RALEIGH, N.C. — One morning this summer, the usually exuberant Larry Wheeler walked into the North Carolina Museum of Art and shook his head. He looked up with a gloomy half-smile and explained: “Not sure I want to give this up. But I can’t turn back now.”
By “this,” Wheeler was talking about the museum, from which he’ll retire Nov. 1 after 24 years. The North Carolina Museum of Art might as well be a solar system away from the international art fairs, auction halls and bicoastal behemoths that suck up so much of the art world’s oxygen. But during his tenure, Wheeler created a cultural hot spot in a state once known mainly for college basketball, Krispy Kreme and Andy Griffith. The North Carolina Museum of Art has a rich collection, a thriving exhibition program and an outdoor concert stage. A network of trails thread through its 164-acre campus. Over Wheeler’s tenure, he has added a glass-walled second building, doubled his staff and repeatedly broken attendance records. There are also things you can’t measure, the bold strokes and attitude that he brought to a once-sleepy institution.
“For me, Larry’s just turned the lights on at the museum,” said Ann Goodnight, a onetime volunteer who, during Wheeler’s tenure, became a trustee and multimillion-dollar donor with her husband, Jim. “Before him, the museum was a hidden secret.”
Next month, Wheeler, 75, steps down, and the museum will be taken over by Valerie Hillings, a curator with the Guggenheim Museum and Foundation. And when he walks away, it will be as one of the longest-tenured museum directors in the country. It will also be with some reluctance.
“I think about it all the time,” Wheeler said while sitting in his office on a recent morning. “I get depressed. I’m ready for it, in one sense. I’m not in another. All of this stuff I get so excited about, I can’t believe we did this. But you can’t do it forever. You’ve got to choose your moment.”
Nobody forced Wheeler to step down. Don Doskey, his husband, actually thought he had a few more years in the big office. His supporters on the museum’s board told him not to feel rushed.
“They kept saying, ‘Why don’t you keep working and enjoy it?’ ” Doskey said. “You don’t have to be driven.”
There was a problem with that directive to coast.
“He can’t do that,” Doskey said.
Larry Wheeler is hard to miss as he walks through the museum.
His thick white hair is cropped neatly, he wears Hugo Boss — Armani when he’s on the skinnier side — and he rotates between three pairs of glasses: the Tom Fords, the Francis Kleins and a set of cheap frames he found at a thrift shop in Provincetown, Mass.
If you don’t see Wheeler, you’ll probably hear him. He laughs big, particularly when he’s thick into the tale of the chase for a piece of art. At a museum like NCMA, which does not charge admission and relies on public funding, creativity is a must. There isn’t a bottomless pit of acquisition money. So Wheeler has to rely on building relationships, brokering deals and knowing which board member to send to state legislators when a project needs a boost.
Walking through the museum, he stops in a galley full of works by Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler. Retired lawyer Jim Patton gave the paintings as part of a gift of 100 works in 2015.
For years, rumor had it that Patton and his late wife, Mary, were going to give their collection to the Ackland Art Museum in nearby Chapel Hill. Then Wheeler got a tip that there had been a breakdown in the relationship. He stepped in as a sort of gentleman opportunist.
“I called him the next day and said I would not take the collection if it is designated for the Ackland and if that is a possibility, I’m not getting in the middle of it,” Wheeler said. “He said, ‘I’m not giving to the Ackland.’ If you’re not going to give it to the Ackland, I think it’s important it be in North Carolina.”
In another gallery, one featuring contemporary works, Wheeler walks up to a painting by Cuban artist Yoan Capote. Wheeler spotted it in 2016 during a trip to Havana with museum boosters and state officials. The piece was stunning, a seascape textured by thousands of rusty metal fishhooks Capote had planted on an oil surface. It spoke directly to the country’s complicated relationship with the sea, which surrounds its people with beauty but also temptation and danger. Capote told Wheeler that “Island (Promised Land)” was headed to New York for a show. So Wheeler called the gallery.
“It’s the biggest painting in the show and the one we want for the museum,” Wheeler said.
And then he approached everyone on the Cuba trip to see if he could raise the $100,000 he would need for the work. Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane and her husband, Ron, ended up providing the cash.
But Wheeler’s biggest splash came earlier this year. He had grown obsessed, like so many others across the country, with the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and her infinity mirror pieces. He had already reserved one, “Light of Life,” for “You Are Here: Light, Color, and Sound Experience,” the largest contemporary show NCMA had hosted. The David Zwirner gallery told Wheeler that there would be three editions of “Light of Life.” One was going to the Broad museum in Los Angeles and another potentially to an institution in New York.
In December, Wheeler, NCMA chief curator Linda Dougherty and Susi H. Hamilton, secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, headed to the Zwirner gallery in New York, where there were lines around the block to see Kusama’s work.
“We said, ‘What is it going to take for us to get it?’ ” said Wheeler. “We said how important it’s going to be for North Carolina. That everything shouldn’t go to New York and L.A. ‘Can you afford it?’ ‘Yes, we can afford it,’ not knowing what it would cost. And we had a great conversation.”
Robert Goff, a director at Zwirner, admits he was skeptical at first.
“Because most museums can’t work on the timeline of a gallery and they don’t have the funds to do that,” he said.
