While following his own path—stranded or not—Roger Manley turns adventure, artifacts and accomplishments into cultural arts experiences in his own life and at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design.
Arts NC State is pleased to present the “Meet the Arts Directors” series. Our first spotlight features Roger Manley, director of the Gregg Museum of Art & Design. Read on and you will meet someone with so many mind-blowing life experiences that it will leave you asking for a book about Manley, not a blog!
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What is your background/interest in the arts that led to today?
I’m Roger Manley, the director at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, which is located just across the street from the Memorial Belltower at 1903 Hillsborough Street. The Gregg is free and open to everyone, students and public alike.
I have been director of the Gregg for the past eleven years. Back in the late 1990s, I worked for the museum as a curator, then moved to Paris for almost nine years, where I wrote and co-directed a feature-length movie for French TV and wrote and published a series of travel guide books for the Weird USA series, including Weird Carolinas. The books were about things like bottomless pits, UFOs, lizard people, haunted houses, rains of blood—you know, all the usual kinds of things you’re likely to encounter on any Southern back road.
While there was never a grand career plan at any point in my life, I think I came to museum work naturally. I grew up in an Air Force family that moved a lot. We probably moved more than most, for I’d lived at almost twenty addresses before I went to college. At some point, when I was only four or five years old—I began saving pieces of the places we lived: a stone from the playground in one town, a loose brick from the garden wall in another place we lived, a railroad spike from the tracks across the street in yet another. I saved pieces from family trips, too—a shell from the beach, a ticket stub from Disneyland, or a sparkly piece of mica from a mountain picnic. Before I learned how to read and write, my dad would grab a laundry pen and write the dates and locations on them for me. I kept all these bits and pieces in a big footlocker that got heavier and heavier as I grew older.
Then the house mover said something to my parents that would be life-changing for me. “Why don’t you get your kid a camera?
By the time I was eleven or twelve, the footlocker was so heavy, one of the house movers said, “Son, what in the hell have you got in there? Rocks?” “Mostly,” I admitted. “It’s my collection.” He asked me what it was for, and I told him it helped me remember places. A short while later, he pulled my dad aside and said, “We’ll put that box on the truck this time, but if your boy keeps adding much more to it, the next movers are likely to reject it. We’re not supposed to pick up anything that weighs more than 300 pounds.” Then he said something that would be life-changing for me. “Why don’t you get your kid a camera? He said his rocks help him remember places, but pictures will do that too, and they’re a hell of a lot lighter!”
So my parents gave me a camera on my next birthday, and soon I began photographing nearly everything I saw (years later, I would spend the largest chunk of my life as a documentary photographer). I kept collecting “pieces of places” from time to time, but the photos gradually diminished the need to save quite so many physical objects. Both the photos and the objects could serve to conjure up an entire extended memory or whole scene that I could play over in my mind anytime I wanted, almost like a video recording. The objects and photos were both mnemonic devices.
I am sure that a big part of my fascination with museums has to do with this function, too. Just as a single shell can bring back a whole week at the beach or a garfish tooth can take me to a fishing trip in Louisiana, museums try to convey the whole of a culture or an individual through the medium of a few particulars, since it is impossible to collect, much less display, everything about even one artist, much less one whole culture. A museum may exhibit a few Navajo blankets and examples Navajo silver jewelry, but everything else—the horizon, the stony desert, the sage smells, the distant clanking of sheep bells, the taste of mutton and fry bread, the laughter, the language, the people, the hogans, the night sky—can only be hinted at. A 19th century dragon robe from the Chinese emperor’s Forbidden City in Beijing offers a peek into a complex, long-gone culture where every bit of its embroidered surface conveyed meaning, from the cardinal points of the empire to the number of claws on the dragon’s feet. When a museum shows a painting, there’s a whole context behind that, too: not only the brushes, paints, and palette knives it took to make it, but the studio, the street view out the window, the traffic sounds, the most recent meal, the sweating artist and all their training, their past experiences, influences, envies, friendships, aspirations and realizations. These all played a role in bringing it into existence.
Wall texts, labels, tour guides, videos, and catalogues may help fill in these contexts a little (or correct them; we have all grown up so inundated with images that nearly anyone can envision some kind of context, even if it is wrong) but the task of creating them is never ending and feels important. The opportunity to tell stories through photos and evocative bits and pieces is what got me interested in working with museums, and what I have been doing one way or another (though with lots of detours and sidelines), since soon after I finished college.
What are three words that you would use to describe the Gregg Museum of Art & Design?
