With a splash of color, whimsy and fun, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art opened Saturday - moving Charlotte into a new artistic league.
More than 5,000 visitors from across the Carolinas filled the four floors of the building, waiting in lines that spilled out of the lobby and into the adjoining Knight Theater.
"Cool," said 5-year-old Whit Wright of Charlotte, grinning as he danced around a rhythmically rocking sculpture by Jean Tinguely.
"Sexual," said Charlottean Tyler Lee, 30, gesturing toward a maze of abstract body parts woven into a Picasso tapestry.
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"Amazing," said art history student Catherine Holt, 25, of Charlotte, who for years has heard teachers preach the importance of seeing art in person. On Saturday, she saw her first Edgar Degas original and said she knows now how right they were.
After a chilly ribbon-cutting outside around noon, visitors got in free to the Southeast's only museum dedicated to 20th-century modern art.
Many of the 116 pieces on display - drawn from a collection of more than 1,400 donated to the city by Swiss-born Charlotte resident Andreas Bechtler - have never been exhibited publicly in the United States.
The striking terra cotta building - one of only two in this country designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta - is as much a work of art as the pieces inside.
The building was financed by the city and county and built by Wachovia/Wells Fargo for $17million, with Andreas Bechtler contributing $3 million to construction costs.
The museum is part of the South Tryon Street cultural campus, which also includes the Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, the Knight Theater and the new Mint Museum Uptown, which will open this fall.
At the Bechtler opening, a mix of visitors - families, bohemian types, women in trendy scarves and teens in fleece jackets - seemed equally delighted with the museum.
"I feel like I'm in New York," said Charlottean Fielding Williams, 43.
"I haven't seen such a collection since I was in some European museums," said Mary Kendrick, 41, of Charlotte, who brought her two young sons to the opening.
Four-year-old Ian Kendrick thought the Picasso tapestry looked "kind of Chinese." His 8-year-old brother, Nathan, noticed how much a wooden Max Ernst sculpture looked like "a laundry rack."
Dan Prickett, former chairman of Charlotte's Arts & Science Council board now living in Charleston, made the trip to town just for the opening.
"This is going to draw people into the city in large numbers," he said. "Rarely do you see in one place in America - outside of New York - a collection of this caliber."
In the fourth-floor main gallery, Charlottean Paulette Henry, 48, looked at a framed painter's towel, complete with paint smudges and ragged holes. On the back, it's inscribed to the Bechtler family by artist Joan Miró.
"Different," Henry said with a bemused expression.
"You'd be surprised what can make art these days," said her stepdaughter, Christina Forbes, 19, of Raleigh.
But Emily Lorance, 28, of Belmont, enjoyed the "playfulness" of the same towel. "It's not often you go to a museum and find such personalized messages," she said.
Architect Botta spoke at the ribbon-cutting and drew impromptu building sketches afterward for visitors, including Mecklenburg County Commissioners Chair Jennifer Roberts.
Through an interpreter, he said he "tried to create a little treasure chest within the city" with the Bechtler building.
Judging by Saturday's reaction from the public, the building and its art have managed to do just that.