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Duke Hopes Nasher Museum Lifts It To New Heights In Art World

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DURHAM, N.C. — It was in the 1940s that an economics student named Raymond Nasher first decided Duke University needed an art museum.

More than 60 years later, the student who became a Dallas real estate tycoon made it happen.

"There's nothing like it that I know of in the world," Nasher, who is also the chairman of Comerica Bank-Texas, said Wednesday at a preview of Duke's Nasher Museum of Art, which opens to the public this weekend.

There was certainly nothing like the 65,000-square-foot museum designed by architect Rafael Vinoly, who also designed the Tokyo International Forum and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, on campus when Nasher, working for the student newspaper, wrote a column in the 1940s called "Time to Think." In it, he advocated for more arts on campus.

"I said it was mandatory for Duke to think about cultural interests" and to look for a way to bring a museum to campus, said Nasher, a 1943 Duke graduate.

The space that bears his name has 14,000-square-feet of gallery space in three pavilions that fan out from the building's piazza - a 13,000-square-foot glass-ceilinged center that allows natural light to reflect on the walls, changing patterns as shadows emerge. A 173-seat auditorium occupies a fourth pavilion, and administrative offices a fifth.

Duke is counting on the museum to raise its profile in the arts world to the same heights as those reached by its basketball teams and medical researchers. Nasher said he believes the new museum will become an equal of other well-known university art museums, including Harvard's Fogg Art Museum.

It's a big improvement from the campus' previous art museum, which was hidden in a renovated science building and had just four parking spaces.

Nasher donated $10 million to fund construction of the $23 million museum, but also loaned it much of his art collection, described by museum director Kimerly Rorschach as the "world's greatest private collection of modern and contemporary sculpture."

That nine-month exhibit, "The Evolution of the Nasher Collection," is arranged unusually -- not by subject matter or date of creation, but in the order Nasher and his wife acquired each piece.

It begins with a small work on paper of tennis players by Ben Shahn, which the Nashers got in 1954. Also on display: pre-Columbian figures Patsy Nasher painstakingly selected while traveling in Mexico; a Calder mobile; and Jean Arp's sculpture "Torso with Buds."

That piece, the first modern sculpture the Nashers collected, was a late 1960s birthday gift from Patsy Nasher, who died in 1988, to her husband. Like several other pieces in the exhibit, the bronze sculpture with brown patina had never left the Nasher home until the show. And it was the most difficult to talk Nasher into loaning to the museum, said senior curator Sarah Schroth.

"I literally begged," she said.

Likewise, the Andy Warhol portraits of Patsy Nasher and their three daughters - Andrea, Joanie and Nancy - have also hung only in the hallway outside Nasher's bedroom since they were done in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Nancy, the youngest of Nasher's daughters, has worked with her father throughout the process of building the museum at Duke. That included waiting about 10 years after Nasher made his initial offer to get started because the site he wanted was being used for a weed-growing experiment.

Her father was never discouraged, showing the same patience he used when collecting art, said Nancy Nasher, a Duke Law School graduate and a member of the school's Board of Trustees. Other pieces in the exhibit include works by Auguste Rodin, David Smith, Henry Moore, Max Ernst and Jeff Koons.

"Each piece was so carefully selected and loved and cherished," she said. "We learned by osmosis. They were so excited and got so much pleasure (from the art), and you pick that up as a child."

For her parents, collecting art "was very much a joy and a passion, but also very personal," she said. "There was no grand plan. They just did it."

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