But Wheeler could. He secured the $1.2 million needed to purchase the work, and when the “You Are Here” contemporary show closed at the end of July, the Kusama piece remained.
“Now we’ve acquired that work, which is one of the great works of 21st-century art, by a woman who is Japanese and the most popular artist working today, and we have it,” Wheeler said. “That’s what I’m all about.”
Wheeler has always been about the big swing.
The North Carolina Museum of Art started out strong, the first major museum in the country to be funded with state money when it opened in 1956. The initial funding helped the museum load its walls with works by Botticelli, Peter Paul Rubens, John Singleton Copley and Winslow Homer, as well as Andrew Wyeth’s signature painting, “Winter 1946,” of a boy walking over a hill as the weather turns.
But by the early 1990s, money was tight, and the museum had put off plans to build an outdoor amphitheater and canceled a planned exhibition of Chinese paintings. Wheeler arrived in 1994 after nearly a decade as development director at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He immediately got attention by buying an Anselm Kiefer triptych at auction for just under $600,000. He rebooted the amphitheater plans, and the space opened in 1997 to offer dance, film and everyone from Wilco to Youssou N’Dour. In 2000, Wheeler helped put together the largest Rodin exhibition anywhere in decades, a show that came with considerable risk with a $2.5 million price tag. The previous spending high had been $400,000. But the show shattered attendance records and also deepened Wheeler’s relationship with Iris Cantor, a philanthropist based in Palm Beach, Fla.
“Let me tell you, when I met Larry, I had never heard of the North Carolina Museum of Art,” said Cantor, whose gifts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Stanford University were already considerable.
In 2009, Cantor’s foundation donated 30 Rodin works to NCMA. The next year, a $100 million glass-walled museum building — next to the existing bunkerlike structure — opened with a sculpture garden and courtyard named after the Cantors. The space was designed by Thomas Phifer, the architect for the recent expansion of Glenstone in Maryland.
Musician Scott Avett would visit the museum — “it became a sort of beacon” — when he was working toward his art degree at East Carolina University from 1995 to 2001. In recent years, he has played there with his band, the Avett Brothers, and also has gotten to know Wheeler. The director has visited his studio and offered encouragement, and next year, Avett will have a solo exhibition at the museum.
Avett compares Wheeler to Rick Rubin, the record producer whom his band has worked with repeatedly. He views NCMA as a place not just for locals.
“The collection is beyond its years, its location, its demographic,” Avett said. “It’s a reminder of something [artist] Eric Fischl told me. New York City used to be the center of Earth, and that’s not true anymore.”
Some museum directors are pushed out; others gracefully drift into their pensions.
Wheeler admits it hasn’t been a totally smooth transition since he announced his exit last November. There are times when he has the same energy for the job and can’t imagine a working life without this great mission. There are other moments when he’s less patient, less tolerant of those he feels are not with him. There are staffers and board members he no longer really deals with.
Wheeler mentions a particularly awkward incident with Caterri Woodrum, the museum’s chief financial officer since 2005. For most of her tenure, they got along. “She was a great CFO,” he said. “One of the best.”
But over the last year, Wheeler thought Woodrum was undermining his attempt to streamline the way the museum’s support group operated. She was talking behind his back. “She’s crazy,” he told a trustee in his office that morning, not realizing his voice could be heard through the wall that separates their offices.
Woodrum stormed out into the large administrative office lobby.
“This has got to stop,” she shouted at Wheeler.
Woodrum, in an interview, said she isn’t angry about what happened, even if she still thinks it wasn’t acceptable. She can understand how difficult this moment is for Wheeler.
“It’s my view that a lot of this is part of the grand desire of him to see that everything’s perfect when he turns it over to a new leader,” said Woodrum, who has left the museum. “I think that brings up emotions and reactions that they wouldn’t normally have. He’s spent 25 years in this organization. It’s almost like his living room.”
During the search for his replacement, Wheeler also found it hard to stay uninvolved, at one point arranging to meet a candidate for lunch.
“I told him, ‘This is to be independent and objective,’ ” said Goodnight, who chaired the search committee. “And he said, ‘But I care too much about it.’ ”
“It is emotional,” Wheeler said. “I think it’s a control issue because I’ve always been in control. To be kept at arm’s length from this . . . It made me more determined to know as much as I could about it.”
He said he has come to accept the reality. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to miss the museum. At a dinner party at the home of collector Carlos Garcia-Velez in Chapel Hill, Wheeler brings up the work of Mickalene Thomas. There’s a Thomas hanging in the house. There’s also one at the museum, “Three Graces: Les Trois Femmes,” a piece the artist created in 2011.
Wheeler has thought a lot about the work, about the idea that the multicolored cracks across the canvas represent a kind of glass ceiling for the subjects in the portrait. He thought about how it related to “Do I Look Like a Lady,” a video work on loan for the recent contemporary show. But on this night, he simply talked about an interaction he had one day in the gallery with a pair of young boys.
“They were standing in front of the picture, and I said, ‘What do you think of that picture?’ And he said, ‘Do you think that’s Oprah?’ I said, ‘When I bought the picture, I thought it was Oprah.’ He said, ‘Who are you?’ And I said, ‘I am the director of the art museum.’ ”
And everybody, including Larry Wheeler, the director for at least a few more weeks, laughed at the declaration.