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Out of the Public Eye, Asheville Art Museum Makes Itself More Public During Renovation

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Unless you’re wearing a hardhat in the vicinity of Pack Square, the construction sounds filling every workday are reminders how far away the Asheville Art Museum is from reopening.

“We thought we would be functioning on this site throughout the construction project,” said Pam Myers, the museum’s director for the past 22 years. “I think I said ‘Oh really, we’re really going to need to move, and move the entirety of the collection?’ It was fast and furious.”

You have to pass through an active construction zone to get to Myers’ office. On this day, Myers wore a dayglow orange and lime construction vest.

“This is arguably the most important corner anchoring our downtown,” she said. “And I think everyone involved in the building committee and trustees and staff felt great communities have great art museums that anchor their downtowns, and this was the place to do that.”

When museum leaders committed to raise $24 million for the renovation, not only did they envision remaining open during construction, they circled early 2018 on the calendar for the grand re-opening. Now they’re looking at early 2019, when the steel supports and scaffolding on full view now will become the museum’s west wing.

By then, the museum will have been out of the epicenter of downtown Asheville -- and out of the public eye -- for nearly three years. But Myers and her staff are turning elements out of their control into opportunity.

“We’re doing an enormous amount of outreach to learn in the community what the community needs from its art museum when we reopen,” Myers said.

Museum staff have partnered with area schools and recreation centers to hold art camps and workshops, and they’ve placed more art in local libraries and banks.

Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News
The museum's temporary home and offices, in Asheville's South Slope.

They’ve also taken over the former home of Foam & Fabric, in the South Slope along Biltmore. There, beneath the white glow of the old store’s fluorescent lighting, are a small gallery and gift shop, a storage room that doubles as a workshop space and a staff office where computers sit atop long portable folding tables.

Myers points to positives of this displacement. Through their outreach, she and her staff are reaching pockets of locals who rarely, if ever, visited the museum downtown.

“We are making new friends and engaging new communities and learning a lot about community need in different ways than when we were (downtown),” she said. “There’s no question that’s informing our program development, not only for the opening but for the future.”

The Asheville Art Museum has seen seven homes since its debut in 1948, and this isn’t even its first renovation since moving to Pack Square 25 years ago. Soon after an expansion at the turn of the 21st century, museum leaders learned they would need another one to accommodate a growing collection and the demands of touring exhibitions.

Plans for this renovation began in 2007, and the recession was just the start of delays.

“We’ve had the opportunity to test ideas and fine-tune plans during that period we might not have otherwise had,” Myers said. “It’s made for a stronger, better project.”

When the museum reopens, passersby will see floor-to-ceiling windows leading to 64,000 square feet of galleries. That’s nearly four times the exhibition space at the museum when it opened in Pack Square. Myers hopes it draws a new generation of locals to discover the museum.

“The entrance that now has been demolished didn’t speak museum or welcome,” she said. “I’m absolutely convinced (newcomers) will be here, and that’s what we’re hearing from individuals participating with us offsite, that they’re really excited about this opening and this being their museum.”

Visitors to the South Slope space can see the exhibition “Unwrapped: Gifts from the Peter Norton Family Christmas Project.”


Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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