the student publication of the college of design at north carolina state university

An Interview with Dan Gottlieb

All Contributors
Volume 37

(Dan Gottlieb was interviewed by Shelley Smith, Master of Art + Design student)

[SS] I’d like us to just kind of start with a general who you are and how you came to be here. You mentioned that you were a fine artist, so–that’s quite a career path.

[DG] Yes, well, in retrospect, it feels like it’s very linear, but it didn’t feel like that along the way, all the time. So, I started out in undergraduate school as a double major, in fact. I was a fine arts major at the University of New York, Buffalo, and I chose that school because it had –one, it had a great art department, but, two, it had a great biology department, and I was totally interested in both at the time. So I was a double major in art and biology for two and a half, three years.

That’s an interesting combination.

Well, I always thought that it was complementary, and still to this day see them as complementary–we’re all just kind of trying to figure out our universe, emotionally and scientifically, and I see that kind of aesthetic magic in the natural world, in pattern recognition and just, sort of, just the beauty of the {{dendroid}} form, or whatever it is, and a lot of that is–hello!

Just forget the money, it’s no big deal.

I have forgotten about the money my whole life. {LG}

{LG} I mean, sometimes it’s the only way you can get things done, I think. I have a hard time sometimes, like, focusing on all the obstacles of why I won’t be able to accomplish something, so if you just, like you said, just kind of put that aside and then–

Just do it.


So, at any rate, yeah,  it’s always been a part of my, um, at least feeling of {{not}} thinking that later became deeply embedded in, certainly, my design thinking… So, yes, I still make art, so I’m still kinda connected to that very personal side of sort of the making and design decisions and object making.

It is very personal.

Yeah, and it’s a nice complement to the sort of public side of my life here, where it’s… making a public place that involves many people and many different kinds of public experiences, and inviting people to enjoy a more communal experience that goes with art at the heart of that.

The topic of this, or the theme of this year’s Publication, is “Impermanence in Design Culture.” We came to that topic through a series of exercises in class and discussions. One of the things that we thought would be interesting from your perspective, working in this community environment, is how do museums deal with the idea of an exhibition, like what we just saw outside, that is, you spend so much time planning and orchestrating–

And it comes and goes.

Exactly, yeah. And is that something that, like, the impermanence, the natural impermanence that’s part of it—is that part of the planning, or do you not even think about that when you’re planning the exhibition?

Well, when you stop for a moment, and back up and think about what are any programs about, period, in a place like this that is quite physical, that is all about place, it comes down to… It’s an interesting set of questions, with people’s experience of the place and the resultant memory. So, memories are built by sort of a collection of bits and pieces. Some are of a place that doesn’t change very much, and others are of something that {{sparks}} and it comes and it goes and it’s extremely impermanent. And the challenge of a visual arts institution like this, particularly one that has an important–lowercase word–important, permanent collection, meaning that it has really significant holdings that have sort of world-wide cultural values, and it’s the museum’s core value and purpose, raison d’être to collect and protect and present those things as permanent objects. It’s called the permanent collection.


So it’s the opposite of the ephemeral kind of experience you’re talking about: at the core of what any collecting institution is is to protect this permanence.


But how do you do that and stay relevant? And that’s balanced, then, with the kind of environment that you build for it, which is experientially-based; it says a lot about your identity, which is built over time. And the kind of things that you do in it, in the, kinds of–and more importantly, the kind of things that, I think, all museums are recognizing now is the way that you invite people to do things in the institutions and participate. So–


It’s more than just coming here to visit—how do you mean changing the way that you invite people to do things?

Well, you heard <…> come in here a moment ago to talk about a certain thing that’s part of a much larger conversation that we are having about kind of the completion of our campus and what kind of values we want to have embedded into it to invite people to this campus to participate not only in the more traditional ways of engaging the permanent collection and even exhibitions, which are now a traditional part of art museums, but to come closer to the way that people live in their everyday lives and to make it into a special place which has a certain meaning and yet their experience is ephemeral.


