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World Class Art | By Michael Jaenicke


RALEIGH — In the North Carolina Museum of Art’s new West Wing, natural resources augment the masterpieces. The use of light and air create an ambiance that rivals even more renowned museums. What NCMA has on its contemporaries is that it enhances the art so well that, even when the museum is crowded, visitors can still have a one-on-one experience with the works. And if that intimate experience is more important than having the absolute biggest, best and most famous collections, the museum has succeeded in its mission. The filtered skylights, two sets of retracting curtains and a light system designed to adjust to proper levels, protect the art and provide radiant views. Pristine white walls and white pine floors provide the framework for the art. But you have to look closely to see the technology that illuminates the museum’s 40 galleries. New York architect Thomas Phifer and his partners’ ingenuity was so subtle that it defies the eyes of most visitors. What appears as Japanese minimalism actually provides radiant sunlight to the art. And it doesn’t hurt that the art is exquisite. There is a wonderful collection of Rodin sculptures, a newly acquired Picasso, gems from Peter Paul Rubens, magnificent European works from the 14th to 19th centuries, a small but impressive collection of Egyptian artifacts and intriguing African works from the 19th and 20th centuries. The Rodin-inspired garden area with reflecting ponds is a serene and breathtaking space that makes you want to whisper. Light embellishes all angles of Picasso’s “Seated Woman, Red and Yellow Background,” a painting depicting one of the master’s mistresses that also tells a story about his love/hate relationship with women. An upside down portrait of Mona Lisa’s face made out of spools of thread catches visitors eyes as they turn a corner and see the splendor of exterior sunlight casting rays through the contemporary work. Museum officials call German Tilman Riemenschnieder’s “Female Saint” the most important sculpture in the museum. While that is arguable, it certainly has ambrosial lighting and boundless spaciousness. Galleries in the museum flow together like an easy-to-assemble puzzle and visitors can easily connect art and historical periods. Unlike some museums, all works at the NCMA are on one floor. Since there is no cost for admission, visitors can wander in and out through several doors. The West Wing, which opened in April, houses the museum’s permanent collection. The East Building was closed early this year, but will reopen this month for special exhibitions, events and conferences. It is also home to a library and the administrative offices. From the outside the 127,000-square-foot building, which cost $72.3 million, looks like a nondescript silver rectangle. Walk closer and the picture comes into focus as you see its 360 skylights and $4.5 million in courtyards and gardens, including three miles of walking trails on a 164-acre complex. The museum has a new restaurant that features breakfast, lunch and dinner menus for adults and children as well as an extensive wine list. For others, a picnic lunch and meandering around the grounds provides an unpretentious family outing. Despite a collection that is smaller than at giants such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. or The Getty in L.A., the North Carolina Museum of Art is making monumental strides towards becoming a creative force in the museum world.