Damian Stamer still remembers his first meeting with Larry Wheeler.

The Durham painter, whose landscapes of rural Southern homesteads focus on memory, impermanence, and place, was scarcely a year out of his MFA at UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2014 when he invited the director of the North Carolina Museum of Art to his first solo show of large-scale works at Raleigh’s Flanders Gallery. It was a major gut check, he recalls: “I had no idea what he’d think. I had never gone to a show of mine with a museum director before.”    

After touring the exhibition, Wheeler invited Stamer to lunch at Iris, the light-infused restaurant on the museum’s Blue Ridge Road campus. Somewhere between courses, Wheeler told him the museum would acquire a work from his exhibition.

“For me, it was like winning the lottery,” Stamer says. “It was the first museum I had ever visited. It felt like coming full circle.” 

Stacy Lynn Waddell, a Raleigh native who indelibly marks her multimedia interrogations of historical figures and landscapes with branding tools, gilding, and lasers, first met Wheeler after her first museum commission in 2010. It was an encounter with “an undeniable ball of energy, fire, and passion,” she says. “I didn’t expect to have a relationship, not just with the museum’s chief curator, but the director himself. I certainly didn’t expect I would come to think of him as a mentor.”  

There’s no shortage of monumental benchmarks in Larry Wheeler’s career. He has helped shape NCMA, not only during twenty-four years as its director, but literally as well, supervising the construction of the first building on what is now the museum’s 164-acre campus while serving as the Department of Cultural Resources’ deputy secretary from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.

He returned to the region in 1994, after nine years as developmental director for the Cleveland Museum of Art, as a man with a flair for broad gestures, an appetite for risk, and an insatiable curiosity for all elements of the artistic process—a definite departure from the museum’s previous introverted leadership.

Several defining moves followed thereafter: an audacious personal appearance at Christie’s Auctions in New York, where he dueled with a telephone bidder before buying a significant new work by German expressionist Anselm Kiefer; construction of Picture This, an amphitheater on the grounds outside the museum incorporating a new work by conceptual artist Barbara Kruger; lavish parties where he courted new business leaders in Raleigh and Research Triangle Park as well as Jones Street politicians.

Capping them all was a series of increasingly ambitious blockbuster exhibitions calculated not only to generate local and regional interest but also to put the museum on the national and international map. The museum’s audacious Festival Rodin in 2000, the largest exhibition anywhere of the artist in twenty years, reached out beyond the museum doors, collaborating with other regional arts organizations, including Carolina Ballet, which commissioned a choreographic evening of tableaux vivants, Rodin, Mis en Vie. More than three hundred thousand people visited the exhibition.

When that achievement proved that the arts were an economic force to be reckoned with, further growth became inevitable. NCMA made plans to double its size with a world-class second building. Those plans helped secure groundbreaking bequests in turn: a gift of thirty Rodin sculptures from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, making the museum the third largest Rodin depository in the U.S., and one hundred works of twentieth-century painting and sculpture from the Patton Foundation.

Exhibitions and events followed that were calibrated to bring in audiences who’d never been to the museum: A 2013 showing of mint-condition Porsches and a celebration of Art Deco automobiles tilted the museum’s traditionally female-heavy demographics. Films and concerts at the amphitheater and edgy contemporary art exhibitions like 0 to 60 and this year’s insanely popular You Are Here appealed to younger audiences. A 2016 museum park initiative has permanently taken the museum beyond its building’s walls, making art available over three miles of walking trails every day of the year. 

Upon Wheeler’s retirement last month, he left a museum that half a million people had visited this year, with a projected income of $24 million.

Among such monumental benchmarks, it’s easy to lose sight of Wheeler’s long-term support of local artists. As chief curator Linda Johnson Doherty says, it isn’t every museum director who visits the studios of local artists and MFA students as often as he frequents professionals in New York.

“He does it at a relentless pace,” Doherty says. “He always has.”  

And local artists like Stamer and Waddell appreciate it.

“You spend a lot of time alone in a studio, and there comes a point where you can feel so disconnected,” Waddell says. “When someone like Larry comes in, that conversation creates a bridge between you and the outside world. To have him come in and say, ‘I see you, I see what you’re doing, and it’s as rigorous and important as what I see at the top levels of your discipline’—that helps that isolation and hard work feel like it’s going in the right direction. Because he believes in the work, it pushes you to work harder, to go farther.”