Asheville Art Museum builds for the past, present and future

EYE ON ART: A view from above Pack Square shows the recent closing in of the upper floors of the Asheville Art Museum as the new facility nears completion. Museum leadership says the building will be an anchor for downtown, as well as a worthy permanent home for the museum’s collection. Photo courtesy of Asheville Art Museum

Now under construction at 2 S. Pack Square, the Asheville Art Museum’s expansive new home will do what none of its previous incarnations could: welcome residents and tourists to a modern, purpose-built museum that will accommodate more of the institution’s permanent collection, traveling exhibitions and a wide variety of community events and activities.

The $24 million project seeks to marry aspects of Asheville’s past with its future. The 1926 Italian Renaissance building originally built to house Pack Library is undergoing a total renovation, and the institution’s existing east wing has been gutted and rehabbed. An all-new “core” building adds a dramatic glass-fronted lobby looking out on Pack Square, as well as a central circulation stair and gallery spaces.

While few dispute the importance of a local art museum to Asheville and the region, the project hasn’t come cheap.

To pay for the construction and fund an institutional endowment, the museum launched its Art Works for Asheville capital campaign, which has so far secured over $22 million toward construction costs, as well as $1.3 million in money to seed an endowment. With 6 to 8 percent of the original $24 million fundraising goal left to go, the museum continues the hunt for contributions.

When the $24 million facility opens to visitors next year, over 68,000 square feet of space will offer an intuitive, easy-to-navigate spatial arrangement, says Pam Myers, the museum’s executive director of more than two decades.

As the city gets ready to meet its newest museum, this Xpress reporter donned a hard hat and explored the active construction site to get a preview of what lies ahead. Along the way, we looked at the museum’s history and its plans for the future, along with cost of the building project and its effects on other Pack Place institutions to feel out what the new space will mean to Asheville and the region.

Something old, something new

The new building will look the part of a downtown museum. Decorative metal panels will accent the clear face, and zinc surfaces will flank the broad expanse of glass at the front of the edifice. The sleek structure replaces the 1980s-era Pack Place, which previously housed the art museum, The Health Adventure, the Colburn Earth Science Museum and the entrance lobby for Diana Wortham Theatre. 

“You ought to be able to see in and see art and people and activities,” says Myers. The lightness and clarity of the glass architecture will balance the classical style of the marble Pack Library building, she explains.

“It brings the first world-class 21st-century piece of architecture to our community, which fittingly will house and showcase the history, heritage and creativity of Americans since the turn of the [last] century,” Myers says.

Designers at Ennead Architects of New York developed the aesthetic vision for the structure, while local architecture firm ARCA Design is serving as the project architect. Asheville’s Beverly-Grant is handling construction.

One eye-catching architectural element — museum staff has taken to calling it the “oculus” — provides expansive views via a large window facing north on the building’s upper floor, where the permanent collection will reside. Visitors can soak in a different perspective on the city from the lofty vantage point, while those in the plaza below may catch a glimpse of exhibits through the glass.

Soon-to-be-installed perforated metal panels mounted behind the building’s glass front combined with architectural lighting will create a dazzling nighttime effect. Architects wanted the punched holes to be truly mathematically random, so a team at UNC Charlotte created a computer program to ensure organized chaos.

The concept relates to the museum’s roots, explains Rebecca Lynch, manager of the museum’s capital gifts campaign, “because a big part of our collection and our focus is on Black Mountain College. … John Cage and others there studied a lot with the idea of randomization … so there’s a great sort of a conversation that can go on between the collection and the building.”

Tearing down the old Pack Place entrance building and sorting demolition waste to divert as much as possible from the landfill took longer than expected, meaning the museum will miss its original target move-in date of 2018.

Still, according to Lynch, the project is now on schedule to begin moving furniture, artwork and technology — in other words, everything — into the space this year in preparation for opening to the public in early 2019.

On tap

For now, the museum is calling the former Foam & Fabric retail store — located several blocks south of Pack Square on Biltmore Avenue — its temporary home, while exhibits located in State Employees’ Credit Union branches and other facilities throughout the community have spread the museum’s impact to a broader audience.

In the museum’s previous incarnation, only about 3 percent of the institution’s permanent collection could be shown at any given time, according to Myers. The new museum galleries, with nearly double the square footage of the previous facility, were designed to display about a tenth of the institution’s collection at one time, she says. Over the course of the move and construction, however, the collection has grown.

RAZZLE-DAZZLE: A rendering of the Asheville Art Museum’s night visage shows light filtering through randomly punctured metal panels into the part of Pack Square that will be known as SECU Plaza. Image courtesy of Asheville Art Museum
RAZZLE-DAZZLE: A rendering of the Asheville Art Museum’s night visage shows light filtering through randomly punctured metal panels into the part of Pack Square that will be known as SECU Plaza. Image courtesy of Asheville Art Museum

“In the last several years, we’ve been the recipient of major gifts of works of art that are real game-changers in the depth and breadth of our collection,” Myers explains. With those additions — which include works connected to Black Mountain College, as well as high-profile pieces such as “My Big Black America” by Wesley Clark — about 8 percent of the collection will rotate through the permanent collection gallery and other exhibits, a figure that’s typical of similar museums, she says.

