail buildings.
"When Katie [Ziglar] arrived, she made no bones about it," Nisbet says. "She has talked about a new building tirelessly, trying to work out with the university how best to do it. She is unshakeable in this argument."
"We've outgrown our current building any way you want to measure it, from exhibition space to storage and office space," Ziglar says. "And we're lacking a lot of amenities that a lot of museums these days have for their visitors—a café, an auditorium. We also don't have classrooms for the many students who come to look at art during their courses."
Seeing the potential of the many events of this birthday year as a proof of concept for a new building, Ziglar is also mindful of how slowly such projects move forward—or stall out, as a plan for a new Ackland did in the early aughts.
"This time, we plan to do it in such a way that it will succeed. In the meantime, we have a lot of work to do to get to that point," Ziglar says. "Maximizing what we can do inside the building is one step, [as is] pushing outside to the terrace. We'll keep doing interactive art out there so, in a way, we're open even when we're not open."
Ziglar seems to be changing the idea of a new building from an if to a when. In the meantime, the re-energized Ackland is offering plenty of reasons to visit the art museum with the dead guy in it throughout this fall.
EDITOR'S PICKS: FIVE FALL ART EXHIBITS
By Brian Howe
Portraying Power and Identity: A Global Perspective One of many cascading effects of our century's new reckoning with old kinds of representation and power is portraiture's renewed art-world relevance, and 21c's challenging new exhibit unfurls it through a global-historical yet contemporary lens, featuring the likes of Anthony Goicolea, Kehinde Wiley, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Sep. 14–Mar. 31, 21c Museum Hotel, Durham, www.21cmuseumhotels.com/durham
Across County Lines: Contemporary Photography from the Piedmont The Nasher has been pushing forward local photography lately. Southern Lens, which complements the autumn exhibit People Get Ready, seems like a teaser for Across County Lines, in which dozens of photographers, both emerging and famed, aim their lenses at life and land in the N.C. Piedmont region. Oct. 4–Feb. 10, The Nasher Museum of Art, Durham, www.nasher.duke.edu
Above the Rim: Courtside at CAM Want to see a basketball hoop made of steel, stained glass, and Swarovski crystal? Victor Solomon's "Xanadu" is but one example of the roundball razzle-dazzle in this international group show, curated by conceptual artist Phil America and gallerist Jacob Patterson. No dunking. Oct. 5–Feb. 3, CAM Raleigh, Raleigh, www.camraleigh.org
Vernon Pratt: All the Possibilities of Sixteen The Gregg unveils a never-before-seen posthumous exhibit by the inimitable Durham art teacher, jazz maven, and mathematical abstractionist Vernon Pratt, whose white granite block sculpture you've likely sat on in the Durham Arts Council courtyard. Oct. 11–Feb. 10, Gregg Museum of Art & Design, Raleigh, www.gregg.arts.ncsu.edu
The Beyond: Georgia O'Keeffe and Contemporary Art In the season's blockbuster exhibit, significant sculptures and paintings by titan Georgia O'Keeffe are joined by twenty emerging artists who dare to test her perennial subjects: gigantic flowers, thrusting skyscrapers, refulgent deserts. American modernism blossoms here. Oct. 13–Jan. 20, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, www.ncartmuseum.org
EDITOR'S PICKS: FIVE FALL ARTS FESTIVALS
By Brian Howe
SPARKcon Raleigh's annual local-artist-led omni-festival returns from the brink of extinction (a recent crowdfunding campaign helped save it) to spark downtown streets and venues with everything from concerts and comedy to circus arts and fashion shows. Date TBA (postponed for weather), downtown Raleigh, www.sparkcon.com
CenterFest Arts Festival The Durham Arts Council's outdoor arts and crafts festival is a family-friendly tradition dating back almost half a century, filling downtown with live music and dance as well as more than one hundred forty artists and artisans. Sep. 15 & 16, downtown Durham, www.centerfest.durhamarts.org
La Fiesta del Pueblo A production of Raleigh nonprofit El Pueblo, the Triangle's biggest and longest-running Latinx festival celebrates its twenty-fifth birthday with a day of music, arts, and food stretching from City Plaza to the capitol. Sep. 23, downtown Raleigh, www.elpueblo.org
CLICK! Photography Festival The Triangle's largest festival dedicated exclusively to photography turns October into lens lover's dream, saturating virtually every local gallery with solo and group exhibits, artist receptions, and keynote talks, with lots of auxiliary programs geared toward working photographers both aspiring and established. Oct. 1–31, various venues, Durham, www.clickphotofest.org
Festifall Arts Festival A spiritual successor of spring arts and crafts fest Apple Chill, which ran on Franklin Street for decades before it started attracting motorcycle groups and the town shut it down—a long, fraught, interesting story; we'll tell you about it sometime—Festifall is a concise half-day of art exhibits and vendors, food trucks, and three stages of live performance. Oct. 7, West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, www.chapelhillfestifall.com