So, if you think about, well, if you think about it from a phenomenological perspective, say–so, these memories are built on a multi-sensual experience in a place. We happen to have, here, at the North Carolina Museum of Art, a unique set of assets that’s not only the permanent collection, and professionally run programs with educational programs and exhibition programs and all the rest of the things we do–we also have a killer site, we have a hundred and sixty-four acres which is… I won’t say unique, but it is extremely unusual; and not only that, but it comes with a strange and checkered past that becomes part of the DNA of what it is, but when I think about the opportunity that we have, here, to complete this campus, it’s not just a matter of putting the rest of the roads and the parking and–it’s how do we invite people to come and have a multi-faceted experience or a collection of experiences or a collage of experiences, if you will, that add up to a larger memory? Some of them are ephemeral, some of them are based on these fixed assets, and it’s that mash-up of embracing the ephemeral–yes, some of it is based on social media, but, you can’t even talk about that because it’s gonna change tomorrow and it’ll change the day after that, so you have to be open to those portals, and certainly our marketing people and others are deeply engaged in that and we need to be wide, wide, wide open to that, remotely and here on the site, but also flexible in terms of the way that we allow people to create their own experiences here, that are designed by me and others here, only in providing a framework for a personal performance, if you will, to create those kind of aesthetic and sensory moments.

So, the site gives the opportunity to {{interject}} an experience that’s connected to, obviously the outdoors but also to the living world. I won’t call nature out there because that’s been just highly disturbed by a prison and by prison farmers and NC State’s vet school grazing on this property out here, so it’s highly disturbed, and so we’re not talking about necessarily healing the landscape in a traditional way but healing it towards a purpose, and our purpose is towards engagement.


So, if you’re talking about providing an opportunity for an experience, then, how do you, in a sense, gauge whether or not you’ve been successful in that? It’s gotta be through more than just ticket sales, or how many people you think come to the park. I feel like an experience itself is completely subjective and ephemeral, so how do you present that to the people that are donating money to keep it going and to make it bigger and better?

Very difficult problem. That’s a good question, and it’s, and it’s one that we’re all struggling to answer because yes, we can count bodies–although it’s not so easy to count bodies outside. We think we have X-number of people. We know how many people walk through the doors because you can click, but we’re rather porous in the campus, and so the number of people that come and go and how they come and go is a deeper analytical problem that we’re actually working on. We’ve got a good team working on that now. But even that will only tell you so much. Understanding what people’s experiences are and how it affects them, eh–I don’t claim expertise in this, but we’ve learned a lot. And, one thing we’ve learned is that you have to talk to people to really find out, and it’s a very refined set of skills that can elicit that kind of information. Even then, it’s going to be subjective and open to interpretation. So, how do you gauge success? I don’t know it. It’s–I don’t think we’ll ever be completely empirical about it, because we each have our biases and we’re all looking for the answers that we want, and much of the evidence is anecdotal, the kind of feedback that we get, both positive and negative, and we try to learn from that, so it’s rather organic, and I suspect that despite social science’s good work, it’s always going to be somewhat intuitive and organic, which is okay with me. It’s ac–it’s really okay with me. Yes, we want to engage people to join the museum and become members and all of those good things, and we want them to love the place so that they feel a part of it, and so that their kids will be a part of it, all of that, and that is ultimately how you kind of measure one kind of success. You can also measure some of that by looking at who is coming. Is it more of the same kind of people?–by same kind I mean people that will come to view fine art, or, in our case now, a parallel audience that comes to recreate. You know–they’re walking their dogs, they’re riding their bikes and so forth. And, yes, they’re engaging in an unplanned way, they’re unplanning, they–they are engaging works of art that we extend into the landscape and as we do more and more of that there’ll be wider, wider exposure, there’ll be wider and wider identity with that, so there’s an engagement with whatever we do on the site visually, both in shaping the land and with permanent and temporary works of art that are not planned encounters with works of art but are inviting people to come and experience those, those gestures, because they’re attracted for a different reason. For me, that’s the more interesting thing.

And so I assume that you’re referring to–along the pathways and the greenways, the, the pieces of art that are kind of embedded in the landscape?

Yeah. So we have a starter kit out there now, you know, we haven’t had full funding and …yet but that will come. But more than that, we’re shaping the character of the land itself, which is a much more subtle design enterprise… one that is not easily noticed. Right now we’re changing the characters, the character of the forest out there, through managing the invasive species and changing the visual character–I’m as much interested in changing, in getting rid of the invasive species as I am in changing the visual characteristics of these forested areas, because it changes, it profoundly changes the way that you feel in space. And so that’s–it’s happening right now, it’ll be happening for the next several years, and the same thing for several other areas that you’re–it’s a creative environment that happens to be alive. It’s very, very much alive. And, it can be very exciting, especially as you deal with the edges, the edge condition, because that’s where it lives, that’s where the, you know, our brain is trained to respond to the edges of color, of space, of shadow, and it’s also true in the natural or naturalized world, that we respond to whatever the edge condition is and…

What exactly do you mean by that?

