Arts & Culture

Blue Greenberg: Ackland takes art outside

How do you primp up a faded beauty? One thing that might help is to cut down a couple of crepe myrtles, remove years-old hedges, plant some colorful flowers and make the outside terrace, which has hidden the building behind for so many years, the site for fun, games and, maybe even watching the world go by. This has happened to the front of the Ackland Art Museum on Columbia Street, a few feet off Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.

To begin the fun the Ackland commissioned “Los Trompos,” a large scale interactive installation of larger-than-life spinning tops (“trompos”) in a variety of colors and shapes to be installed on the front terrace of the Ackland and at several locations on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus: two in the courtyard in front of the Campus Y and one at Ram’s Head Plaza. They are the creations of Mexican designers Hector Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena and were made in Mexico. The “trompos” arrived just a few days before the ACC National Championship win and when one on campus broke from too much enthusiastic use, the designers were called for advice about repairs and they said, “They do not break.” Of course, this is the first time their “trompos” had been placed on a college campus, especially one slightly crazy over its national win.

The new look is the brainchild of Katie Ziglar, the Ackland’s new director. Some months ago Ziglar and I talked about her plans for the museum. She said, despite all the teaching that goes on inside the building, “the students do not use the Ackland like I want them to.” She also said, “We are footsteps away from Franklin Street, but the high entrance way makes the Ackland look like all the other university buildings and coming up the stairs may be daunting for some. I want to change that.”

She gathered the university gardeners to make changes to the terrace, commissioned “Los Trompos,” an interactive installation she had seen at Atlanta’s High Museum, and the results are big playground-like structures where one person can push and the other one can stand or sit and whirl around. The tops are made of heavy fabric woven in a traditional style by Mexican artisans. Emily Bowles, director of communications, met me outside and gave me a spin in one of the “trompos.” Earlier I had seen a mother whirling her two toddlers around and, in another one, a student was sitting reading a book. Bowles said Lauren Turner, assistant curator for the collection, was in charge of logistics and that was a story unto itself. She said Turner had to track several 18-wheelers across the border, then supervise transfers to smaller trucks and then finally oversee the siting and reassembling of all the pieces.

Bowles also said there is only anecdotal information about whether the fun stuff outside has brought new visitors inside, but she said the guards have reported several people walking in and saying, “Now show me what’s inside here.” The tops will stay through the summer, and the fall will bring a new installation by nationally known Patrick Dougherty, who builds the most extravagant structures out of sticks, twigs and branches. Clearly Bowles is excited about the way the Ackland is changing. She said Ziglar and this new vibrancy have invigorated the space. “Her idea is a signal,” said Bowles. “Good things are coming. This is a new era for the Ackland.”

While the Ackland has always been considered a superior university museum, in Chapel Hill it has been a quiet leader. Moving art outside will mark it as a place where you can have fun even while you are learning about art. All this is to try to replace the idea that this museum is elitist with one that is open and inviting to everyone. The Ackland is just one fun, free art thing on the block. Turn the corner and visit the Frank Gallery, an artists’ cooperative, and the Ackland Museum store which uses a tiny space to exhibit some fine art. At the Frank their special exhibition by the artists Linwood Hart, Peter Filene, and Sasha Bakaric was closing but the gallery is always full and is always worth a visit. Next door at the museum store they were focusing on the photographer Elizabeth Galecke, a local artist who lives and works in the Triangle.

Galecke is a professional photographer, who shoots with a Mamiya medium format camera. As a professional she photographs a day in the life of a client: weddings, new babies, birthdays. She is especially interested in helping women grow stronger businesses and in 1999 founded a group called Chix. Since 2016, she has spent part of her personal day exploring quiet places, noticing things with her mind and eyes more open. When she walks she carries her camera and, with encouragement from her life coach, began a project she calls #EyesWideOpen and shared her daily pictures through Facebook and Instagram. It is some of those pictures taken around Dorothea Dix, the Fred Fletcher Park and the N.C. Museum of Art she has chosen for this show.

A shuttered window against peeling wood siding, mist coming up over a distant stand of trees and the moon anchored between two pines are some of the quiet scenes she has photographed. We have all seen images like these but the photographer stops and frames the shot. The point she makes is slow down, look around and although we probably do not have a camera and may have much on our minds, breathing in the quiet can help us face the day.

We began this day at the Ackland, which is going to become a stronger force in the Chapel Hill art scene with its new ideas. Taking art outside is a way to say art is not elite; it is for everyone.

Blue Greenberg may be reached at