NC Museum of Art 'tunnels' through to new building

AP News
Posted: Nov 17, 2009 2:08 PM

The Botticelli had happily hung in the North Carolina Museum of Art for more than a quarter-century, moving only a few feet over the years.

But "The Adoration of the Child" was in for a surprise one October morning when three glove-wearing handlers swiftly removed the round painting in its gilded frame from the gallery entrance, placed it on a cart and pushed it through a custom-made tunnel to its new home.

"Art work never likes to be moved," said Dan Gottlieb, the museum's director of planning and design. "It's happiest being left alone."

If so, there's bad news in store for the 750 pieces of art being moved from the museum's current, dimly lit building to a new, 127,000-square-foot one that uses natural light, usually anathema to paintings and works on paper, as the major design element. When the new building opens, the museum's permanent collection gallery space will increase by 54 percent.

The Associated Press got a glimpse of some of the behind-the-scenes designs making it possible to safely transfer invaluable pieces from one building to another as part of the expansion that will cost $73.1 million in public money and $5.5 million in private funds. The work includes a tunnel that connects the two buildings and a hidden, roll-up door that will allow art the size of the massive museum walls to be moved into the new building.

The building itself, designed by New York architect Thomas Phifer, includes a "skin" that's about 50 percent glass, allowing in sunlight. Since art and light are usually mortal enemies, the design includes protective elements such as ultraviolet filters, louvers and curtains.

And when the hot sun of a Southern summer beats down, sensors will tell shades to deploy.

On a recent gray, drizzly day, museum director Larry Wheeler took the AP on a quick tour of the new building, acting like the proud papa. "I don't think ever in the world has a museum been invented that used this much natural light per square foot," he said. "The only reason we can do it is because it's the 21st century and we've found a way to engineer the UV."

The 12-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide and 130-foot-long tunnel was Gottlieb's idea. He said he couldn't imagine a design that didn't allow staffers and art to move easily between the new building and the old one, which will house special exhibitions and host educational programs after the new building opens in April 2010.

"It was a given to me in terms of just good museum practice that the new permanent collection gallery must have a really good and secure means of transport for the collection," Gottlieb said.

He wanted it large enough to move almost every piece of art work from one building to another, but knew of two exceptions _ "Raqqa II" by Frank Stella and "Six Women" by Alex Katz. Handlers waited for the day when construction workers were removing the front doors that spanned the old building, then took those paintings outside and into their new home.

The Stella, at 25 square feet, required 22 people and one hour to move; the Katz, at more than 223 square feet, took 40 minutes and the same number of people.

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Gottlieb likens moving those two paintings to building a ship in a bottle since they got in the building without as much fanfare. The difference: The paintings were stretched once inside.

He describes another unseen part of the museum design _ the roll-up door inside a wall _ as "my gift to future operators of the museum because I've had to cut holes in museums before."

And he's not kidding _ when he worked at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, he designed an exhibition of Egyptian art. To get the antiquities inside, the museum cut a hole in the building.

The design elements drew compliments from the president and CEO of the American Association of Museums. "These are things new museums need to think about," said association President Ford Bell. "It's a very clever and creative approach. It communicates to the community that the objects are rare and valuable and this is a way to protect them."

Gottlieb, who has worked on the expansion for 11 years, described this point as the home stretch for himself.

"We have realized this project in the way we could only pray to do so well," he said. "We're able to start moving the art works in, and the building is being transformed into this perfect, minimalist thing that brings art and light together in a way that nobody else has done."


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(This version corrects the expansion cost mentioned in the 5th graf, based on new figures from museum.))