North Carolina has one of the few state-owned art museums in the country. It’s a welcome expression of the state’s better nature, especially considering that the government lately has been better known for the infamous
House Bill 2, systematic racial gerrymandering, and unlawful voter suppression.
The West Building, which houses the permanent collection, is an internationally significant work of architecture. Architect Thomas Phifer designed the building, which was completed in 2010. Phifer is based in New York but has roots in the Carolinas: He holds two degrees from Clemson, and early in his career he worked at firms in Charlotte and Greenville. Notably, the museum has its origins in a 1920’s bequest of artworks and funding from one Robert F. Phifer. I don’t know whether he and the architect are related.
The building sits calmly in the landscape, a strong yet low-key presence amid gravel paths and native grasses.
Inside, it deliberately eschews the traditional museum to offer something more like an art dealer’s gallery, or a very sophisticated residence. Much of the space is essentially one giant room, with gauzy-curtained glass walls, elliptical skylights permeating the ceiling, and screens or panels where most museums have walls and doorways.
More formal museums sometimes seem to boss you around: “Stand here and look at this! Now go over there and look at that!” This building facilitates. It collects hundreds of artworks, wraps them in beautiful natural light, and sets you free to wander among them. It’s a much more intimate process than the usual linear march along the museum walls.
The exterior incorporates sleek aluminum cladding, which can be dazzling in the Southern light.
Beautiful courtyards strike an exquisite balance between artifice and nature. Water plants and gravel play against the vertical lines of the façade, mediated by statuary and open space.
Among its many virtues, the building is a thoroughly considered work of art that has enough confidence to be subtle. It has savoir-faire without arrogance; it shows without telling. It’s a cultural treasure equal to the treasures it contains.