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New Museum Building To Blend Art, Nature

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina Museum of Art officials unveiled plans Thursday for a $75 million expansion that will increase the size of the state-supported museum by about a third.

Construction on the 90,000-square-foot building is expected to start in the coming weeks and be completed in late 2008. The building's design will feature a brushed, stainless steel exterior, 400 skylights in an undulating roof and outdoor gardens and pools of water.

"I think we're reinventing the art museum experience in this center," museum director Larry Wheeler said. "It will give us an experience unlike any other museum in America in which nature and art are woven together to cause the spirit to soar."

Architect Thomas Phifer said he combined steel and glass to create a modern building that flowed almost seamlessly to landscaped gardens that will surround the building.

"We want to bring that character of art and nature together to make a building that supports and enhances and enriches this extraordinary collection here," Phifer said.

When the building opens in the spring of 2009, it will house the museum's permanent collection, including a gift of 22 sculptures by French master Auguste Rodin. The gift from collector Iris Cantor, which includes the cast of Rodin's most famous work, The Thinker, is valued at $25 million and will make the museum one of the world's leading galleries for the artist's work.

The existing museum building will be used for educational programs and special exhibitions, Wheeler said, noting the extra space would allow the museum to accommodate larger shows and the crowds the exhibitions attract.

In the past, overwhelming crowds, such as a 2000 show featuring Rodin's work, have forced the museum to turn people away. When the expansion is finished, the museum should be able to accommodate an extra 100,000 visitors a year over the current annual attendance of 250,000.

"I think this is a beautiful pedestal to be placed upon," he said. "I hope we'll get a lot of national and international attention for this project."

North Carolina First Lady Mary Easley said the project should position North Carolina in the national spotlight for cultural tourism and make the museum a destination for out-of-state visitors in addition to a resource for area residents.

"This is the kind of facility, the cultural beacons that we need in this state, if we expect innovating businesses of the 21st century and beyond to invest in our people and to move here," Easley said.

"This facility will invite visitors from across the county and across the state and even across the entire world to visit," said Wake County Commission Chair Tony Gurley.

The General Assembly allocated $40 million for the museum expansion earlier this year, and Raleigh and Wake County also earmarked $15 million for the project. Wheeler said he's worked at least five years to secure funding to erect the new building and to renovate the existing one.

Over the next three years, he said, the museum would try to raise $50 million for an endowment to support its operations. He said he also hopes to raise another $10 million in the next year to pay for landscaping, gardens and additional artwork around the new building.

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