Raymond D. Nasher’s vision for a new art museum can be traced to 1943, his senior year at Duke. He took stock of the cultural offerings on campus and saw room for improvement. “Our university should enfold culture of every...
Searching for a Site
Raymond D. Nasher eventually convinced Duke that the site at Duke University Road and Anderson Street was perfect for a new art museum, because of its central location, easy access to the intersection of two public streets, gateway to the community and beautiful trees. But it took a while.
For two decades, Duke botany professor Janis Antonovics quietly tended his research plants in a meadow at Duke University Road and Anderson Street. This was prime real estate between Duke’s East and West campuses, but Antonovics was left alone to his experiments.
“Janis Antonovics is one of the most outstanding biologists in the world,” wrote one of his Duke colleagues in 1985. Antonovics was subsequently named the James J. Wolfe Professor of Botany; he was also director of Duke’s Program in Genetics.
Everything changed in 1988, when the professor spotted Raymond D. Nasher and two others walking around his precious plants as they scouted the location for a new art museum building. He ran over to confront them: “What are you doing in my field?”
After two years of public debate, the botanist and the museum director agreed to share the site. A landscape architect from Yale University, Peter Rolland, drew up a map that allowed for a museum, an open field in the middle preserved for botanical research, 150 parking spaces, a 22,000-square-foot art library and a 40,000-square-foot art history building. Other plans prevailed, however.
Antonovics moved his successful botany career to the University of Virginia.
Duke Hires "Star Architect"
After interviewing many top architects, Duke awarded the Nasher Museum commission to Uruguayan-born Rafael Viñoly. The Nasher Museum was Viñoly’s first completed art museum project in North America. He had earlier designed the new home for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, the Tokyo International Forum and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. His firm was also chosen for expansion projects at the Cleveland Museum of Art; the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.; and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. He also designed new museums
for the city of Colchester, England, and the Leicester Theatre Performing Arts Centre in England. Viñoly is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a recipient of numerous prizes, including the AIA/New York Chapter medal of honor.
Supporter: Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans
Mary Semans was the granddaughter of Benjamin N. Duke, who together with his brother James B. Duke founded Duke University in 1924. A Duke alumna, she served as a Duke Trustee and chair of The Duke Endowment. She lived in Durham all her life, even serving as mayor pro tem. She died on January 25, 2012, at the age of 91.
Mary Semans and Raymond D. Nasher became friends in the ’60s and ’70s, when they served as Duke Trustees together. They would gather with Nancy Hanks, George McGhee and others after board meetings and dream of bigger things for the arts at Duke. “The arts in general were not strong at Duke,” Mary Semans once said. “We just had to fuss, and, well, it was depressing.”
When DUMA was established, her husband, Dr. James H. Semans, attended many exhibition openings, Brummer dinners and other special events at her side. The couple’s Duke-Semans Fine Arts Foundation supported student-curated exhibitions at DUMA.
The museum raised funds to support the annual Semans Lecture, to honor the couple.
The extended Duke family has helped the museum in many ways. The Duke Endowment, a charitable trust in Charlotte, N.C., contributed $2.5 million to name the Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans Great Hall at the Nasher Museum. The endowment also has funded the directorship of the museum. Mary Semans’ mother, Mary Duke Biddle, created a charitable foundation in 1956, near the end of her life. The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, the longest continuous supporter since the inception of the museum at Duke, contributed $1 million to name one of the gallery pavilions for the late Nicholas Benjamin Duke Biddle, the brother of Mary Semans. The foundation continues to support museum exhibitions and programs.
Supporter: Nanerl O. Keohane
Nan Keohane became the 13th president at Duke in 1993 and played a fundamental role in establishing the Nasher Museum. During her tenure, she was a professor of political science. Among her accomplishments: increasing minority student enrollment, diversifying faculty and overseeing the Women’s Initiative. Keohane helped raise $2.36 billion during the Campaign for Duke, which ended in 2003. It was the fifth largest campaign in the history of American higher education.
Keohane was also instrumental in launching the Nasher Museum. Leaving her position at Duke in 2004, she was named Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Affairs and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University in 2005.