A complete history of the North Carolina Museum of Art

West Building under construction | Photo via NCMA

Raleigh is home to the first art museum in the US to be established using state funds, drawing people from across the country to witness the NCMA’s collection

From the Museum Park, to the East + West Buildings, to the outdoor Joseph M. Bryan, Jr., Theater, the museum now offers something for everyone

Taking it back to 1924

The NCMA began with the creation of the North Carolina State Art Society in 1924. Composed of six members, the society was predominantly led by the young widow, Katherine Pendleton Arrington. 

Under her leadership, the society pursued their mission to “secure an Art Museum for the State, in our Capital City; to collect, preserve, and exhibit works of art, both new and old; and to stimulate interest in art, particularly among the rising generation of this State.” 

Through a partnership with the Grand Central Art galleries in New York, the NC Art Society began introducing art into state schools and collaborating with New York galleries for annual loan exhibitions. 

Three years later, with a $1 million trust and a heavy amount of art bestowed upon them, the society managed to acquire rooms on Capitol Square for both a Temporary State Art Museum in the Agriculture Building + the State Art Gallery in the Supreme Court of NC Building. 

When the US faced the Great Depression, the Art Society managed to sustain itself with support from the Federal Art Project of the Works Project Administration. When the Federal Art Project shut down in 1943, the Art Society had to pivot and make the decision to ask for state funding

Enter: The “Miracle on Morgan Street.” In early 1956, the North Carolina Museum of Art opened in the renovated State Highway Division Building as the first art museum in the country to be established by state funds. Located on Morgan Street in Downtown, the founders viewed the location as a temporary setting for the art. The 28,000 sqft location was already outgrown by the early 1960s. 

William Valentiner was chosen as the museum’s first director. Previously, William was the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and co-director of the Los Angeles County Museum.   

Moving to Blue Ridge Road 

Given the need for a larger space + better accommodations, the state legislature decided to create a 15-member State Art Commission in 1967 to secure a new location for the museum. 

Ultimately, the Blue Ridge Road site that Raleigh locals are now familiar with, was chosen in 1972. The East Building was to be constructed by Edward Durell Stone and Associates of New York and Holloway-Reeves Architects of North Carolina

Edward Durell Stone was also known for his design and completion of the NC State Legislative building in 1963. However, Edward’s initial vision for the East Building struggled to come to fruition as design changes + lawsuits contributed to significant delays. 

“The building was envisioned by the architect with many rooftop garden spaces, a large reflecting pool, enormous galleries, and a diagonal circulation spine: all a formal manipulation of a 100 ft square,” NCMA Deputy Director Katherine White, said. “The square shrank to 80 feet and another 50% of the building disappeared in cost reductions, leaving the circulating spine and one major rectilinear gallery (first for the European collection, now Gallery One for temporary projects).”

Still, the new location provided twice the exhibition space as the Morgan Street location. 

Eventually a Master Plan was devised in the late 1980s by artist Barbara Kruger, architects Laurie Hawkinson and Henry Smith-Miller, and landscape architect Nicholas Quennell. 

“The team was selected by a national search sponsored by the museum and supported by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Arts,” said Lyle Humphrey, the NCMA’s Associate Curator of European Art and Collection History.

Nearly 10 years after the creation of the master plan, the Joseph M. Bryan, Jr. Theater opened + shortly after, the state legislature granted the museum a site for the development of a park and trail system

Now, museum park goers can see artwork and sculptures by Raleigh-based Thomas Sayre, Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin, and more.

In 2000, then NCMA director Larry Wheeler set out with plans to construct a new building to hold the museum’s permanent collection, expand the collection on view, host more exhibitions, and offer additional amenities to the visitors. 

Architect Thomas Phifer and Partners were chosen to design the new building, now called the West Building. Keeping in mind the green principals of the museum park, the building was designed with environmental functionality in mind, featuring controlled storm water runoff, enhanced energy efficiency, climate-control systems, and responsible landscaping practices. 

Now under the direction of Duke University graduate Valerie Hillings, visitors can enjoy the park daily and view the free galleries Wednesday-Sunday from 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

Contributed by Megan Pociask