A Park as an Extension of the Museum Itself

  • 2016-03-23
  • The New York Times

RALEIGH, N.C. — The highest point in this city is looking a little steeper this winter, thanks to the mounds of red earth exhumed by roaring excavators.

Crews are reconfiguring the land to create a new gathering space here. Come summer, this 17-acre site should be covered by 400 trees and more than 20 mounded gardens filled with native plants and walkways as well as bike paths connected to more than 100 miles of greenway stretching across Raleigh. In the center will be a manicured meadow welcoming aimless wanderers, sun worshipers and cultural events.

Many municipalities are developing ambitious new parks. But this $13 million project is not the brainchild of a mayor’s office or recreation advocates but the North Carolina Museum of Art, which owns the property.

Rather than a green apron for its two buildings, which are adjacent to the site, officials see this outdoor space as an extension of the museum — with a key difference. “We are dead set against overpopulating this area with works of art,” said Lawrence J. Wheeler, the museum’s director. “We are not trying to create a sculpture garden but a unifying idea of what people perceive as a museum and what they perceive as a park.”

If the plan succeeds, Mr. Wheeler said, visitors will have a meaningful cultural experience whether they step inside the buildings to study paintings by Titian or watch their dogs frolic in the artfully designed grounds. Officials hope to expand the idea and purpose of their museum at a time when cultural institutions around the world are foraging for ways to connect not just with a core audience but the general public.

Dan Gottlieb, the North Carolina museum’s director of planning and design, argues that a museum is more than “just a place where buildings are contained.”

“It is a social experience that creates a framework for social engagements,” he said. “We are trying to get rid of the ‘no’ in the museum experience by offering a variety of experiences, so people can come here to see a film, ride a bike, come to a party, a wine tasting and, of course, enjoy our collection and exhibition.”

The museum is far richer in land than most: Its park project involves just a small part of its 164-acre campus, which already includes trails, woodlands and 20 outdoor works of art. But the project’s impetus also springs from a growing recognition among cultural groups that they must adapt to broad economic, political and social changes to survive.

“As their traditional means of support — their philanthropic donations, earned income, government support and their endowments — have come under attack during the last decade, nonprofits are under increasing pressure to demonstrate their public benefit,” said Elizabeth Merritt, director of the Center for the Future of Museums in Washington. “They have to prove their worth to more than just select groups.”

This is daunting, she said, because “maybe 5 percent of the public are real fans of museums.”

The challenge, then, is determining how to reach out to more people and enlist their support without compromising an institution’s purpose.