Rodin Festival Featured in N&O

Rodin Festival Featured in N&O

In keeping with Capitol Broadcasting Company’s commitment to the Triangle, Jim Goodmon proudly supports Festival Rodin, an Olympic-style event celebrating the arts throughout the region. CBC signed up early as the media sponsor, paid the salary of Jeannie Mellinger, the Festival director and sent Tom McGuire of the AJ Flecther Foundation to work closely with the NC Museum of Art to make this event a success.

Story from the News and Observer Web Site: April 16, 2000

Big Thinker Sculpts Exhibit
News and Observer Staff Writers

RALEIGH — Larry Wheeler likes to think big. Since becoming the North Carolina Museum of Art’s director in 1994, he has bought big paintings, pitched big building plans, even commissioned three big concrete rings easily spotted on the museum grounds from his big office window. More than merely keeping the museum on course, Wheeler wants outsiders to take notice.

Festival Rodin is a Larry Wheeler kind of event. At $2.5 million to stage, the exhibition, which opens today and runs through mid-August, is by far the most expensive ever at the museum. The previous budget-buster, the 1988 Japanese Kimono exhibition, isn’t even close at $400,000. Wheeler doesn’t seem the slightest bit concerned. “We knew there was some risk,” he said. “Our job is to reduce the risk.”

And don’t think that means cutting costs. To the contrary. Festival Rodin is operating as the fiscal embodiment of no pain, no gain. In other words, to make money, you must spend money. The Rodin marketing plan calls for spending at least $1 million, an important piece of Wheeler’s goal of selling more tickets than at last year’s “Monet to Moore” show.

That exhibition set an NCMA attendance record in drawing more than 80,000 people. Wheeler is hoping for 250,000 over the four months of Rodin. At $7.50 a ticket, that would go a long way in the risk-cutting department. Naturally, the Rodin show emerged from one of Wheeler’s “think big” talks. He and his curators were discussing NCMA’s future. “I want some big shows,” he told his staff. “Give me an impressionists show. Give me an Egyptian show. Give me something that has a name, that will resonate.” “What about Rodin?” curator David Steel asked. “That’s a name,” Wheeler said.

Steel mentioned the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor collection, a regular on the art museum touring circuit. Not bad, Wheeler said, but he wanted more. “If we do this show,” he said, “I want it to be the biggest that’s been done in umpteen years, to be distinctive.”

n the end, Steel drew the core of the exhibition, 60 bronzes, from the Cantor collection and several others from museums throughout the country. He beefed up the exhibition with sculptures and drawings brought over from France exclusively for the NCMA show. Wheeler gave Steel the freedom to spend what he needed. Then he started to figure out how to pay the bill. He thought big.

Big event, big exposure

Wheeler wrote a letter to Jim Goodmon, who owns Capitol Broadcasting Co., WRAL-TV’s parent company. Goodmon signed on as media sponsor, paying the salary of Festival Rodin director, Jeannie Mellinger, and adding in-kind TV and radio contributions. Goodmon also sent Tom McGuire, executive director of the Fletcher Foundation, to work with Wheeler. They set up a toll-free line and Web page devoted to the event. They enlisted the Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Consider it the Special Olympics of the arts,” Wheeler said. “It needs the same civic attention that we give sports.” Dave Heinl, the bureau’s president and CEO, felt he had missed an opportunity in 1999, when the U.S. Open, Special Olympics and opening of the Entertainment and Sports Arena could have been brought together into a single promotional campaign. The bureau would not make the same mistake again with Rodin, Exploris, the new North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the soon-to-open Raleigh Performing Arts Center. The bureau sent a resolution declaring 2000 “The Year of the Arts” to Gov. Jim Hunt and the Raleigh City Council. It was endorsed. “We probably would not be able to devote time and effort to every show that comes into the Museum of Art,” Heinl said. “This one was just head and shoulders above everything they had in the past. People from out of town will want to see this exhibit, and they’re going to come to Raleigh, North Carolina, for the first time.”

To attract out-of-town attention, NCMA is advertising the event in newspapers and magazines along the East Coast, including The Washington Post, Parade magazine, the Toronto Star, Southern Accents and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In February, Wheeler and Heinl held a lunch for a group of mainly travel writers and editors, including staffers at The New York Times, Art in America and the Wall Street Journal.

“I know there is one question on your mind,” Wheeler told the journalists. “That question is, ‘So what?’ I’m here to declare that North Carolina is no longer the vale of humility between two mountains of conceit.” The convention bureau’s Rebecca Moore – who has since taken a job as the museum’s director of marketing and communications – put together tour packages and invited airlines and rental car agencies to participate. The convention bureau came up with the Festival Rodin Super Pass, which for $15 provides admission to exhibits at NCMA, Exploris, the Museum of Natural Sciences and the Museum of Life and Science in Durham. For local businesses and arts patrons, Wheeler came up with a risk-reduction plan. A ticket to the April 29 Rodin Gala goes for $1,000 a couple – twice the cost of 1996’s 50th anniversary event. Two weeks before the event, the museum has sold 650 of the 1,000 tickets available. NCMA will also be available for rent on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, when it is usually closed.

Twenty thousand dollars will land your group time with Rodin, along with dinner and drinks. For $30,000, there’s dinner, Rodin and 100 tickets to the French circus, Les Colporteurs, coming to town June 18 to July 2.

Setting the exhibit apart

And then there’s the final piece in Wheeler’s plan: merchandising. NCMA’s support foundation hired the Cleveland Museum of Art’s product development manager, Emily Rosen, who worked with Wheeler when he was its director of development between 1985 and 1994. The challenge for the North Carolina show, she said, has been in creating a merchandise program that didn’t include pieces in the museum’s regular collection and that would be available for only a short time.

The Cantor collection will continue to tour, but Raleigh’s Rodin exhibition will cease to exist after Aug. 13 as the works borrowed from France and elsewhere are returned. “There’s something about using art in a commercial way that defines a museum,” Rosen said. “Its visitors are customers, and museums need so much support that any way that visitors can help is a great thing.”

In other words, every Thinker Frisbee ($6.50), “Think It’s Done?” barbecue apron ($20) and cotton T-shirt ($12) sold helps the museum. In the spirit of Rodin, Rosen has even come up with an anatomically correct “Age of Bronze” bath towel ($27 to $30). All of it – thousand-dollar galas, travel packages, media courting – is driven by the kind of moment Steel had when he located a rare, marble “The Hand of God” in a private collection in Paris. It had most likely never been shown anywhere in the United States.

Steel was able to persuade the owner to lend the piece; now all he had to do was pay to bring it to Raleigh. To start with, he would have to rent a crane to lift the piece over the gates of the Parisian estate, insure the “The Hand of God” and transport it across the Atlantic. The total for just that piece could be as much as $50,000, Steel told his boss. “I don’t care,” Wheeler said. “It’s important. Let’s do it.”

News and Observer staff writer Geoff Edgers can be reached at 956-4889 or

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