“The People’s Collection, Reimagined”

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The long-awaited North Carolina Museum of Art reinstallation debuts in October

By Frances Deese
Photos courtesy of the NCMA


Ever since the North Carolina Museum of Art announced its intention to create “The People’s Collection, Reimagined” in November 2021, art aficionados have eagerly anticipated its debut. The wait is almost over. Led by North Carolina Museum of Art Director Valerie Hillings, the museum expects to reopen its doors to this transformative reinstallation of the East and West buildings in October.

Upon her arrival in 2018, Hillings was struck by the museum’s areas of profound depth and strength. After conversations with her team, she began to think about what could happen if the museum’s art history story was told a different way, rather than in a traditional geographic or linear presentation. They began working to conceive thematic and interpretive galleries that connect the collection across space and time, creating stories that speak to visitors and support the museum’s mission to provide North Carolinians free access to their state’s valuable cultural resources.

A grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2020 helped advance the fruition of these ideas by offering financial support for a series of initiatives—one of which was to pair contrasting pieces together. The result: “Interchanges,” unexpected pairings intended to broaden perspectives by exploring concepts and themes. This concept will now be expanded across five thematic galleries: “Made in the Americas,” “Portraits and Power” and “The Africa We Ought to Know,” will prompt visitors to ponder themes addressing power, cross-cultural contact and historical representation. In the “Art Includes” gallery, visitors will learn about the many forms of art—from dance to theater. The “Art Conservation” space will showcase the study of art, science, history and technology while featuring rotating conservation projects. Visitors will also be able to view loans from international sources.

Other initiatives make the museum and its galleries more accessible to visually impaired and Spanish-speaking visitors. For visitors with visual impairments, the addition of a thin gray line across the tops of labels will help set their eyes. Labels will also now be displayed bilingually in English and Spanish. And to blend in more of North Carolina’s culture, 20 community voices from across the state—representing artists, students, journalists, civic leaders and even food activists—have written some of-the-wall labels.


While the museum staff is making an effort to represent modern practices in the reinstallation, it will also present some surprises, while acknowledging the importance of the collection’s history. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the North Carolina legislature setting aside state funds to start the “People’s Collection.” It was the first legislature in the country to buy an art collection that would later become a museum. This reinstallation also constitutes the museum’s first complete reorganization since the West Building opened in 2010.

Hillings and her team happily invite feedback on the new look. Since the reinstallation is also a rededication to the people, it will not be final for another 10 years and will continue to serve as a launching pad for change. An array of grand opening events will take place at the museum October 8–9 in honor of the reinstallation, including a family day of activities and gallery experiences for all ages, artist-led tours, a live drawing event, a lecture, an outdoor dance party and a concert. Learn more at ncartmuseum.org.

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