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From Rodins to major expansion, NC Art Museum leader oversaw its transformation

Larry Wheeler reflects on his legacy with the NC Museum of Art

Larry Wheeler has served as director of the North Carolina Museum of Art for almost 24 years. During an interview on Monday, November 20, 2017, he discusses his accomplishments, the search for his successor, and his plans for his final year as di
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Larry Wheeler has served as director of the North Carolina Museum of Art for almost 24 years. During an interview on Monday, November 20, 2017, he discusses his accomplishments, the search for his successor, and his plans for his final year as di

Lawrence J. Wheeler’s announcement Thursday that he’s stepping down next year as director of the North Carolina Museum of Art came for the best of reasons: It’s time.

“You get a feeling when things are coming together in the right way,” he said. “We’re in a place right now where we’re in really good shape. So it’s time to pass it on to another person.”

Wheeler, who is 74, will retire in November 2018 pending the naming of a successor. There is already a search committee in place, chaired by benefactor Ann Goodnight.

“I had a heavy hand in recommending who would be on the committee,” Wheeler said. “I will be involved and I’m sure they will consult me along the way. It’s appropriate that I steer them toward good people, and I’ve already made some recommendations.”

Larry Wheeler 2000 portrait
Larry Wheeler, photographed for The News & Observer in 2000 as the Tar Heel of the Year. NEWS & OBSERVER 2000 FILE PHOTO

In response to the news of Wheeler’s retirement, Gov. Roy Cooper released a statement calling him the museum’s “guiding light.”

“North Carolina is better for his service,” Cooper wrote, “and Kristin and I wish him all the best in his well-earned retirement.”

Wheeler, known as Larry, came to the NCMA in 1994 and oversaw its transformation into one of the top arts museums in the Southeast. The News & Observer named Wheeler Tar Heel of the Year in 2000. But at that point, most of his big accomplishments were still ahead of him.

NC Museum of Art director Dan Gottlieb discusses the opening of the new Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park.

Wheeler oversaw the expansion of the museum on multiple fronts, including the West Wing Building that opened in 2010 and last year’s park expansion — plus a successful outdoor-amphitheater concert series that set an attendance record this year in its 20th season.

In 2011, the NCMA put on a Rembrandt exhibition that assembled the largest collection of authentic Rembrandts ever put together in America. Wheeler has also worked to expand the museum’s permanent collection, including the 2009 acquisition of 29 Auguste Rodin sculptures – which made the NCMA the largest Rodin depository in the Southern United States.

VIDEO: Artist Victor Ekpuk discusses his chalk drawing, “Divinity,” for the African art gallery’s opening.

His salary is $295,788.

Asked if he has any loose ends that need tying up before he leaves, Wheeler cracked a joke.

“There should be loose ends, because the game ain’t over,” he said. “There are some good things I’ve been trying to do this year, and I’m moving on one extraordinary work of art that will be the final one added during my tenure. I’m being strategic on that so I’m not ready to announce it. But it will be phenomenal.”

Watch a time lapse of the sun setting behind artist Amanda Parer's exhibition 'Intrude' on display on the Park Ellipse Lawn at the NC Museum of Art through November 6. The free 10-day exhibition features five giant inflated rabbits.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

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