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History of the Ackland

The Ackland Art Museum was founded through the bequest of William Hayes Ackland (1855-1940) to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Ackland Trust provided the funds to construct the museum building, and that trust continues to provide for the purchase of works of art.

Mr. Ackland, a native of Nashville, TN, graduated from Nashville University and received a law degree from Vanderbilt University. In 1936, although not a collector himself, he took steps to establish a museum at a southern university. As the words of his tomb suggest, "he wanted the people of his native South to know and love the fine arts." He was also concerned that the museum be connected with a "great university" with existing cultural interests.

When Mr. Ackland died in 1940, he left his bequest to Duke University. Duke's trustees, however, objected to stipulations that Mr. Ackland be buried in the museum named after him and that his money be managed by trustees in Washington, D. C. They refused the bequest and started nine years of litigation that resulted in the award of the Ackland Trust to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the other schools previously considered by Mr. Ackland.

Further delays were cased by the unavailability of building materials. The red brick William Hayes Ackland Memorial Art Center, designed in the Georgian style by Eggers and Higgins of New York, was dedicated on September 20, 1958. It comprised exhibition galleries, an art library, classrooms, studios, and offices.

Beginning with a group of objects transferred to the Museum from the University, and with 5,000 prints acquired by the UNC-CH in 1951 from the estate of New York advertising executive Burton Emmett, a collection was built primarily of western art spanning the centuries from antiquity to the present. Around 1980, the Museum's acquisitions began to include significant Indian, Chinese and Japanese objects, and substantial attention was devoted to drawings and photographs. To help reach visitors with various interests, the Museum's volunteer docents were reorganized and trained to deal with the Ackland's expanding audiences, including school groups and the town's retired citizens.

With the creation of the Hanes Art Center in 1983, space formerly occupied by the Art Department was made available for Museum purposes. In 1985, funds were requested for the total renovation of the building. In the fall of 1987, the Ackland closed its doors to the public and renovation was begun. The completely renewed galleries were reopened in December 1990 and March 1992, making available the spaces and enlarged collection at the Ackland today.

The Ackland's Final Resting Place

In 1936, William Ackland wrote a letter to Duke University, Rollins College at Winter Park, Florida and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, stating his "thought of building and endowing a gallery in connection with some southern college or university."

President Willam P. Few of Duke was the most enthusiastic respondent, so much so that he even had the university architect draw up the plans for the museum and the memorial it would contain so that Mr. Ackland could see them and hopefully fund the construction before his death. Mr. Ackland refused to do this, but he was delighted that Duke should have been so attentive, perhaps, it has been suggested, because he viewed Duke as the Harvard of the South, and he always regretted that he had acceded to his family's pressure and not gone to Harvard. Even more to the point, that university's decision satisfied him because of his feeling that whatever the future might hold, the financial stability associated with Duke would guarantee the well-being of his museum. Late in 1938 his will was written, and he considered the matter settled.

William Hayes Ackland died unexpectedly on February 16, 1940. Before the end of the year, his brother's heirs first tried to set aside the will and then filed suit to test the validity of the Trust. Soon after, President Few died and, in a startling reversal, the trustees of Duke refused the bequest. The Duke University administration never made public its reasons for refusing to accept the Ackland gift.

Thus it became essential legally to establish that Mr. Ackland's goal had not been to enrich Duke but rather to use the good services of that university to further, as it came to be cited, "the cause of arts in the South." That his first will, drawn up in 1936, specifically mentioned the three colleges he subsequently approached was evidence of this interpretation, while excerpts from the correspondence with President Few, which firmly convinced Mr. Ackland of Duke's commitment, in fact became the proof. The matter became of the greatest importance if the courts were to exercise the traditional right of judicial cy pres and choose another southern academic institution to carry out the program on which Duke had reneged.

Because of a decision in the court of appeals some 15 years previously, however, judicial cy pres was not effective in Washington, D. C., his legal residence. This was a grave blow, since the will, written in that city, had to be probated there. And without some sort of reversal of that earlier decision, there seemed no way to carry out Mr. Ackland's clear intent.

