The Museum’s collection of Asian art is the best in North Carolina, and one of the best in the Southeast United States. For two decades beginning in 1982, the noted expert Sherman Lee provided essential advice to the staff, effectively acting as curator and building a significant collection whose outstanding features are Chinese painting, ceramics, and sculpture; Japanese painting and sculpture; and Indian sculpture and miniature painting. There are also several pieces of Southeast Asian sculpture and many examples of Southeast Asian ceramics. There is a large group of Indian objects, primarily calligraphy and miniature painting; there are also art works from the Himalayan region (Tibetan, Sino-Tibetan, and Nepali painting and sculpture).
Ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Art (c. 3000 BCE – c. 600 CE)
The focus of the collection is on the art of ancient Greece and Rome, but it also includes objects from ancient Egypt and western Asia, as far east as present-day Iran.
The collection represents cultures of the West African coast stretching roughly from Sierra Leone to Cameroon. The present collection includes one ancient Nok terra-cotta sculpture and a few other terra-cotta pieces, but it consists primarily of twentieth-century wood-carving.
European and American Art to 1900
This collection has been steadily built up during the history of the Museum. European painting is represented from the early Renaissance through the early twentieth century, but the strength of the collections is in seventeenth-century, eighteenth-century, and above all, in nineteenth-century art. For the decorative arts of Europe and the Americas, the Museum has a focused collection of art glass ranging from the 1880s to the 1950s.
Modern and Contemporary Art
The Museum owns a group of high-quality paintings and sculptures from the modernist period, including works by Gertrude Abercrombie, Arthur Dove, Albert Gleizes, Walt Kuhn, Man Ray, Matta, Jean Metzinger, Archibald Motley, John Marin, Amedee Ozenfant, Rose Piper, and Niles Spencer. From the period 1945-1980 there are typical or outstanding works by Anthony Caro, Al Held, Hans Hofmann, Morris Louis, Philip Pearlstein, Fairfield Porter, Ad Reinhardt, and H.C. Westermann. Aspects of Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Color Field Painting (including Op art) are all represented.
Since 1980, there have been dramatic changes in art from the preceding fifty years: most notable is the breaking down of barriers between geographic areas and between different media. Therefore, the Ackland uses 1980 as the date for establishing the beginning of contemporary art. In 1996, the Museum began to emphasize the global reach of contemporary art through acquisitions in a variety of media, concentrating on works produced since 1980. Building on the Museum’s strength in traditional Asian Art, the Ackland has contemporary art by Asian artists, with works by Chiho Aoshima, Anish Kapoor, Hung Liu, Nam June Paik, Do-Ho Suh, and Masimo Teraoka. The Ackland has enlarged its African-American collection with works by Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, Charles Alston, Felrath Hines, Adrien Piper, Martin Puryear, Betye, Alison, and Lezley Saar, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and Charles White.
The collection of drawings and watercolors is one of the areas of excellence which make the Ackland unique in the region. In includes over 350 predominantly western European works and over 250 American drawings.
The Ackland Art Museum contains one of the most extensive collection of “fine art” photography in North Carolina. The collection spans the history of the genre, beginning with an 1843 calotype by Fox Talbot and continuing into the twenty-first century with chromogenic prints by Edward Burtynsky, Lalla Essaydi, and Marco Breuer.
The print collection is not only the largest collection in the Museum but also the most comprehensive representation of a body of European and American art over the last five centuries. Major artists including Dürer, Rembrandt, Manet, Picasso, and Matisse are represented in the Museum by prints, and those prints include major work by those artists. Prints can represent types of subject matter seldom found in other media, which makes objects from the collection relevant to a wide range of students and faculty across the university curriculum. The Burton Emmett Collection, purchased by the University in 1951 for a nominal sum, contained more than 2500 prints, as well as thirty-five paintings and more than 140 drawings. Beginning in 1958, this material was transferred to the Museum together with a significant number of prints from other sources (in particular, nearly a thousand prints from another collector, William P. Jacocks).
Traditional Southern Pottery and Outsider Art
The collection, built up largely since 1980, focuses on the outstanding tradition of functional pottery in nineteenth-century North Carolina and its transformation in the twentieth century into a consciously artistic genre. Also included in the collection are outsider art paintings and sculptures from the Deep South.
The William Meade Prince Collection
William Meade Prince (1893-1951), a native of Chapel Hill, had a national reputation as an illustrator in the first half of the twentieth century, working for magazines such as Collier’s and producing a syndicated newspaper comic strip in the 1940s. In 1962 Prince’s widow donated his artistic estate, including over 250 paintings and 1400 prints and drawings, to the Ackland Art Museum.