Along with galleries showing the permanent collection, the new museum will accomodate more traveling exhibitions, expanded educational programming, lecture and event rooms, better storage, an area to study items from the collection that aren’t on display and an expanded art library.

While earlier iterations of the museum included relatively little for the younger contingent, the new facility will feature the Art Place, a special area for kids to get hands-on and create art of their own.

Above it all, a rooftop cafe will overlook a sculpture terrace, where views to the south provide another attraction, with Beaucatcher Mountain, White Fawn Gap, Mission Hospital, A-B Tech and Asheville’s South Slope all part of the panorama.

No longer at this address

The Health Adventure, a health- and science-focused children’s museum, was the first of Pack Place’s institutions to leave the building. Its troubles began when an ambitious effort to launch an expanded $25 million Momentum Science and Health Adventure Park in Montford came to naught. After filing for bankruptcy in 2011, the Health Adventure moved to Biltmore Square Mall and subsequently went out of business when the mall closed in 2013.

In 2014, Pack Place Inc.’s lease for the land beneath the buildings expired amid disputes about how the facilities were being maintained. Pack Place, an independent nonprofit which subleased space to the art and science institutions within, held that it had properly cared for the building, but the city disagreed. After debate, Asheville City Council unanimously approved new long-term lease arrangements with the art museum and the theater. A short-term agreement with Colburn Earth Science Museum bought that institution time as it sought a new location.

Edward Hay, Pack Place’s chair, says the organization’s activity is now winding down. “Basically, Pack Place had two critical assets, so to speak,” Hay explains. “One was the lease for the premises, which the city terminated. The other was a $400,000 endowment at the [WNC] Community Foundation,” which Pack Place managed and disbursed for the benefit of its partner organizations.

Going forward, the Community Foundation will manage that endowment, with proceeds to benefit Asheville Art Museum and Diana Wortham Theatre.

Now rebranded as the Asheville Museum of Science, the former Colburn Earth Science Museum had a rocky time of it during the lease negotiations, according to Jon Neumann, the museum’s board chair from 2013-16. “The board decided that the museum would have to either close or move to survive — we chose to move. It could have been a huge loss for Colburn and the community, but we chose a different path,” he explains.

AMOS staff, Neumann says, raised $1.3 million in a capital campaign and secured funding from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, county government and private donors. Without that support, he says, “the Colburn would have closed its doors, and Asheville would no longer have a science museum.”

In its new location on Patton Avenue, he continues, AMOS now has more space for exhibits and education facilities, and it’s easier for visitors to find.

Staying the course

During the art museum’s renovation and construction project, the Diana Wortham Theatre has adapted by relocating its box office and entrance and temporarily reducing the size of its lobby. Once the museum’s construction is complete, the theater will make some changes of its own.

Rae Geoffrey, the theater’s managing director, says Diana Wortham is adding two new theater venues to accommodate community-driven projects. Changes will also come to the theater’s public areas, with a new main entrance and renovations to the theater’s courtyard. “Through everything that has happened,” Geoffrey says, “we’ve been given this opportunity to expand our programming and our space, so that, for us, is positive.”

Moving forward, Geoffrey stresses the importance of collaboration in the arts. “Pack Place was a wonderful model for that. We were able to bring all of these organizations under one roof and work together to accomplish a goal,” she says. “And I think especially with the arts being devalued and defunded in our government system, that it is still really important for all of the arts organizations to stand together in this town whether they’re in this building or not.”

Pack Place, says John Ellis, the theater’s former managing director who retired last year, “helped revitalize a moribund downtown and it served to strengthen and support the development of the arts in our region. We all now enjoy a vibrant downtown and will soon enjoy a major regional art museum and a center for the performing arts.”

The city’s limits

The city of Asheville has contributed $2 million to the museum’s capital campaign. That support, which initially was included in the city’s 2013 budget, has been the target of criticism from former Asheville City Manager and Mayor Ken Michalove.

Michalove has been pushing back against the expenditure since 2013, claiming that the friendly relationship between Myers and individual Council members led to favorable treatment for the institution.

Museum supporter Suzanne Hudson disputed Michalove’s take on the situation in a July 2013 letter to Xpress.  “In a town as small as Asheville, everyone knows everyone and there is no scandal in that,” Hudson wrote, expressing her faith in the museum’s stewardship of financial donations.

According to Tony McDowell, the city’s budget and financial reporting manager, the city’s check was finally cut and delivered to the museum in April. Aside from about $800 for children’s educational programming at Stephens Lee Recreation Center, the $2 million contribution is the only monetary support the museum has received from the city in the past five years, McDowell says.

That accounting, however, doesn’t include the land on which the museum sits. In 2014, the museum entered into a 30-year agreement to lease the site for $10 per year, with an option to renew for an additional 20 years. The museum must also make payments to a capital repair fund held by the city and must take responsibility for maintenance, repairs, utilities and improvements, says McDowell.

