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From Baroque to tattoos, new museum celebrates art

From Baroque to tattoos, new museum celebrates art

Posted: Wednesday, November 5, 2008 9:34 pm
By: AP


Associated Press Writer

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — It was a fortuitous circumstance: An aging medium-sized city was the right place at the right time for a bequest of coveted art that led to its new avant-garde museum.

American realist Thomas Eakins did most of his work in Philadelphia, but his last living heir lived in Roanoke and had some of his portraits and personal effects. Museums elsewhere had designs on the 19th century collection, but Peggy Macdowell Thomas decided she wanted her Eakins paintings to remain in Roanoke.

Roanoke wanted them too, enough to build them a museum.

When excited arts supporters learned of the 2001 bequest, they decided they needed a better showcase for the collection than the former farm supply warehouse they shared with other museums. With limited display space, the art museum already was having to keep most of its permanent collection in storage.

Officials considered renovating an old furniture store, but scrapped that plan in favor of constructing a new building that dips and curves to make an art statement itself amid the rectangular 1920s-era downtown skyline. Now, as the $66 million contemporary structure of steel, patinated zinc and glass prepares to open its doors, its enthusiasts have visions of an art destination that will lift this old railroad town of 93,000 into the 21st century.

Mark Haukohl of Houston, whose 17th century Florentine art will be on display, said the building designed by Frank Gehry protege Randall Stout reminds him of the Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. That museum was a catalyst for urban renewal, he said.

Exhibits for Saturday’s opening span centuries, styles and media, from Baroque masters to contemporary landscapes, and from jeweled handbags to works by tattoo artists.

Works by Eakins, considered a master of realistic detail who defied contemporary trends, will be on permanent display in a gray-blue room. The museum has portraits he painted at the height of his career, spokeswoman Kimberly Templeton said, as well as paintings by his wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins.

“It is nearly impossible now to acquire a group of materials by Eakins,” Templeton said.

Next door, in muted red, is a companion American art exhibit that a benefactor acquired in the last several years to give Eakins context.

The room for Haukohl’s collection of Baroque paintings was painted bright red to suggest Florence’s Pitti Palace and Uffizi gallery, he said. The exhibit will be up for a year.

Haukohl said his collection is unusual because each the artists either knew or was taught by another painter in the group. This will be the first exhibition of the entire collection, which includes works by the Dandini family of painters, Cecco Bravo and Jacopo da Empoli.

“This is my gift to the world of art history,” Haukohl said. “One would not normally see this, even in Florence.”

An exhibit of about 50 photographs of contemporary landscapes is on loan from Allen Thomas Jr. of Wilson, N.C., who along with Haukohl will be at the museum’s opening.

Among those photos, Thomas said, he is particularly fond of two pieces by Lexington photographer Sally Mann and “Smokestacks,” a composite image by Anthony Goicolea.

Thomas acknowledged that some local residents have offered less-than-enthusiastic responses to the appearance of the new museum.

“Good art always challenges, and I think that building is art,” he said. “I’ve been around and seen museums and galleries. Roanoke has one of the finest buildings I’ve seen.”

Situated beside railroad tracks that feed a Norfolk Southern yard, the building evokes an image of a locomotive from one angle and has undulating lines suggestive of the Blue Ridge Mountains that ring the city.

Stout, however, refuses to restrict the interpretation of the building. Other people “might see something in it that I don’t,” he said.

The architect said he spent most of his time designing the galleries and other features in the 81,000 square feet of space, and the exterior evolved from that. An exhibit called “In the Cataclysmic Calm” traces the process Stout used in designing the museum.

The $250-a-head gala the night before the opening is sold out. Guests will include an international contingent of friends of Nicholas Taubman, the U.S. ambassador to Romania for whom the museum is named. Taubman and his wife, Jenny, made a $15 million donation, the museum’s largest.

But over time, the museum expects to draw most of its visitors from western Virginia. Executive director Georganne Bingham said its exhibits are designed to appeal to a range of interests.

A small room with walls covered in black fabric will display jewel-covered Judith Leiber handbags. “You’ll actually walk through a jewel box,” Bingham said.

Contemporary and historical drawings by tattoo artists will be featured, and artificial intelligence is used in an interactive digital exhibit by Virginia Tech artists. An interactive gallery for children is on the first floor, and regular musical programs are planned.

Bingham hopes the museum will have 200,000 visitors its first year.

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Published in The Messenger 11.5.08


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