An innovative composite of historic and contemporary architecture, the Asheville Art Museum stands proudly as an iconic anchor of the visual arts in the heart of downtown Asheville, North Carolina. The Museum celebrates its 30th anniversary today, July 4, 2022, in this significant location at the corner of Pack Square on Biltmore Avenue. The historically renovated 1920s Italian Renaissance Revival-inspired building meets the more recently erected contemporary glass and metal façade of the new construction, including the Windgate Foundation Atrium, which opened in November of 2019.
The Museum is easily recognizable and memorable to both passersby and visitors. After snapping photographs of family and friends with Henry Richardson’s shimmering blue Reflections on Unity sculpture within the plaza, onlookers peer through the towering windows discovering hints of what lies inside, from Wesley Clark’s 16-foot My Big Black America and Maya Lin’s Pin River—French Broad River, to Kenneth Snelson’s stainless steel Wing I. Even the striking frit pattern gracing the windows and backlit steel encompassing the SECU Collection Hall is an artwork, inspired by the work of Black Mountain College artists including John Cage and generated randomly with an algorithm written by two architecture students at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Inside, visitors can expect to explore upwards of seven incredible exhibitions throughout four levels featuring American art from both the Museum’s Collection and institutions across the country.
“The Asheville Art Museum was founded in 1948 by a group of artists to champion the creativity of Western North Carolina’s 24 counties, bring art of national significance to the community, and encourage dialogue, and it continues to further the intent of its founders more than 74 years later,” says Pamela L. Myers, executive director of the Asheville Art Museum for the past 27 years. “The Museum has always been a place where individuals and groups interact with objects of significance, making new and enduring personal narratives and experiences. The newly restored and expanded facilities are markers on the continuing journey to realize the Museum’s mission: to engage, enlighten, and inspire individuals and enrich community through dynamic experiences in American art of the 20th and 21st centuries.”
The Museum called many places home over the past 74 years, from its humble beginnings in a three-room building on Charlotte Street, donated space on the 15th floor of the Northwestern Bank Building (presently the Kimpton Hotel Arras building), property in the Montford Area Historic District, a 9,000-square-foot facility in the Asheville Civic Center, and finally a 12,000-square-foot space at Pack Place in 1992. Modest expansions were completed in 1999 and 2012 until major construction began on the Pack Place facility in 2016, leading to the opening of the newly renovated and constructed 54,000-square-foot Museum in 2019.
“Through multiple homes and generations of experienced and dedicated volunteer and professional leadership, the Museum has deepened its role as a vital force in the community and a source of lifelong education and enrichment through the visual arts,” says Myers. “As the Museum has grown since its founding, so has its commitment to the arts and humanities as instruments to help people develop their capacity for understanding and engagement with the world. A place for gathering, reflection, and exploration, the Museum specifically collects American art from the late 19th century to the 21st century because this time span aligns with the trajectory of Western North Carolina’s growth and history.”
The current state-of-the-art facility dramatically boosts the Museum’s gallery space to host major traveling exhibitions from nationally recognized museums, provides exhibition and storage space for the growing Collection, and allows for hands-on spaces to inspire creativity including the Wells Fargo Art PLAYce and John & Robyn Horn Education Center. It also enhances the guest experience with the Museum Store, 15-foot viewing window in the SECU Collection Hall, Perspective Café, and rooftop sculpture terrace. The building increases the Museum’s role as a community center, educational resource, economic engine for Western North Carolina, and cultural concierge for the region’s residents and visitors. The Museum began collecting in 1953 and today houses a continuously growing Collection of American art from 1860 to the present numbering over 7,500 works of art in all media and over 4,000 architectural drawings.
“Reflecting and appealing to the diversity of cultures and traditions still represented in the Western North Carolina region and its many visitors, the Museum’s Collection provides a rich dialogue between the regional and national, and the exchange of concepts therein,” says Myers. “Ideas move fluidly, emerging from Southern Appalachia to impact national movements just as national movements influence the work of artists in this location and the lens through which they create. The breadth and depth of the Collection includes regionally and nationally significant paintings and drawings, prints, photography, sculpture, craft and decorative arts, and focal collections of works by members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Appalachian historical and contemporary work, the work of Black Mountain College artists, traditional and studio craft in all media, and regional architecture.”
“Together the works in the Collection weave a strong tapestry that presents many opportunities to explore the development of mediums, theories, and aesthetics, shaping conversations that assist us in understanding our histories and place in the world. In approaching the reinstallation of the Collection in the new galleries, we were guided by the intersections and exchanges between the aesthetic and artistic legacies of Southern Appalachia and America over time, the strengths of our Collection, and themes loosely derived from and inspired by Black Mountain College, which provided pathways for exploring works of art in multiple ways.”
The Museum has experienced remarkable success and hosted hundreds of exhibitions and educational programs in its current location. It has brought exhibitions from institutions across the country including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Knoxville Museum of Art, the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, Reading Public Museum, and more. It has also hosted unique exhibitions, including the award-winning collaborative exhibition A Living Language: Cherokee Syllabary and Contemporary Art, organized by the Asheville Art Museum and Museum of the Cherokee Indian which was awarded North Carolina Museums Council’s 2021 Award of Excellence. The Museum was recently announced as a winner of the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ 2022 National Medal for Museum and Library Service.
The Asheville Art Museum looks forward to serving the residents of Western North Carolina and visitors everywhere well into the future and will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2023 with an incredible retrospective exhibition of artworks from the Collection. “The Collection of the Asheville Art Museum preserves our past and enables us to learn from it in our present,” Myers says. “It is a lasting gift to our future. It lets us imagine worlds beyond our own. It gives us space to reflect, learn, and dream.”