NCMA Walking Path

Turning an Art Museum Inside-Out

North Carolina Museum of ArtRaleigh, NC—USA

Surrounding the North Carolina Museum of Art, the renovated park not only provides unique space for exhibits and sculptures, it’s also frequently used for recreation, social gatherings and events that connect art, nature and people in a sustainable way.

A popular art gallery and community gathering place, the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) sits on an expansive parcel of land that was once the site of a youth prison and prison farm. Expanding its original 50-acre site to the current 164 acres, over time the Museum had already made strides to improve the large, naturalized portions of the site as a passive park for walking, biking and general recreation. But there was an opportunity to strengthen the connections between the land and the Museum further and extend the gallery outdoors in order to give the community a more defined place to gather and experience art in a uniquely personal and active way.

North Carolina Museum of Art
Landscape Architecture
Project type/category
Arts & Cultural/Museum
2018 Chicago Athenaeum, American Architecture Award
North Carolina Museum of Art Landscape Architecture

Civitas was engaged by NCMA to find a way to use nature and a park setting to expand the Museum’s relevance to new audiences, while also fostering environmental sustainability and promoting change in the broader community. The result was a promenade connecting the park and galleries, an elliptical lawn overlooking the site’s expansive rolling meadow, contemporary gardens with outdoor art installations, an enhanced entrance to the Museum site, bike and walking paths, woodland and meadow restoration, improved sustainability measures, 500 new parking spaces in a tree-lined lot. 

Overview of North Carolina Museum of Art

The wide and winding pedestrian promenade extends from the front door of the Museum more than 3,000 feet to its terminus at the one remaining smokestack from the prison boiler plant. A chain of garden spaces are found along the way, centered on a large, manicured lawn that’s subtly shaped as an ellipse and surrounded by a 600-foot wooden bench where visitors can sit and overlook the site. A “wave garden” flanks the ellipse and features 20 mounds of earth that support more than 150,000 varied plants, creating waves of color and texture. The garden spaces were designed to encourage sitting for quiet reflection or social gathering among outdoor art installations, as well as official Museum events and programs. A discovery garden was also developed in an existing woodland featuring numerous sculptural art installations. 

People interacting at wave garden in North Carolina Museum
North Carolina Museum of Art ; Raleigh NC; Lightign Design: Tillett Lighting, Landscape Architect: Civitas
North Carolina Museum of Art ; Raleigh NC; Lightign Design: Tillett Lighting, Landscape Architect: Civitas
North Carolina Museum of Art glowing bunnies

The design intentionally balances a sense of escape into nature with improved ease and accessibility. The entrance from Blue Ridge Road to NCMA was enhanced with nearly 800 feet of corten steel blades, while 500 new parking spaces were integrated with abundant trees to signal arrival in a park setting. And while Raleigh is a bustling metropolis, the park’s hilly site and abundant trees ensure that the nearby city feels far away, as visitors can properly immerse themselves in nature. 

North Carolina Museum of Art water outlook
North Carolina Museum of Art site’s natural stream

A 1,000-foot long water quality garden collects water from the parking areas and uses the natural filtration of plants to reduce pollutants before the water is filtered further through rubble from the former prison boiler house as it flows toward the NCMA site’s natural streams.

Yoga at North Carolina museum of Art park

While the Museum frequently hosts events like storytime in the garden, sunset yoga, sculpture tours and concerts, each garden space draws visitors in to experience the site in their own personal way, broadening the traditional definition of an art gallery by unifying museum and park. In the two weekends of events that led up to the November 2016 ribbon cutting, 25,000 people came to experience the park.

North Carolina Museum of Art at night
Gravel Path at North Carolina Museum of Art
Two ladies quietly reflecting at North Carolina Museum of Art garden
People observing ellipse at North Carolina Museum of Art
Penone in North Carolina Museum of Art Park