Well, on a large scale– where forest turns into meadow. Where the edge of a path meets its its neighbouring ground plane. The way that a sculpture touches…

I see.

The way that signage sits on a place, the way that you literally sculpt the landscape as you move through it, the way you sculpt it with the way that you {{move}} or don’t {{move}}, the way that you frame views, the way that you remove trees to open views. This is not new. This goes back to 19th century England and before. 18th century England, rather.

So, it’s like determining how and when people pay attention or don’t pay attention to transitions?

Yes, for sure. If you look at the Japanese perspective, you know, they are into highly packaging your experience, whether it’s a product or their landscape, it, you know, they design…. they have a tendency, in the Japanese traditional creation of landscapes, and even contemporary landscapes to frame for you. So it’s a complete thought. That’s presented as a finished object. And there’s something very powerful about that, but it’s also removed from your own body, in a way.

You’re perpetually the observer. You don’t have any room to participate.

Yeah, in framing your views, precisely. There’s a different sort of traditional  that comes out of Europe, in particular England, that’s more picturesque, sort of romantic sculpting of the landscape, you know: “Look at the great estates there”; and, you know, shaping the land as a kind of a set piece but also one that unfolds as you move through it, and sometimes it’s not all controlled. Here, we’re trying to find a balance that allows the visitor to discover his or her own path, and make a series of subtle moves that I hope is as thought out as any landscape or any place for art, but has a character that is a little bit more of ‘this’ place: so design qualities and design thinking in shaping this macro environment has a different set of criteria than it would in other places. And because the land has this certain history and it is in a certain place, my hope is that it will evolve as its own unique mash-up of different ideas.

So, the history of the land is fascinating to me, and I grew up here and I’ve always been interested in art, so my parents brought me here [NCMA] and I have great memories of coming here when I was a kid. But, driving into it, I don’t remember exactly when they told me there was a prison next door, or when they told me what a prison was, but I do remember looking into it and seeing that and thinking about what it was in direct contrast to what this is and how physically closer they were together and that having an impression on me. I liked when you mentioned that the history of this site is all part of its DNA, so can you speak a little bit about that or elaborate on it and how you feel like it affects the experience now, or if it does?

It does affect the experience. Right now, it affects the experience in that it feels sort of ‘undone’ at the edge, and I mean ‘undone’ in both senses of the word. ‘Undone’, that it’s not complete–you know, this next round of design that I’m working on now is really to complete the campus and the whole entry experience and how we repurpose that land–but also ‘undone’ in the sense that what was there has been undone in a kind of big moment where the prison was razed. We kept a couple of pieces; not very much. I would have actually liked to have kept a bit more, but the smokestack remains, the boiler house remains–and we intend to repurpose them as a beacon for a site, a signal, if you will–and a couple of warehouses which may or may not be a part of the future. When we tore down the prison, we, I had an artist come in, and he salvaged many of the prison bars, which, he loved the quality of the steel. It had a fabulous grain to it.  So we used some of those and he fashioned seating and some signs and some other furniture to kinda recycle the history. I had–from the very oldest building when the prison was being torn down, I had several bucket-loads of the very oldest bricks that were made, as I understand, by prisoners here, for their own prison, set aside. We had an artist, Martha Jefferson Jarvis, who, the moment she knew about this, she kind of seized on it and had volunteer labor force to break up a bunch of bricks and create one of the sculptures out here that’s called ‘Crossroads’.

Oh, really?

It’s one of the first sculptures that is way out in the park.

I didn’t realize that was the context of that.

So it’s the tall, broken brick, corncob-looking sculpture, and it marks the crossroads of these two paths that I had designed, which, very subtly but recycles and as we said is a remembrance of that. Just this week, I met with a state historian who is interested in commemorating the history of World War I. The 100th anniversary is upon us, and this site was used as a World War I tank training facility.


Yes, for a year or maybe 18 months. Unfortunately—well, I don’t know if it was unfortunate—it was at the end of the war, and so, by the time they were finished training, the war was over. So it goes. They tried to get an authentic tank for parking here–turns out they’re incredibly rare. But it did bring up the point of commemorating the history of a site. This was a civil war encampment and all these things before it became a prison, and then after some terrible incidents with escaped prisoners who subsequently murdered citizens, it then became a youth prison, which was only supposed to be for a short time but it was for a very long time. And so it has this… I remember when I came here for my interview for my first stint here–I’ve had two stints here–I was a {{??}} designer in my first term. I arrived here, and the taxi basically turned into this prison campus, because it’s the first thing I saw coming in from the freeway, and I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Which, I shouldn’t have been that surprised about, because I knew a little bit about the history, but it was shocking to see upon first entering. So, here is this very decrepit prison, and it was a warm day with the barbed wire around, and it was almost entirely young black men in white t-shirts behind this barbed wire in front of a perceived white-run institution, and it was quite jarring to me. To think about this cultural institution, as the state’s flagship institution, being built behind a prison was unusual, to say the least.


