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For Larry Wheeler, “no” is never an acceptable answer. “There’s always a way to a ‘yes’,” he says. As former director of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Wheeler has been able to say “yes” to a lot of things, including to the addition of the West Wing Building, to the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park and to an expansion of the museum’s permanent collection and to its contemporary photography collection. Wheeler’s accomplishments earned the NCMA a place as one of the best museums in America in 2016 according to Insider Online, and earned Wheeler the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce’s 2019 A.E Finley Distinguished Service Award. Wheeler says he attributes his achievements to the community and to coming into the top position at an ideal time, when Raleigh was growing dramatically and had a “real appetite for art and what the museum brought to the community.” “What I accomplished was just tapping into that energy and that spirit of the times and the resources that were available,” Wheeler says.
Wheeler recalls popping up as an odd, nontraditional candidate for the role of director back in 1994, when most museums were looking for more scholarly directors and curators with art history backgrounds. But Wheeler stood out for his fundraising and marketing experience having served as assistant director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, along with a local legislative and political knowledge he acquired while serving as deputy secretary in the NC Department of Cultural Resources. As museums were becoming more complex cultural institutions, Wheeler says he believes his skills fell in line with shifting perspectives on how museums should be run.
Wheeler’s main priority as NCMA director was to make the museum and park beneficial for all people rather than just for intellectuals and social elites. This included instilling programming that would appeal to diverse community members and making the museum a dynamic, multi-dimensional center for a broad range of arts experiences. Wheeler emphasized expanding the museum to the outdoors with park installations and hosting performing arts events in the theatre built in conjunction with the park, the first project he spearheaded upon becoming director. To Wheeler, the park was a creative and productive way to channel the changes happening in Raleigh. “I believed that, particularly with the NCMA—which was funded largely by public dollars—it was there to aggressively reach out to new people and the community,” Wheeler says. “My approach to everything was from the point of view that the museum is there for them.”
After serving as NCMA director for 24 years, Wheeler is finally ready to take a break. Last month he traveled to Italy for a vacation with friends and plans to fill his newly free time with even more travel. Wheeler says he’ll continue to take on consulting work where his knowledge can make a difference for the arts. But mostly, he’ll be cooking, drinking good wine, collecting art and surrounding himself with the people he cares about. “What are the finer things in life? Well, I feel like I have all those,” Wheeler says. Part of what he’s taken away from his time as director is the importance of people, particularly those who will encourage him to continue saying “yes”. “You can’t be limited by what other people tell you to do, and you can’t get beaten down by negative people either,” he continues. “You have to free yourself of negativity and from the ‘no’ people, and surround yourself with people who have an enthusiasm for life. That’s really important.”
The Cardinal at North Hills celebrates the Art of Living Well® and is proud to commission this special editorial series. To learn more visit, lifeatthecardinal.com.
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