Finding a solution to these problems made the following years busy ones for the many people representing a variety of interests. The interests of the Trustees established by Mr. Ackland's will, namely, Mr. Edson B. Olds, Jr., and the American Security and Trust Company, were handled by John E. Larson of McKenney, Flannery and Craighill; those of the University by the former governor of North Carolina O. Max Gardner, a devoted trustee of the University and a member of the Washington law office of Gardner, Morrison, and Robers. Since it had been named in the will to receive a small annual legacy, Rollins was already a part to the suit that had been filed by the heirs.

In pursuit of Mr. Ackland's wishes, Mr. Larson, acting for the Trustees, first turned to Governor Gardner to establish that, should this problem be resolved, the University at Chapel Hill would in fact be interested in being the recipient of the Trust, as would Rollins. Governor Gardner gained the University's commitment, supervised the preparation of the University's case, and thereafter followed the intricacies of the litigation with great interest.

It was, however, Mr. Larson's genius which solved the problem. After months of study of the interpretation of cy pres from the time of Queen Elizabeth I right down to 1940 (in the course of that research distinguishing the difference between cy pres exercised by the monarch and that exercised by the judiciary) he finally found his solution. It was, as is so often the case in the courts, a fine legal point but nevertheless a pivotal one. The lower court's decision had not defined cy pres with sufficient precision to reflect the common law inherited from English legal tradition by the new republic following the American Revolution. To prove that the lower court's decision was inadequate, he prepared the briefs, argued the case, and successfully won a reversal of the decision. Thus, judicial cy pres could once again be brought to bear in the District of Columbia, which meant that, in turn, the most appropriate alternative to Mr. Ackland's testamentary wishes could finally be established.

When the confusion surrounding the definition of cy pres was settled and the heir's efforts to break the will were finally put aside, the Trustees could turn to the basic issue and consider the claims of Rollins and UNC-CH, as well as any other possible candidates. Rollins had been active in the pursuit of Mr. Ackland at the time he had initially written the three colleges in 1936. UNC-CH had expressed interest, but apparently did not go further, perhaps because its commitment to the arts was just emerging. In 1941, the estate's Trustees found a quite different reaction at Chapel Hill, an enthusiastic pursuit now based on actual accomplishment.

William D. Carmichael, the University's vice-president and finance officer, presented the University's case with conviction that led the Ackland Trustees to recommend that the courts should indeed name the University as the recipient of the Trust's benefits. Their decision was largely based upon the understanding that the financial stability of the University, a state institution, was assured in perpetuity, that a graduate program in the arts was to be launched, and that, after all, Chapel Hill was not so far away from Duke, Mr. Ackland's original choice. Surprisingly, a lower court contradicted the Trustee's recommentaton and ruled in favor of Rollins, but, finally, in February 1949, a successful appeal before the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed the lower court ruling and declared in favor of North Carolina. Despite a disappointment that, with the Korean War, all new construction using steel had to be delayed, Chapel Hill had much to celebrate.

Although there was a certain amount of controversy surrounding the design of the building, the final building was a restatement of Jeffersonian design tenets, retardataire for contemporary museum design, but, as Mr. Ackland had stipulated, effectively in harmony with the surrounding University.

With the burial of Mr. Ackland in the memorial area, the building was ready for its dedication, which occurred with justifiable fanfare on September 20, 1958. Acknowledging its great debt to John Larson, the University asked him to be the main speaker at the ceremonies.

Art in North Carolina

Interest in the arts had mushroomed in North Carolina during the mid-1930s. Under the influence of the New Deal Federal Arts Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration, nine art centers had been created in the state with a success that was astonishing to many.

Spurred by assistance from the federal programs, as well as by a donation from the state's most persuasive advocate for the arts, Katherine Pendleton Arrington, the University decided in 1936 to renovate its eighteenth-century chapel, Person Hall, as a place for teaching and exhibiting art.

The University's commitment had come about almost by chance. North Carolina law required that all elementary school teachers take art courses, and each summer the Department of Education brought visiting artists to the Chapel Hill campus. In 1934 and again in 1935, Francis Speight, probably North Carolina's most famous artist, had been persuaded to return for the summer from Philadelphia, where he taught regularly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The enthusiasm with which his classes were received startled the University administration -- and led to the recognition that the arts should be accorded a more prominent place in the life of the University.

