Imagine celebrating your birthday by asking your friends to give you some of the most exquisite gifts you could imagine.
For the Ackland Art Museum’s 60th anniversary this year, that’s what museum officials did.
“One of the outstanding characteristics of the Ackland is its permanent collection,” said Peter Nisbet, deputy director for curatorial affairs of UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus museum.
“We have one of the most diverse, rich, geographically broad permanent collections in the state,” he said. “So we came up with the idea, after speaking to generous friends, donors and collectors who love the Ackland, to gather birthday presents in honor of our 60th anniversary.”
Those friends didn’t disappoint, and now the public can see some of the surprises. Here’s a glimpse of what’s been unwrapped for “Birthday Presents,” which opened Friday and will continue through Jan. 6.
▪ Three etchings by the Dutch artist Rembrandt, including “The Small Lion Hunt,” and “Christ and the Woman of Samaria.”
▪ “Foolish Questions,” an early 20th century pen-and-ink comic drawing by American cartoonist Rube Goldberg.
▪ A colorful early 20th century collar made out of glass beads, fiber, leather and mother-of-pearl buttons from an unidentified artist from South Africa’s Mfengu peoples.
▪ And an 11th century Cambodian sandstone torso by an unidentified artist.
“It’s a kaleidoscope of world creativity,” he said. “It’s a nice mixture: 60 works of art, 30 donors and 13 are UNC alums.”
Plus, the museum debuted a traveling public art exhibit Sept. 20 — the RedBall Project, a 250-pound inflatable ball that measures 15 feet in diameter when fully inflated. The ball from Asheville-based artist Kurt Perschke moves to a new location on the UNC campus and Chapel Hill each day through Wednesday, Sept. 26.
Museum officials say RedBall Chapel Hill is a gift to the town and campus, thanking them for the support they’ve given since the William Hayes Ackland Memorial Art Center was dedicated on Sept. 20, 1958.
As the museum marks this milestone, museum officials also are thinking about its future.
The museum, with an overall annual attendance of 50,000, always has been used art to teach students. Of that total, about 11,000 students come through annually as a part of their studies, said Katie Ziglar, the museum’s director.
“That doesn’t count the ones that come on their own,” said Ziglar, a UNC alumnus who became director in July 2016, coming from the Freer|Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C.
But Ziglar is thinking big. In the next decade, Ziglar said, the Ackland hopes to expand to provide more space for the growing collection and to add more public amenities, such as a cafe, an auditorium, classrooms, galleries and storage space.
“The Ackland wants to continue what we are doing,” Ziglar said. “We are headed toward a new building.”
The museum now is at 101 S. Columbia St., and is near the corner of West Franklin and South Columbia streets.
Its art fills 12 galleries, but Ziglar says four are small. She describes three as long and thin galley kitchen-type spaces and one as the size of a small walk-in-closet.
“We have art that should be known within the larger area,” Ziglar said. “We have about 1,000 objects of Asian art, probably the best collection between Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas.”
Ziglar credits the late Sherman Lee, an art historian, expert on Asian art and former director of the Cleveland Museum of Art from 1958 to 1983, for much of the collection. When Lee retired and moved to Chapel Hill, he made it his mandate to build the Asian collection at the Ackland. The Asian art includes pieces from China, Japan and India.
Ziglar and her staff are still trying to determine how much space is needed to house the more than 18,000 works of art.
“We have everything from old European master prints to contemporary photography,” Nisbet said.
By comparison, the Triangle’s other university art museums have their own specialties. The Gregg Museum of Art & Design at NC State University focuses more on design while the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University features more contemporary art, especially from artists of African descent.
A team of MBA and undergraduate students from UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School have been working with them to identify a potential location. The team suggested a location as close to its current site as possible.
“This is convenient for students and professors and also close to the community,” she said. For Chapel Hill residents, she said, it’s easy to get there by bus.
She said she couldn’t provide more specifics, but the museum is raising money through the university’s Campaign for Carolina. In addition, the museum has received three major gifts of art — worth $66.5 million, according to a museum news release. That includes some of those Rembrandts on display for “Birthday Presents,” part of a 2017 donation from alumnus Sheldon Peck and his wife, Leena.
A space to connect
In the meantime, the museum is reopening a dedicated museum space for students and the Chapel Hill community to connect with each other while creating and experiencing art. It’s called Art&.
“We are sacrificing a gallery and using it as a multipurpose space for meetings, school work, or for people who want to bring in coffee and snacks,” Ziglar said. “It kind of takes a place of a café for us. It’s also a place for lectures. We can screen films and do other programs.”
Within the year, she said she hopes to add a coffee bar to the space.
“We think a space like this is so important,” she said. “If you have a café, people stay longer in the museum. They can take a break from being on their feet and return to the galleries.”
In addition to being a resource to UNC, Ziglar said, “We are a member of our community.”
“We’ve been looking forward to unwrapping our birthday presents for a long time,” Ziglar said Thursday. “They range from many traditions from the 16th century to today, American, African, Asian and European. These new gifts strengthen our ability to offer compelling experiences for generations to come.”
What: “Birthday Presents”
When: Sept. 21– Jan. 6.
Where: Ackland Art Museum, 101 S. Columbia St., Chapel Hill
Info: 919-966-5736 or ackland.org
Here are the locations for the RedBall Project. People are encouraged to post photos with the #redballproject hashtag on social media.
▪ Sept. 20: South Building, UNC
▪ Sept. 21: R.B. House Undergraduate Library, UNC
▪ Sept. 22: Hanes Arch next to Ackland Art Museum, 101 S. Columbia St., Chapel Hill
▪ Sept. 23: Alley next to Varsity theater, 121 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
▪ Sept. 24: Trellis along Manning Drive at Koury Residence Hall, UNC
▪ Sept. 25: Chapel Hill Public Library, 100 Library Drive, Chapel Hill. There will be a talk with the artist at 4 p.m.
▪ Sept. 26: Forest Theatre, 123 S. Boundary St.