Regional Museums Attract New Audiences in Growing Urban Areas

This article is part of our latest special section on Museums, which focuses on new artists, new audiences and new ways of thinking about exhibitions.


RALEIGH, NC – In March 2020, Wilson Murphy decamped from Manhattan, where he had lived for more than 30 years.

“Covid hit, and everyone was scattering,” said Mr. Murphy, who is the founder of a firm that represents photographers. “So, I scattered. Down to Raleigh. ”

Though he had graduated from the University of North Carolina in nearby Chapel Hill, Mr. Murphy hadn’t been back to Raleigh in years. So he unpacked his Trek mountain bike and decided to explore his new home via the city’s extensive network of bike trails.

He meandered northwest of the downtown area, along paths emptied by the pandemic, until he came across an open expanse ringed with oaks and southern pines – and some unusual sights that weren’t from nature: a lone, towering brick smokestack; three large earthen rings; and, a little ways off the trail and tucked into a small courtyard surrounded by a rectangular building – was that a statue? Mr. Murphy pedaled closer, leaning over to examine what turned out to be three bronze figures. Then, it hit him.

“I said, ‘Holy smoke!'” He recalled. “It’s a Rodin!”

Further investigation revealed several other works by that renowned French sculptor in the plaza – and many more on the ground level of the building.

“I thought to myself,‘ What the heck are 30 Rodins doing in Raleigh? ’” Mr. Murphy said.

He soon learned that the North Carolina Museum of Art – the buildings he had stumbled across – was home to one of the largest Rodin collections in the United States, including a cast of one of the sculptor’s most famous works, “The Kiss,” and “The Three Shades,” the statue of Mr. Murphy had spotted from his bike. Created over six years in the late 19th century and inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” it depicts three lost souls who stand at the entrance of hell.

In addition to 29 Rodins given to the museum in 2005 by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, the museum’s collection of 4,325 objects also includes the only Giotto altarpiece displayed outside of Italy and significant works by Botticelli, Raphael, Rubens, Van Dyck and Monet, as well as extensive collections of Jewish ceremonial and ancient Egyptian funerary art.

When Valerie Hillings, a former curator at two of the Guggenheim Museums who is now director of the North Carolina Museum of Art, was interviewed for the position in 2018, she was shown not only the old masters, but also the museum’s vibrant collection of contemporary and American art, as well as its 164-acre park.

“I looked around and I said to myself,‘ I could work here, ’” Ms. Hillings said. (After years of living in New York, she added with a chuckle, her biggest adjustment has been relearning how to drive.)

But the museum’s nationally renowned collection is not its only asset. The institution, which sits on the outskirts of Raleigh, has something more, something that even more prominent museums in Northeastern and Midwestern cities with larger collections cannot match: an opportunity to build a new audience from a growing number of people who – whether because of the pandemic, the Great Resignation or the decades-long trend of Americans migrating toward the Sun Belt and the Far West – are moving to cities like Raleigh, whose population has increased by 25 percent over the last decade.

Some of these newcomers, like Mr. Murphy, discover museums in their new communities quite by accident, but are delighted. Others need a bit of persuading, especially those arriving from museum-rich cities like New York.

“There’s a different dynamic of programming taking place at the smaller and midsized museums in these fast-growing areas,” said Susie Wilkening, a museum consultant based in Seattle. “They’re probably not going to be able to bring in the blockbuster van Gogh show, but they can match that by bringing in great contemporary shows; exhibiting new, interesting local and Indigenous artists; or offering other programming, like hands-on classes or live events. ”

For the North Carolina Museum of Art, one such amenity is its sculpture park, which functions as an outdoor gallery for 35 works, including Thomas Sayre’s iconic, ring-shaped “Gyre,” which serves as an unofficial logo for the museum. Another feature is a 120-foot smokestack, a remnant of the detention center that once sat on the grounds.

Another museum in a rapidly growing city, the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, is home to a collection of 2,000 works of Latin American art, which includes pieces by 600 artists from Mexico, South and Central America, and the Caribbean. Its Julia Matthews Wilkinson Center for Prints and Drawings also includes 16,000 works on paper, many dating back to the early Renaissance.

The challenge for Simone Wicha, the Blanton’s director, is to let these newcomers know that in a city most often associated with music, there are also museums worth visiting. Her pitch is simple: “I say, ‘Put aside your expectations of what a museum here would be,'” she said. “Come to the Blanton. You may be surprised. ‘”

Kim Manajek, who has directed the Longmont Museum, a community-based institution near Denver, since 2017, said the key to attracting new residents would be greater communication with them to ascertain their expectations more fully. In the meantime, the Longmont is trying to develop new programming, such as its current exhibition on washi Japanese paper art – that runs through May 15, and which also included a presentation on conditions in a World War II Japanese internment camp in southeastern Colorado and the experiences of some local Japanese American families during that period.

“We had a full auditorium for that,” Ms. Manajek said. “I got so much feedback about how surprising that history was to people.”

The experience was a reminder of another important role museums in growing metropolitan areas can play for newcomers: a crash course in local history. “A museum is one of the best places to learn about the community, its history and culture,” said Laura Lott, president and chief executive of the American Alliance of Museums.

That’s part of what drew Gregory Miller, a retired pharmaceutical executive, to the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, NC – yet another Southern city that has been growing in popularity, particularly among retirees, in part because of its proximity to Wrightsville and Carolina Beaches.

Mr. Miller and his wife, Carol, a retired hospital social worker, had volunteered with the Barnes Foundation, a nonprofit cultural and educational institution in his native Philadelphia, inside the city’s Museum Mile. Mr. Miller had served on the board of the foundation, which houses an extensive collection of Impressionist and Modern art.

When he and Ms. Miller moved to Wilmington in 2016, they began visiting local museums to learn more about their new home – and to find a new place to volunteer. Ultimately, they chose the Cameron – a fine arts, crafts and design museum five miles from Wilmington’s historic downtown – for a reason that might be instructive to museums looking to appeal to retirees: Their grandchildren liked it.

Mr. Miller said that his granddaughter, Alex, who was around 8 when she first visited, loved the children’s exhibition – and the chance to interact with others her own age. Eventually, the Millers took all three of their grandchildren to the Cameron. “It made them realize that there’s more here than a beach,” Miller said.

But while the dynamism of regional museums may be growing, no one is suggesting that the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art needs to worry. “There are always going to be people who want to visit the Met or the Smithsonian,” Ms. Lott said. “But what we might be seeing is a renaissance of sorts for these mid-sized museums.”

Along with lower taxes and warmer weather, regional museums may be figuring into people’s decision to move to some Sun Belt and Far West cities. When Mark and Linda Weiss, a recently retired couple, were driving through Raleigh in 2015, where they planned to move from Washington, DC, their real estate agent pointed out the North Carolina Museum of Art.

“She said,‘ You should visit, it’s wonderful, ’” Ms. Weiss said.

“That was an understatement,” added Mr. Weiss, a Brooklyn native. “It’s a game.”

The Weisses are now volunteers at the museum. As for Mr. Murphy, the adventurous cyclist, he is also now a member and frequent visitor, though he is well aware that the institution he discovered accidentally is not the Met, the Guggenheim or the Louvre.

“It can’t compete with those major places,” he said. “But the Rodins make me feel like there’s a little bit of Paris here in North Carolina.”

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