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How the Nasher Museum Shaped the Arts at Duke

Museum director Sarah Schroth looks back at 10 years for the museum

Sarah Schroth

Sarah Schroth in the Nasher Museum of Art gallery. Photo by J Caldwell

When the Nasher Museum of Art opened 10 years ago, the university did more than add another building. In the words of President Richard Brodhead, the opening was a "milestone" in the integration of the arts into the wider Duke community.

The new museum engaged the imagination of Duke students and the larger Durham community in ways the former Duke University Museum of Art, crammed for exhibit space in the current Friedl Building on East Campus, never could.

El Greco
The 2008 exhibit "El Greco to Velazquez," curated by Sarah Schroth, raised the profile of the Nasher Museum in both the artistic and local community.

The opening was timed as a centerpiece of a stronger university commitment to the arts and performance. The Duke strategic plan made arts a priority mission in 2006. The office of the vice provost for the arts was established in 2007, followed by the creation of new art space at the Smith Warehouse and a major renovation of Baldwin Auditorium, among other steps.

All this effort built on the success of the Nasher Museum, which is "now a key cultural destination for the campus, the city of Durham and the region," Brodhead said in a 2004 interview with Duke Magazine.

Sarah Schroth, an expert on Spanish art of the 17th century who joined the museum in 1995 and had been serving as its senior curator, succeeded Kim Rorschach as the Nasher’s director in 2013. She spoke with Duke Today’s Geoffrey Mock about how the museum has influenced the development of the arts and looked ahead at its next 10 years.

DUKE TODAY: What has the Nasher Museum meant for the arts at Duke over these past 10 years?

SCHROTH: The Nasher Museum was the first large investment Duke made in the arts.  Mr. Nasher sponsored half the cost of the project, so Duke had to step forward. The trustees had to think about the arts in a more serious way.

The current integration of the arts throughout campus and academic life wouldn't have happened without the Nasher's success.  The Nasher Museum was a big investment, but if it had fallen flat on its face, I doubt if the arts would have developed in the way they have.


DT: How have you defined success?

SCHROTH: Most museums define success by the number of people who come through the door. We're about to have our millionth visitor this summer.  That's one way of measuring success.

But beyond the numbers, it was the goal of Kim Rorschach to get every Duke student in the door at least once.  That first year, we had a freshmen orientation week party, and everyone loved it so much that it's become a tradition. The museum truly has become part of student life.

Archibald Motley's Holy Rollers

Archibald Motley's "Holy Rollers"

DT: What is the Nasher Museum's contribution to a Duke education, particularly in undergraduate classrooms?

SCHROTH: We've exposed the students to artists and cultures they’ve never seen. The faculty has been a part of that.. One of the best examples is the recent Rauschenberg exhibit, curated by five students working with Kristine Stiles. All five students went on to art careers or said the exhibit changed their lives.

Another example was Rick Powell's Archibald Motley show. Any student who saw that exhibit probably was seeing those works for the first time. It was a revelation to everybody. The students learned not only about Motley, but they learned about Chicago in the 1930s, about history of African-American artists, and about Motley's reception in the art world.

Having the museum on campus allows faculty and students to use object-based knowledge giving students an extraordinary way of approaching a topic. Many students say that it's a compelling way to learn when presented with an actual artifact of history.


DT: Can you talk about the dynamic between the museum and Durham, as well as with the wider Triangle community?

SCHROTH: In addition to the Friends of the Nasher and a student board, we set up a community board many years ago. These people are our ambassadors for us in the community. They set up the annual gala, and they make it one of the best social events of the year in Durham.

We've made a particular effort with the local schools. It's always fascinating to see young people respond to art. My favorite story during the Archibald Motley show involved a work called "Holy Rollers." A little girl came and her class sat down in front of the painting. She said, "Oh, that's my grandmother's church!"  At the El Greco exhibit, I saw a young African-American student standing in front of "The Adoration of the Magi," and he said, "I had no idea black people were painted then." That's education.

We've also done a lot of outreach to the African-American population of Durham, in part because of [chief curator] Trevor Schoonmaker's focus on African diaspora artists. We've never done statistics on race or gender, but with the Motley exhibit, there were African-American families there in large numbers every weekend. They know they can come and see reflections of their lives.

Miro's Femmes

Joan Miro's "Femmes VI," from the Nasher Museum exhibit "The Experience of Seeing," one of the museum's most popular attractions of 2014-15. 

DT: How are you incorporating Durham into the 10th anniversary celebration?

SCHROTH: We wanted to reach out in a big and serious way to the community during the celebration. We commissioned painter Odili Donald Odita to do a mural at the Nasher and a second one at the downtown YMCA, so there would be a visual connection between the museum and the city.

I'm delighted that this project is getting us further entrenched in the community. I believe the local community thinks of the Nasher as its museum. It is their museum.


DT: What will the next 10 years bring for the Nasher Museum?

SCHROTH: One of my immediate goals is to reverse the proportion of space devoted to changing exhibits with that devoted to the permanent collection. Over the past 10 years, we've acquired more than 1,000 works. They are amazing, but so many of them are in storage.

So, we are in the process of tearing down walls in the the Wilson pavilion, and we're designing eight new gallery spaces in that pavilion devoted to exhibiting representations from every area of our collection. Our African collection is going to blow people away. People don't even know we have an Egyptian collection.  And the Brummer Collection [of medieval art] is the best of any university in America.

My general idea is that we will show works from antiquity through the early modern period, and then in the Johnson pavilion, we'll show modern and contemporary works from the collection. Together, we'll have about 70 percent of our exhibit space devoted to the collection. We are going to show people just how great the collections are.