The prominently located downtown site would sell for a tidy sum in today’s real estate market. Last year, a Georgia-based investment company purchased a portfolio of 15 adjacent buildings for $28.3 million. But according to McDowell, the city hasn’t assigned a rental value to the land, so the exact market value of the city’s real estate contribution to the museum isn’t known.

The museum secured an additional $1.5 million by brokering a deal to name the area in front of the museum “SECU Plaza.” City Council signed off on the agreement, though several members commented that the museum should have involved the city in the conversation with State Employees’ Credit Union earlier in the discussion of the naming rights.

With $7,500 allocated to the museum in the city’s current budget, the Asheville Art Museum will also be one of the largest recipients of the city’s strategic partnership largesse in the 2019 fiscal year.

County support

Buncombe County has issued $1.05 million to fund the museum’s preservation, renovation and expansion over the last five years, according to Rachael Nygaard, the county’s director of strategic partnerships. During the same period, the museum got $875,283 in county money for Pack Place maintenance and operations.

For the current fiscal year that began on July 1, the county has allotted $100,000 for Pack Place maintenance and operations. Of that, Nygaard says, the art museum receives 55 percent, and Diana Wortham Theatre receives 45 percent.

Hotel occupancy tax proceeds, by way of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, will kick in $1.5 million toward the construction project. Two grants awarded in 2007 and 2009 will be disbursed upon “verified completion of construction benchmarks,” according to Pat Kappes, director of public affairs for Explore Asheville, which administers spending of hotel tax revenue under the direction of the authority’s board.

All told, $4.55 million of the museum’s $24 million capital campaign will be fulfilled by local governmental monies, in addition to other governmental support for operations. That lines up with how Myers outlines the donations; local public funding amounts to 20.7 percent of the $22 million raised so far, she says.

For the long haul

Representing the culmination of what Myers calls an “extensive public process” and a complex renovation and new construction effort, what are the chances that the Asheville Art Museum has found its permanent home at last?

According to Myers, there’s no doubt at all that the new museum will serve the community’s needs for a long time to come. If the Asheville Art Museum of the future eventually needs more space for programming, administration and exhibits, satellite facilities or community partnerships could fill the gaps, much as the museum has done as its new home is being built.

“I think it’s a multigenerational, 100-plus-year building,” Myers says of the new facility. “It will just be a fabulous home for the art in our collection and the art that we bring to the community.”



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About Able Allen
Able studied political science and history at Warren Wilson College. He enjoys travel, dance, games, theater, blacksmithing and the great outdoors. Follow me @AbleLAllen

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8 thoughts on “Asheville Art Museum builds for the past, present and future

  1. Enlightened Enigma

    … in a town as small as Asheville, ‘everybody knows everybody’ … uhm NO they don’t. no way. most people don’t know most other people here.

    • Virginia Daffron

      You make a good point, but Hudson may have meant the movers and shakers were all likely to know one another in a town of Asheville’s size (in 2013).

  2. Curious

    The times I’ve been in the Asheville Art Museum, even on busy tourist days, there have been very few people there. I’m curious to know what the attendance statistics for general admission are (not school visits) during the last year the museum was open? What are the demographics for general admission (again, not school visits): locals, tourists? Can the museum break out these numbers?
    Michalove’s objection appears mostly based on what he saw as cronyism, not on the merit of the museum as an institution worthy of public support. The museum’s argument for funding is that it will bring in tourists (“heads on beds”). Does it? Do locals attend? Leave out school children, who have no choice about attending on school visits. How many visitors does the museum have, and where do they come from?

    • boatrocker

      Yeah, leave out schoolkids as they don’t count in any way for numbers as they don’t pay
      precious taxes.
      And they are forcibly dragged kicking and screaming on a field trip by oppressive teachers to get out of a classroom with the same four walls they see every day to get a little bit of Vitamin D walking around downtown in order to visit a museum devoted to art which of course is worthless.
      As well as getting out of taking a math quiz.
      Yeah, the arts and museums that showcase them
      must be a commie lieberal plot funding by Hillary and the Deep State and those that showcase the arts must be rolling in the dough for fleecing the city. Geez.

      • Lulz

        Considering that the county is nothing but a club of corruption, you’d be better off if you could actually be objective for once. Truly frightening that people exist who don’t question anything the government does. And refuse to realize that Wanda Green and the rest of the cronies arose from that mentality.

    • Lulz

      They can’t justify anything. Funny how artist in the RAD are complaining about gentrification making it hard for them to find space on one end. And on the other, a museum that without forcing attendance by kids that don’t really care about it, remains empty for the most part. People that go downtown aren’t going to see art in a museum. The space it occupies is being subsidized by the taxpayers for the next 30 years via 10 buck a year rent and no collection on property taxes. A waste of money on something that brings nothing of real value to anyone except a select few.

    • Curious

      I’m still hoping that the reporter of this story will give us additional insight into Asheville Art Museum’s attendance figures and demographics. He has presented us with a controversy, and readers/taxpayers need more information to evaluate how public funds are being used.

      • Lulz

        Why would they? They only report on corruption when the Feds get involved. It’s why they can’t shake the term fake news.

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