Welcoming, fascinating, and useful. Those of us who are privileged to work at the Gregg strive to make it feel friendly and welcoming, and do everything we can to make it as interesting as possible, within the limitations of our tiny staff and limited budget. We have a different mission from the many art museums that show similar examples of works by the same handful of famous A-List artists—we want, instead, to offer things our visitors have never seen before, or else not seen in quite the way we try to present them. As for useful, I want more teachers and professors to realize what a useful thing the Gregg Museum is. We are here to augment teaching and learning in myriad ways, and can help any educator identify ways that may suit their purposes best. We can provide all kinds of tools—but first they have to “open the toolbox” by reaching out to us and asking what we can do for them.
What are you excited about with regard to the Gregg Museum of Art & Design and the 2021/2022 academic year?
I am most excited about the possibility of returning to in-person programming and activities, if only enough people will make that possible by taking the trouble or having enough trust in science to get vaccinated. Big openings, well-attended lectures and concerts, and having classes visit the museum to sketch, write, or take tours does more than anything else to promote all our work. Visitorship generates energy and excitement. No amount of advertising can match word-of-mouth encouragement from people who have seen an exhibition and told their friends they need to see it, too.
If you had to name one thing that you are most proud of in your career, what is it?
In 1992 I dreamed up an idea for a conference of creative people where everyone would help make it happen for everyone else—in-between the lectures, screenings, performances, etc., every attendant would have to serve shifts cooking, setting the table, washing dishes, cleaning the meeting rooms, etc. No catering, no room service. For a week, performing these mutual service activities would act as a leveler—I thought there would be something human and normalizing about standing at a sink peeling potatoes or washing dishes elbow-to-elbow with an entrepreneur, a famous rock star, an accomplished artist, a Nobel-winning biologist, and a former spy. The barriers created by fame, status, and reputation would go away if everyone were equally grubby.
In 1994 I put the plan in motion by inviting 90 people from all over the world to meet at the former campus of Black Mountain College near Asheville (now a boys’ summer camp), thinking maybe 25-30 would actually take the leap. Ninety two people showed up. It was so successful that I organized it again and again, every 2-3 years for nearly 20 years, until the pandemic hit. Now I don’t know if I will do it again—I suspect it may be time for someone else to take it on if it should continue—but what makes me proud of it are the hundreds of friendships and collaborations it spawned. Many books, plays, films, exhibitions, albums, opera librettos, etc., can be traced back to encounters and connections made at those gatherings. Lots of people have told me those were among the most memorable weeks of their lives. That makes me happy and a little proud.
Tell us something that might surprise us about you.
I once performed at the American Dance Festival in a piece choreographed by, and under the direction of, Twyla Tharp. I spent nearly a year living on my own with a group of Aboriginals in Australia’s Tanami Desert. For a while, I was a professional blacksmith, then a technician in a hospital O.R. For a couple of years I was a Rocky Mountain backpacking guide. I have climbed Mt. Olympus, Mt. Parnassus, and Mt. Aroania in Greece, and have drunk from the spring of Mavronéri in the cave of the Styx. I married a long distance runner. I was an Eagle Scout. I played autoharp in a country and western band’s cover of AC/DC’s “Shook Me All Night Long” for an international CD release.
Photo above: Manley on Mount Olympus.
What is the strangest job you’ve ever had?
I was a shabbos goy for a family of Orthodox Jews homesteading in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho, and wore a pistol most of the time. After all, it was Idaho—a homeland for all kinds of supremacists. I helped them grow, hunt, or fish for most of our food, and I had to kill the fish or game with a kosher knife. I lived near them in an 8×10 foot shack with an outhouse, and on Saturdays I would spend the day with them, doing all the things their strict beliefs about not working on the Sabbath would not let them do for themselves—cook, set the table, respond to calls on their shortwave radio, turn on the lights, flush their composting toilet, etc.
What made the job tolerable was that on Saturday they couldn’t tell me to do anything directly since that is management, which is also a form of work and therefore forbidden. They could only hint or ask questions. “Are you as hungry as we are?” meant that it was time to think about making lunch or setting the table. “Do you smell what I smell?” suggested that the garbage needed taking out or something in the bathroom needed attention. I sometimes entertained myself by pretending to misunderstand the hints or just answering the questions literally. If they wanted me to flip a light switch they might say, “Does it seem dark in here to you?” and I might answer, “No, I can see fine.” It was fun to see how creative they could be about trying to achieve their wishes indirectly.
What is something you learned in the last week?
I am constantly surprised, delighted, impressed, and humbled by the sheer quality of the people I get to work with as colleagues at the Gregg Museum. They each bring their own skills, energies, and dedication to jobs that are, for the most part, behind-the-scenes. Each week I learn how much smarter, more resourceful, and better adapted to modern life they are than I am. I would happily be stranded in a lifeboat or on a desert island with all or any of them. I learn this more every day.
Last week, I also learned that there are many different kinds of purple coneflowers, that Shasta daisies prefer semi-shade, and that tomato hornworms may look like they are trying to bite you, but actually can’t.