One of the aspects I enjoyed most was meeting so many new friends, patrons, students and community members, as well as receiving heartfelt expressions of support from those on staff and in the university and arts community who have known me for so long in my previous role as senior curator.
It was a special experience to work closely with Richard J. Powell, Duke art historian and preeminent scholar of African American art, and, most recently, Dean of Humanities, on the making of Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist. I was so proud of our staff and our guest curator when it opened! Among some of my favorite moments: watching visitors of all ages and backgrounds discover a “new” artist; witnessing the moment when the canvases by Motley were removed from their crates, being so surprised that the colors, dynamic compositions, and subjects looked so fresh and modern; overhearing a very young visitor pause before the rich, riotous painting Tongues (Holy Rollers) to exclaim: “That’s my grandma’s church!” Nothing could better illustrate the impact and relevance to our audiences.
Also exciting and rewarding was the collaboration with history professors Sumathi Ramaswamy and Philip Stern, who brought to our attention the exhibition Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space, and used it and related projects for their BorderWorks Humanities Lab. Like many of our visitors to Lines of Control, I was mesmerized by the 2013 video by Surekha showing an ant that would not transverse a line drawn by a pen, a poignant statement about the power of human-made borders. Another highlight was hosting Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art, with its galleries configured like elegant rooms in a house.
During my travels over the past year, I was thrilled to visit the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas for its 10th anniversary celebration, XChange. Ten commissioned sculptures by contemporary artists were installed around the city. What an incredible experience and gift to the community! Nancy Nasher Haemisegger and David Haemisegger, whose family founded the Nasher Sculpture Center as well as our own Nasher Museum, have greatly inspired us as we look to the Nasher Museum of Art’s 10th anniversary.
I recently tabulated the number of works entering the Nasher Museum since we opened our doors in 2005–almost 1,000 new works for the collection were acquired by purchase and gift. This amazing fact led me to believe that it was time to take stock of our fast-growing collections and introduce a shift in our museum culture. Since I became director, plans have been made to evolve from a museum that presents world-class exhibitions to one that also presents our exciting contemporary and historical collections. We will devote two-thirds of our gallery space to curated shows that are based on the collection.
The newly named Wilson Family Pavilion will be transformed into nine intimate galleries allowing us to represent all areas of the collection, from antiquity through the early modern period. The majority of our visitors have no idea that our holdings include over 3,000 works from the Americas, and also an extremely important group of traditional African art collected by Dr. George Harley in the 1920s to ‘60s. This plan should build school and community pride in our collections, and give the space to be properly and beautifully display them.
We will also showcase our contemporary collection in the Johnson Pavilion, with frequent rotations as we acquire new work. Visitors enjoyed a taste of this approach last spring with Sound Vision: Contemporary Art from the Collection, featuring significant works of art from our time.
My vision for the future also entails strengthening connections with Duke faculty and undergraduate students. In addition to displaying more of our historical and contemporary collection, which will help in teaching across disciplines, for the first time we will designate a special “experimental” gallery space for student-curated installations. We will continue to invite faculty to guest-curate shows of their groundbreaking research. In addition, we are examining our staff structure, expanding the reach of our education department by offering a program for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, and preparing for our 10th anniversary year and beyond. We will throw quite a birthday party!
One recent transformative event was the $1 million gift from Derek and Christen Wilson, as part of a larger gift from the Wilson family foundation to the Duke Forward Campaign. The generous Wilson gift will help us in many, many ways, providing funds for more exhibition programming, as well as new initiatives for student and community involvement. Derek has been a model member of our Board of Advisors, and I am very grateful for his support!
We have developed a comprehensive strategic plan to increase our outreach to corporations for funding, grow the membership, and find new prospective individual donors. One of my ideas is to find a community partner to eliminate museum admission for the year of our 10th anniversary celebration.
Our success begins with our superior curatorial team, which gained strength this year when Trevor Schoonmaker was appointed Chief Curator and Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art. We were also thrilled to welcome Marshall Price, newly appointed Nancy Hanks Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. Marshall came from New York, where he was a curator at the National Academy Museum for 11 years; he brings tremendous experience with a Ph.D. in American Art and as a seasoned museum professional, contributing new energy and collecting interests.
My first year as director was successful only because of the many people who work so hard to help set us apart from other university art museums. The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation is a loyal and generous partner, as is the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust. I wish to thank the Board of Advisors and our chair, Nancy Nasher, who always encourage the museum to reach new heights. The Nasher Museum belongs to Duke University and would not exist without our generous alumni and parents. Museum members, too, faithfully support our exhibitions and programs. Special thanks are due to outgoing Provost Peter Lange, who has helped shape the museum since before it opened in 2005. We toasted his retirement in the spring and were happy to announce that Nancy Nasher Haemisegger and David J. Haemisegger’s gift to the museum, a work by Charles Gaines, was given in his honor. I welcome new Provost Sally Kornbluth and have already experienced her strengths. I will enjoy working with her.
The Nasher Museum also belongs to the city of Durham and our surrounding community. I am grateful to incoming Friends Board chair Arthur Rogers for his enthusiasm; the entire Friends Board donates many hours, ideas and dollars to integrate the museum with Durham and beyond. I have enjoyed getting to know this wonderful group of people.
I am ever grateful for our talented staff, the insights and dedication of our boards and committees, and the amazing personal and administrative support from President Brodhead.
Because of these strong friends and allies, the Nasher Museum is truly a place that welcomes and inspires the people who live, study and visit here.
Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director
Images in order of appearance: Archibald J. Motley Jr., Tongues (Holy Rollers), 1929. Oil on canvas, 29.25 x 36.125 inches (74.3 x 91.8 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.
Nasher Museum Director Sarah Schroth. Photo by J Caldwell.