In anticipation of the grand unveiling of the new Gregg Museum of Art & Design next year, ArtsNow went Inside the Arts with the staff to learn about a day in the life. Meet Roger Manley.

LG: Where were you before the Gregg?

RM: Just before coming to the Gregg I was overseas in France. I lived there for about nine years working on a film project for ARTE- TV.

LG: A director of an art and design museum, and a curator with film history. What got you interested in the arts in the first place?

RM: I got involved with the arts way back in college. I signed up for a studio art class at Davidson College and the professor was Herb Jackson – who’s actually the painter in the inaugural show this spring. Things are coming full circle.

But I had a bad first semester. I failed calculus class and at Christmas break I didn’t want to go home and face my dad, who was paying for college. Instead, I decided to go to the Outer Banks. I just looked at the trip and picked a place.

I soon realized it was a pretty lousy place to go to alone. I was hitchhiking and it was deserted – back in 1970 it was really deserted. Eventually, a trucker slowed down and picked me up. I asked him what all I could do there. He suggested going to the Hatteras lighthouse or collecting sea shells, then he said, ‘Or you could go to my grandmother’s – she has these wood carving things.’

I thought that’d be okay; I could buy some Christmas presents to soften the blow of my father. The driver dropped me off, drove away and this little lady invited me in.

When I walked in, it was a life changing experience. Annie Hooper had 3,500 sculptures all around the house she had made from driftwood she found on the beach. You couldn’t go in most of the rooms, because they were floor to ceiling full of art.

That was a major turning point in my life. In hindsight, I see everything I’ve done since then can be tied back to that experience. I love the acquisition of great things — it’s the best fun of what I do.

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Roger Manley reviews objects for the opening show.

LG: Tell me more about the opening show?

RM: We’re working on a show now that will hit a big range of the collection: costumes, photography, all sorts of things. It’ll have around 450 items, the whole gamut, so people can get an idea of how diverse the collection is.  My staff is calling it the 1% show because even though it’s 450 things, it’s still only 1% of the collection. This show will be at the same time as Herb Jackson and another show on Native American art.

LG: In the booklet for “Art without Artists” exhibition, you said, “Art’s first requirement is an open mind, and that we may all gain by becoming artists.” I love this quote and it’s clear, even in the “Farfetched” exhibition, you’re up for challenging others to take the step into a more open-minded questioning at an arts museum. How did you come to this realization yourself?

RM: I just know the kind of shows that I like, tend to be shows that are not about rules but about ideas. A rule show is when you set up categories, like Dutch Landscaping of the 18th centuries, or Quilts of Southern Alabama and it’s just there it is. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not as exciting to me. I like it more when there’s a big picture to it. I don’t want a, ‘So what’ reaction from a show. I want an, ‘Oh wow, I never thought of it that way.’

I saw a show, many years ago, in a little museum in Switzerland, Le Trou, which means “the hole.” It was a show all on holes: holes in the ground that people dance around, holes in stones that people passed their babies through to cure diseases, cultures that puncture holes through noses, etc. It was an anthropology museum but it really shows how you can use art to open your mental perspective.

LG: How do you think this approach to viewership in art museums aids society?

RM: I think of museums as these repositories of stuff. It’s a selected sampling of human endeavors that can be accessible in some way. If stuff remained scattered all over the world you’d have to travel all the time to see it. It’s a convenient place to see everything, and also compare and see different things.

It’s a different thing to see a pot and see it sitting there by itself, but if you see it in the midst of  other pots then it takes on a different experience. It’s like the Kuleshov films. And when you go into a show, you see the objects start to play off each other, you notice similarities and differences – a third reality is coming to view because of the set up. That’s the art of curating.

If you do any job well it looks effortless, that’s the whole goal of any kind of art, is making it look effortless. People want to see the ballerina floating across the stage, not grunting or seeing her toes  bloody. Or even when reading a book, people  imagine that it’s just rolling off the author’s tongue and don’t realize how many revisions they went through. A lot of people don’t realize how much work is behind curating either. They think you reach for a box and put it on the wall.  But if it’s going to do anything, there is weeks of work involved.

In a museum the Gregg, we have all these different cultures and we’re trying to collect from all kinds of cultures so it’s kinda like a core sample. It brings the world home.

LG: According to the Raleigh Arts Plan that was released earlier this spring, the ‘community wants more public art and art integrated into daily life.’ How will the new Gregg Museum satisfy those desires?

RM: On two different levels. One, it’s going to be more integrated into the fabric of Raleigh because we’ll be right there at the tip of of Pullen Park. People will drive past for campus and Cameron Village, it’ll have a very much more public presence, even compared to the NCMA.

And secondly, we’ll be offering all kinds of programing and events in the space. For example, when we had a show on Japanese wood-blocks in the old Chancellor’s Residence before construction, programing for the show included a tea ceremony, a martial arts showcase, and Japanese drumming performance. You see the drums in the wood block paintings but until you hear what they sound like – getting ready for a war – that’s when the art comes alive.

I feel like that’s the way art was for the longest time. From the time of the cave paintings, it was part of their daily thing. Art becomes this hive of activity and that activity itself will contribute to having a big ripple effect.

A museum like the Gregg just has a different mission than the Louvre or the Met. They’re more about having a sense of awe, but we’re more about getting the response like, ‘Wow that gives me an idea… I want to try that.’

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