But then if you think about the larger narrative, of a place with this kind of history becoming–from incarceration to being a public asset that is trying to be as diverse as possible–I think that it’s an idea that, for me, has been compelling enough to stay with for these years, and the more we can undo, restore… For me, this is a much more meaningful word–it’s to sort of restore purpose and meaning to those edges and how we invite people through various portals, the way that they are fixed and permanent experiences, or, going back to the subject of your inquiry, these ephemera. So, the term ephemeral, then, begins to blur as it becomes fixed in your perception or your dreams, so, whatever it was that you encountered, for this institution, becomes a part of the fabric of its identity to you–and the more ‘yous’ there are, the better.

And, to me, it’s a fascinatingly rich history, but also, we talked about art being as personal as it is; and for me as an artist, it’s one of the most freeing things that I can do, and to have this next to this very literal symbol of the lack of freedom… I think what was hard for me to digest, growing up and seeing it as a child, but now that I’m older and seeing how the campus had progressed and what is being built here, it’s, I think a really beautiful and hopeful story. I wonder, too–we talked about memory earlier, and I explore the concept of memory a lot in my own work, and the impermanence of it, and the, you know, the almost mythology that we create through the residue of our memories. I wonder, too, how much of that psychic residue–not to get too woowoo about it–exists on this campus that affects the experience we have here.

That’s the funny thing about memory. Part of it is very short–people forget–and part of it isn’t: but it becomes less sharp, it becomes… I’ll just talk for a second about my own personal artwork, which, people look at it and say, “Oh, it’s all blurry.” Well, yes it is. {LG} Um, because it’s about that place that’s kind of between sleep and awake, and I think that’s really where most memory resides. So I often use the metaphor of squinting, if you will, that the play of shadow and light and the way it affects a place that you’ve been, an event that you’ve been a part of, maybe even a great painting that you’ve seen–lives in this other kind of place, that is kind of between those… And it might not be the same for everybody, but I know it is for me, and this collection of sometimes blurry images add up to something that’s quite powerful for me. Sometimes I think I stop caring about the content of things, because in this end most of that really ineffectual information–I mean, it’s great, but it’s not the part that in the end moves me or makes me care about places or care about it as being eternalized. It’s the way I see sort of a design process happening, too, I mean, yes, I have all of these technical design issues that I have to deal with every day, and you’ve got to be good at that, you’d better be good at that. But on a more macro scale, if you really, if you’re asking the public to participate in something, and you think about the role of design in that, it’s a big responsibility. I believe it’s a big responsibility to create a place that allows for these blurred images to happen, that is sometimes not so sharp as a singular object, but is a kind of more collective memory within yourself. This may sound a little, as you say, woowoo-y, {LG} but I think that if you think as I do, about design–yes, there is a technical and precise side to it, and I rely on many people to sharpen the pencil, but if you think about this sort of greater responsibility of design and placemaking it’s, I think, it’s to allow people to build those memories. And then it’s interesting to think about what the relationship between that and maybe what the rest of your journal is going to be about with things that are controlled by your thumbs with something that fits in your pocket that is, in the literal sense, much more ephemeral. I’m sort of into the ‘permanent ephemeral’, if that makes sense.

It does, and that’s something of a hard concept, something that we talked about a lot in class, likewhat is this permanent impermanence? What are we talking about? It almost felt like we were going back in circles, but it, I think, for me, when I think about art that has affected me in a “permanent” way is art that has really pressed that spot in me that is that kind of in-between sleep-and-awake spot. So what’s laying below the surface, it touches something–something that was maybe asleep, and then it wakes up, and then, maybe, it goes back to sleep. It’s an experience that I’m not likely to forget, but it’s also not one that I’m really able to describe or recreate, necessarily, so I feel like, for my audience, as I make art, I make it for myself, essentially, and then I put an object out in the world, and what I would hope that people would get viewing that object is that it touches something–some memory is awakened, some connection is made from their life, and whether they remember that for the rest of their lives or not is not necessarily important as long as it happened in a moment.


And sometimes people want to bring that home and live with it.