Russell T. Smith became the University's first full-time teacher of art in 1936, but his stay was brief; in 1940 he left to become head of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Most fortunately, however, before he left, he was successful in persuading John Volney Allcott to come from Hunter College to lead the department, which he did for the next 17 years. Perhaps even more important for the role the University plays today, he was to become a focal figure in nurturing respect for the arts in North Carolina. His encouragement of a group which came to be known as the Friends of Person Hall developed a most enthusiastic local support. With their support an impressive series of exhibitions brought outstanding material to Chapel Hill during those years, for example, Mondrian's Victory Boogie Woogie was shown in Person Hall in 1951, to considerable editorial comment in the state's papers -- and major figures of the art world came to speak. Such activities could only develop full energy in the years following the war, but the goals were already very much in the minds of Professor Allcott and his new colleague Professor Kenneth Ness, who had arrived in 1941. Therefore, they threw themselves into planning the presentation requested by the Ackland Trustees and prepared a forceful case proving that the University was more than ready for the challenge presented by Mr. Ackland's will.

Using their telling statistics William C. Carmichael, the University's vice-president and finance officer, presented the University's case with a conviction that led the Ackland Trustees to recommend that the coursts should indeed name the University as the Trust's benefits. Their decision was largely based on the understanding that the financial stability of the University, a state institution, was assured in perpetuity, that a graduate program in the arts was to be launched, and that, after all, Chapel Hill was not so far from Duke, Mr. Ackland's original choice.

Surprisingly, a lower court contradicted the Trustee's recommendation and ruled in favor of Rollins, but, finally, in February 1949, a successful appeal before the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the lower court ruling and declared in favor of North Carolina.

The state legislature was deeply involved, through the University, in the commitment to Mr. Ackland's Trust. But elsewhere it was taking another important step, one unprecedented in the American museum world, by establishing, at a propitious moment given the art market at the time, a fund of $1,000,000 to create an art collection for the proposed state art museum at Raleigh. When, in the late 1950s, the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Ackland were opened to the public within two years of each other, the state's position among the country's centers for the arts were assured.

William Hayes Ackland

William Hayes Ackland was born on September 6, 1855, at his family's recently constructed mansion, then known as Bellmonte and subsequently as Belmont, on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. Born William Hayes Acklen, he later adopted the spelling used by his English ancestors.

His father, Joseph Alexander Smith Acklen (1816-63), was a dashing young colonel who had won honors for his bravery in the recent Mexican War. Descended from a distinguished Alabama family, he had served as United States attorney for the North District of Alabama before going to war. He married William's mother, Adelicia Hayes Franklin (1817-87) in 1852. Adelicia was an immensely rich young widow, the daughter of Oliver B. Hayes, a native of South Hadley, Massachusetts, who had come to Tennessee where he married Sarah C. Hightower. Mr. Hayes was one of the most eminent lawyers of the area, and a man of considerable means. He was related to President Rutherford B. Hayes, a link that later gave Adelicia's sons connections in the capital.

Although Ackland received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Nashville and a bachelor of laws degree from the recently opened Vanderbilt University, he never practiced law. His brother, however, also a lawyer, represented Louisiana for three terms in the House of Representatives. Ackland was offered the post of secretary to the legation in Spain, but refused it due to his mother's failing health.

He married at the age of 40, in 1896, but was divorced by his wife less than a year later. The couple had no children. While he had many acquaintances, his sister Pauline was probably his only close friend. He viewed himself as an author, and he published three volumes of poetry and one novel. He devoted many hours to his memoirs, and even experimented briefly with journalism in Philadelphia in the early 1880s. He loved the theater, delighted in tennis, and found rewards in the visual arts, but probably his consuming satisfaction was Society, which was the main goal of his travels.

He repeatedly crossed the Atlantic, almost annually, and spent the greatest part of his time in England.

His last years were lonely ones, especially after the death of his sister in 1931. Those he encountered as he made his annual progress from Ormond, Florida, to Washington, D. C. (his legal residence) to Lake Mohonk in New York, and then to York Harbor in Maine, seemed to view him as a relic of a more genteel age.

Those casual acquaintances were astonished to learn after his death of his compelling vision, which he had first revealed to some late in 1936. At that time he wrote Duke University, Rollins College at Winter Park, Florida, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, stating his "thought of building and endowing a gallery in connection with some southern college or university."

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