Yeah. {LG} I want to meet those people. {LG}

{LG} It’s so rarely, but sometimes that does happen, and it’s an interesting thing when it happens because they’re taking that piece of whatever you’ve just created and it’s living in somebody else’s environment, and they are living with it, and it becomes part of their own eternalized… I just did some renovation on my house this past year, and I reinstalled my too-many-objects that I have in my house, and these objects… I know, object-making, it comes and goes–but we do still love those objects, don’t we?

We do, absolutely.

Yeah, because they become a part of our, kind of…fabric. So we like to use our hands and make them–not all of us, but some of us who create things do–I certainly still love that process. And on a macroscale, place-making here is, you know, drawn out over decades and you have to find money to do it and people to support it…

And will it ever be finished?

Oh, it’s never gonna be finished. Finished-finished? No. No. But, since you were a kid that started visiting here, to now, it’s changed pretty significantly, and, so before I’m done with this–I have this one more sort of quantum leap–that the place takes, and so it’s more choreography with all of that, and it’s the opposite of the singular kind of ‘it’s me and my thing’. But the intent is pretty close, at the same time; it’s to put something out there that will invite people into a very small or a very large experience. I got to tell you, it’s pretty rewarding when you hear people just out on the street who have been and had an experience, or had a good time, where they brought their mother, and to use it as a social bond… The most powerful part of it, really, is that what you build then helps build other peoples’ lives. It’s a pretty… it’s a pretty powerful thing when you overhear that somebody met somebody here on this site, and I’ve heard that a lot of times. I’ve also heard that teens have had other kinds of experiences here, of which we have photo evidence. {LG}



But the vast majority of it is kind of positive experiences and the social bonds that happen when people find themselves in a space that is, in particular, not clobbering them over the head with design, but if the design of a place is successful, then people are onto their other zone, whatever it is, and they want to return to it and make that a part of the fabric of their lives. So that’s a very rewarding thing when that happens, and it has other, kind of functional pieces that are beneficial. You know, we built this pond back here–and it sounds like a pretty pedestrian thing, but it was a demonstration pond for cleaning stormwater, and so it’s a very, very innovative design. We had these brainiacs working on it, and came up with a very innovative system to drain this 50-acre site and remove point-source pollution and sedimentation inside a sculptural form. For me, it was to demonstrate that visually pleasing design that’s highly sculptural can contribute to the health of the water that’s flowing downstream to the creek and eventually the Neuse river system. So, it’s a demonstration pond in that we show, you know, a quarter million people a year that care to look at it, that it’s important; so it could be an agent for change, as well. So it’s a different and equally important responsibility for design.

Right. So this series of impermanent experiences can add up to a more permanent impression that then contributes to the story of an individual’s life.

Yeah. And I think that it’s any publicly held institution’s responsibility to at least contribute towards that–obviously not everybody’s going to do this thing, but to be a responsible citizen in that way. That’s sort of the next big wave here, how we respond to the emerging street front here. This museum becomes an active player in urbanizing Blue Ridge Road which is going to change pretty soon, we hope, into a different kind of place that invites people to walk and to bicycle between. We have about six million visits within a half mile stretch here and it’s dangerous and ugly. We’re actively working to reverse that and we’re going to be a key player. We’ll be the cultural centerpiece of it, sure, but if we could also demonstrate sustainable practice and good design values, I’m hoping that we influence our neighbours with whatever happens. Not that they should mimic us, they can do their own thing, but we should set the bar as high as we can to make thoughtful environments, and healthy environments. So, where does any of this leave off between permanent and ephemeral? I think it’s all sort of a moving target, because it’s always changing through time. Unlike the permanent collection, everything else is changing and will continue to change. Even with the permanent collection, you know–we built the new building to take it out of, basically, a black box, and put it into a transparent box (sometimes called a white cube) that invites natural light in, that invites the gardens in, and to make it feel like a more democratic space on one level, and so if you extend that kind of design philosophy throughout the campus, creating these portals to the street front and to the emerging corridor and it’s a pretty good framework to think about a design philosophy.

It is–and about how to be a leader in design.

We hope so! We hope so. Somebody’s got to care around here, right? {LG} So, we do, we care a lot.


About the author.

Dan Gottlieb is the Director of Planning and Design at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA). Gottlieb is crucial to the direction and curation of the art and exhibitions at the museum. Despite the impermanent nature of art exhibitions, exhibitions have the ability to influence visitors and other artists with lasting imagery, experience and theoretical impact.

Gottlieb’s expertise will add an important voice to the discussion on the permanent impact of impermanence.